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Psychological allegory in the Scarlet letter Neuman, Victor

Abstract

In Hawthorne criticism there is a tendency to categorize The Scarlet Letter as allegory and then fail to distinguish it carefully from traditional forms of this literary mode. Hawthorne is not, in this work, an allegorist of the same ilk as Bunyan or Spenser because his allegory is not a didactic strategy imposed from without but an emblematic structure that evolves from and is governed by internal necessities of the tale. A failure to understand the nature of these necessities leads us to an overly theologized view of Hawthorne’s purposes and achievement in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's own moralizing editorials tend to complement the brazenly emblematic function of characters such as Pearl and Chillingworth and create the appearance of traditional religious allegory. Pearl and Chillingworth are punitive, avenging figures and resemble the stock allegorical images of guilt and penitence that afflict Hester and Dimmesdale in the aftermath of their crime. Their distinction lies in that they are not everyman's guilt, as a Bunyan of Spenser might depict them, but they specifically incarnate the self-torment Hester and Dimmesdale are prey to. Their roles fulfill primarily a psycho-allegorical scheme rather than any patently Christian parable of sin and expiation. The clues to this psychological priority Hawthorne gives his allegory are contained in the author's frequent allusions to the "mutability" of the substantial world and the extent to which the perturbed perceiver may "extend his egotism over the whole expanse of nature", creating events and omens which reflect his internal disorder. There is evidence that Dimmesdale himself inflicts Chillingworth on his person just as he, miraculously or otherwise, carves an "A" upon his bosom. It is Dimmesdale who consents to being attended by the leech by reason of his "fascination" for this man of science with his probing intellectuality. Dimmesdale's culpability in creating the presence of Chillingworth is further underlined by Hawthorne's observation that the minister's only "real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul." Chillingworth's appearance and the increasingly demonic nature of his character is thus an inevitable byproduct of Dimmesdale's increasing introversion into the turmoil of his mind. Similarly Pearl's emblematic being usurps the humanity of her character as a result of her direct relation to Hester's psyche. Hester dresses Pearl in lavish finery with "morbid purpose" just as she embellishes the appearance of the letter on her dress. These are the superficial clues to the extent to which Hester creates the punishing role Pearl's personality fulfills. Hester's sense of guilt, like Dimmesdale's is sufficiently severe to re-create the realities of the external world and create the embodied phantoms of her inward strife. Hawthorne's psychological allegory creates a state of surreality in the world of The Scarlet Letter; a dream state where "the Actual and the Imaginary" do meet and the meeting ground is the interior of the human heart. Our insight into the minds of Hester and Dimmesdale derives from our participation in their anguished distortion of experience and their projected allegory.

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