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Published: 06-12-2019

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The symbolic meaning of names in The Scarlet Letter

Why does Hawthorne give Hester Prynne the name Hester? Hawthorne himself, as is effectively identified, changed his family members name from Hathorne, to distance himself from those Puritan ancestors whose achievements and excesses haunted his fiction. The Scarlet Letter tells of Roger Prynne’s reinvention of himself by an act of naming: when he finds his wife Hester in disgrace in the new world he adopts the name Chillingworth. Hester names Pearl with reference to the gospel of Matthew: “But she named the infant ‘Pearl,’ as becoming of great value, – bought with all she had, – her mother’s only treasure!” (1:89). (1) The romance’s central symbol, on the other hand, the scarlet letter A, resists the sort of hermeneutic rigidity that naming entails. As an initial letter, or just as an initial, the A notoriously hints at all sorts of names whilst claiming none. As a excellent orchestrator of meanings, Hawthorne is conscious that names are complete and even overfull of meanings, and he could in no way be said to arrive at his characters’ names casually. It is surprising, then, that critics of Hawthorne have not meticulously deemed the query of Hester’s name.

The multiplicity of biblical intertexts may possibly reflect Hawthorne’s need to write a story of new world Puritanism that would acknowledge and, in addition, incorporate the extreme textualization of that society. Sacvan Bercovitch remarks that Hester Prynne “builds upon the tradition of the biblical Esther – homiletic exemplum of sorrow, duty, and really like, and figure of the Virgin Mary . . . . But primarily Hawthorne’s ‘sermon’ traces the education of an American Esther.” Bercovitch does not draw any further parallels in between the Book of Esther and The Scarlet Letter. Kristin Herzog and Luther S. Luedtke mention the coincidence of names in reference to Hester’s magisterial bearing.(four) To my understanding there are no other references to the Book of Esther in the literature on Hawthorne. The lack of any significant essential investigation of The Scarlet Letter’s relation to the Book of Esther, despite the fairly broad hint of Hester’s name, remains puzzling. It could be that investigators have been thrown off track by Hawthorne’s revolutionary strategy to the Book of Esther, his delight in turning the conventional story in very untraditional methods.

“Hawthorne was a diligent reader of the Bible,” Hawthorne’s publisher, James T. Fields, recorded in his memoirs, “and when sometimes, in my ignorant way, I would question the use of a word, he would almost often refer me to the Bible as his authority.”(eight) Current critics have tended to scant Hawthorne’s imaginative involvement with biblical literature (as compared, say, with Melville’s), but have not carried out so entirely. For instance, Sacvan Bercovitch argues in an essay on “Endicott and the Red Cross” that Hawthorne’s familiarity with traditions of biblical exegesis is “subtler and more comprehensive than his critics have acknowledged,” and Frederick Newberry in an essay on “The Minister’s Black Veil” claims that “Hawthorne’s sophisticated grasp of [the] theological and historical background is indisputable.”(9) Even with no these expert opinions, Hawthorne’s deep reading in Puritan literature and his understanding of the Puritans would necessarily entail a sophisticated grasp of scripture and divinity.

By leaning on the Book of Esther, by asking (even so quietly) to be study by way of the scrim and outline (nonetheless faded) of the Book of Esther, The Scarlet Letter positions itself as a type of updated scripture that must be regarded in the context of the broader trend Buell describes in antebellum writing. But if The Scarlet Letter has quasi-scriptural pretensions they are undercut by the scarlet letter itself, the letter Hester is created to put on. As a hermeneutically destabilized text, Hester’s A hints at the interpretive instability of any text. Hawthorne seems to throw into question his personal appeal to the authority of scripture, to the grounding ur-text of the Book of Esther, by generating of the “A” a symbol of authority’s inability to manage interpretation.

These connections are substantial and elusive, at after apparent and veiled. (12) Not only are there many threads that connect Esther and Hester (a connection confirmed and authorized by Hester’s name), but Arthur Dimmesdale finds a counterpart in Mordechai (a spiritual leader of the Jews whose secret and ambiguous relationship to Esther is in no way resolved), as does Roger Chillingworth in Haman (who ruins himself in the course of an extravagant revenge against Mordechai). Key parallels contain a central plot episode that the two texts share, analogies among the principal characters, and thematic congruencies

Pay a visit to to Magistrate. The decisive moment for Queen Esther occurs when she risks death to appear at King Ahasuerus’s inner court. Hester’s courageous go to to Governor Bellingham’s mansion to plead to be allowed to keep Pearl – she felt that she “possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready to defend them to the death” (1:116) – corresponds to her namesake’s courageous pay a visit to. Both heroines have till this moment been at least outwardly obedient to the discipline of the regimes under which they live. In these scenes, they give up their passivity. Esther receives the clemency of the King, who promises to grant any request she tends to make Esther’s namesake Hester, attractive to Bellingham as to a king (and herself distinguished by the scarlet letter as if she have been “a fantastic lady in the land”), also has her request granted. Bellingham’s decree is that she will be allowed to maintain Pearl.

There are broader analogies among Esther and Hester than their dramatic scenes just before the patriarchs of their respective societies. “Mine was the first wrong,” Chillingworth says to Hester, “when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay” (1:74). Esther as well has been brought into “a false and unnatural relation” with the a lot older Ahasuerus she is 1st brought into his harem and then produced his wife. “I felt no enjoy, nor feigned any” (1:74), Hester tells Chillingworth Esther feels no really like, nor feigns any, for Ahasuerus. To the extent that Hester represents Hawthorne’s version of Esther, Hawthorne seems to envision an Esther who is isolated and yet inwardly strengthened by her connection with a distant, older man. The “rich, voluptuous, Oriental characteristic” (1:83) that Hester has in her nature may therefore develop naturally from the textual matrix out of which she in part emerges.

Esther is Mordechai’s cousin, but she is orphaned and is raised by Mordechai in his house. Rabbinical interpreters pick up on a play on the Hebrew word “l’beit” (suggesting Mordechai brings Esther up to reside in his property, to be his wife), and hold that Esther and Mordechai are married at the time that Esther is produced component of Ahasuerus’s harem. In the Septuagint version of the story, Esther and Mordechai – the passionate lady and the timid man of God – not only have a secret sexual involvement but are related to each other. “And he [Mordechai] had a foster-kid, daughter of Aminadab her father’s brother, and her name was Esther and when her parents were dead, he brought her up for a wife for himself and the damsel was beautiful” (Esther 2:7). To the extent that Dimmesdale represents Hawthorne’s version of Mordechai, Hawthorne seems to picture Mordechai as a weak figure who looks helplessly on as the lady he cares for is made to endure a long ordeal of shame, solitude, and isolation.

Haman and Chillingworth are significantly less fully-developed characters who come to make “the really principle of [their] life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge” (1:260) – Haman’s revenge against Mordechai, Chillingworth’s against Dimmesdale. In an 1847 journal entry Hawthorne jotted down an concept for “a story of the effects of revenge in diabolizing him who indulges in it” (eight:278) the diabolizing effects of Haman’s revenge might have struck him in this regard. (Yet another journal entry of Hawthorne’s seems to look forward to a disguised representation of biblical characters: “The renowned characters of history – to imagine their spirits now extant on earth, in the guise of various public or private personages” [8:235].) The mechanics of vengeance, nonetheless, break down. Haman’s pursuit of Mordechai leads to his death on the gallows he has had constructed for his enemy, and to Mordechai’s accession to energy Chillingworth’s pursuit of Dimmesdale leads to his public undoing on the scaffold of the pillory, and to Dimmesdale’s death of “triumphant ignominy just before the people” (1:257). The revenge in both texts ironically exalts its object even as it debases its agent the very reverse of what the avenger seeks comes to pass. On Haman’s death his home is offered to Esther on Chillingworth’s Pearl is created “the richest heiress of her day, in the New World” (1:261).

Queen Esther and Hester Prynne both have to preserve, and should lastly disclose, a secret. Esther conceals her relationship with Mordechai, Hester her relationship with Dimmesdale. “Esther had not told of her folks or her kindred, for Mordechai had instructed her not to tell” (Esther two:ten) Hester’s keeping Dimmesdale’s secret is of course essential to The Scarlet Letter. Have been either Esther or her namesake Hester to come forward with her secret, the course of revenge plotted against (respectively) Mordechai and Dimmesdale would be undone and the malevolent third character (Haman and Chillingworth) rendered harmless. Haman would not be in a position to exact his revenge against a relative of the Queen and against the Queen’s people Chillingworth would not be able to exact his revenge against Dimmesdale if his partnership to Hester were known. The turning point of each texts might thus be the heroine’s revelation of her secret identity.

Each Esther and Hester hold religious beliefs unacceptable to the societies in which they locate themselves. Esther have to hide her Judaism from Ahasuerus and his ministers (the Book of Esther takes place for the duration of the Babylonian exile), Hester her antinomian inclinations from Bellingham and his ministers (The Scarlet Letter takes location in the course of the Puritans’ exile in America). Hester’s antinomianism associates her with Ann Hutchinson, in whose footsteps Hawthorne locations her, and also with such strong Quaker dissidents as Mary Dyer. (13) If Hester is related to the impassioned biblical heroine Queen Esther, the reality seems completely in maintaining with her religious heterodoxy and places her in a tradition of dissenting females that antedates Mary Dyer and Ann Hutchinson by far. The Scarlet Letter’s involvement with tips of dissent and tolerance, individual and neighborhood, may owe some of its power to the Book of Esther’s representation of the status of the Jews in Babylon and the religious quandary of Esther in Ahasuerus’s court.

Finally, the Book of Esther is the only book of the Hebrew Bible not to contain the word God The Scarlet Letter also has at its center a peculiar verbal lacuna (the absence of the word “adultery,” for which the letter A patently stands). The lacunae can be noticed as contributing to a literature of secrecy and hiddenness, coded signs, veiled clues, and cryptic meanings. Even though the correspondences amongst the Book of Esther and The Scarlet Letter are striking enough, they open upon additional inquiries of how the deep analogy with the Book of Esther could have entered into The Scarlet Letter, and what might be its implications for Hawthorne’s text.

What is the which means of Hester’s A? It is a symbol, a character, a letter from a single of numerous achievable sets of symbol-systems it remains ungrounded, and resists the canonization of any offered interpretation by any given authority. The sacred awe invested in the letter by the Puritan orthodoxy is undercut the approach begins with Hester’s personal embroidery of the letter, which causes one of the female onlookers to ask angrily, “What is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates?” (1:54).

Even within the story told in The Scarlet Letter, scripture is unable to retain its original signification. Dimmesdale is presented several occasions as a Hebraist: his library contains, among other religious volumes, “the lore of rabbis” (1:126) when he returns from the forest to his study his eye alights on “the Bible, in its wealthy old Hebrew, with Moses and the Prophets speaking to him, and God’s voice through all!” (1:223). In the exact same scene Hawthorne once again shows Dimmesdale standing “with one hand on the Hebrew Scriptures” (1:223). And but Mistress Hibbins images Dimmesdale as a dangerously subversive biblical exegete:

Who, now, that saw him pass in the procession, would feel how small even though it is given that he went forth out of his study, – chewing a Hebrew text of scripture in his mouth, I warrant, – to take an airing in the forest! (1:241)

Dimmesdale’s goal in going into the forest is to pay a pay a visit to to the Apostle Eliot – himself a translator of the Bible. Eliot’s Indian Bible (1663) is the subject of a chapter in Hawthorne’s very first children’s book, Grandfather’s Chair (1841). The effect of The Scarlet Letter, as noticed through the prism of the Book of Esther, is – in maintaining with the “literary scripturism” of the age – to reanimate and reconstruct one of the Bible’s books. Hawthorne’s book of Hester might be noticed in a midrashic sense as obtaining a fresh way for the Bible to matter in antebellum America. Hawthorne’s story “The Man of Adamant” (1837) tells of a biblical hermeneutics so rigid and unsympathetic that it turns the story’s Puritan protagonist to stone, and it seems to be the narrow limits of doctrinal interpretation, rather than the Bible itself, that bear the brunt of Hawthorne’s satirical wrath.

To appreciate more precisely the close relation in between the sacred text which Hawthorne seems to reinterpret and the scarlet text which Hester is created to put on (and which via her embroidery she reinterprets), it becomes required, finally, to take into account Pearl – the living embodiment of the scarlet letter and the only principal character of The Scarlet Letter for whom I have not but suggested a counterpart in the Book of Esther.

“Hath she any discoverable principle of becoming?” (1:134) Chillingworth asks of Pearl and all the characters of The Scarlet Letter, including Hester, appear to be consistently asking yourself what Pearl is, where Pearl comes from. The mystery of her parentage is, in a sense, the mystery of The Scarlet Letter. Pearl is at instances a text, a sign – a “living hieroglyphic” (1:207), “the scarlet letter endowed with life” (1:102) – and at other instances a denizen of “that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never ever subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth” (1:203). “Art thou a Christian youngster, – ha?” (1:110) Reverend Wilson asks in “The Elf-Kid and the Minister.” “I am mother’s child,” Pearl replies. Reverend Wilson asks once more, “Canst thou tell me, my kid, who produced thee?” (1:110) – upon which Pearl claims she was plucked from the prison-door rose-bush.

All of these concerns may be observed as interrogating Pearl’s status as a hieroglyph, a text, a sign. Is she a sacred text, written by God and conceived by means of divine guidance, or does she in reality, as she declares, “have no heavenly Father?” (1:98). Does this “living hieroglyphic” have a supra-human author, or is she merely co-authored by Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale? Should she be either a product of heaven or, as the Puritan townspeople preserve, a “demon offspring” (1:99, 204)? Can she signify without getting a transcendent signifier?

Esther and Mordechai in the Book of Esther have no kids, but they do come with each other at the story’s finish to create the final letter of the Book of Esther (the letter ratifies Mordechai’s previous letter establishing the vacation of Purim). Similarly Hester and Dimmesdale come together to write the letter that is Pearl. The question of whether Pearl is a demon-child mirrors the query of whether Hawthorne’s unauthorized version of the Book of Esther is a demon-text and Pearl’s development mirrors and is possibly coordinate with the development of The Scarlet Letter in the hands of its author.(21) Pearl does not entirely leave off her life as a letter and turn out to be completely endowed with human life until the final scene on the scaffold, when her tears for her father are “the pledge that she would develop up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the planet, but be a lady in it” (1:256).

Hawthorne’s characters are made to put on, embody and personify these vestiges and traces of their former lives. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl all attempt to shake off their identification with the various significations of a single letter. The concerns Hawthorne’s characters face in the course of the romance as a result appear to recapitulate numerous of the queries Hawthorne may possibly have wrestled with in his imaginative reading of the Book of Esther. How can the confinements and limitations of the written be overcome? How can a text be endowed with life? How can a character be produced to live?
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