Stories are not always narrated in a clear and direct manner. When the critical reader encounters ambiguity in literary texts, one must reflect upon the author’s choice to allow for multiple meanings. Although, ambiguity might frustrate the passive reader, the critical reader sees opportunity in ambiguity. Critical readers do not rely solely upon the text itself to convey meaning. They use their skills in judgment, skepticism, and analysis to make intelligent interpretations about the texts at hand. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter is a great example of how the critical reader might treat ambiguity:
Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER—the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origin, there were various explanations, all of which necessarily have been conjectural…Some affirmed that…Others contended that…Others, again,…The reader may choose among these theories. (Hawthorne 1490)
In this quote, the narrator discusses the witnesses’ accounts of Dimmesdale’s death on the scaffold. They are not in agreement of what they saw. Most say they saw the scarlet letter on his chest. These witnesses present different causes of the “A” imprinted in Dimmesdale’s flesh such as magic, self-torture, or inner remorse. Other witnesses say they didn’t see the letter at all. The minister’s “confession” was also an issue of concern, for some maintained that Dimmesdale’s last words were not a confession of his guilt, but a sermon teaching the “mighty and mournful lesson, that, in the view of Infinite Purity, we are all sinners alike” (Hawthorne 1490). The critical reader would consider Hawthorne’s motives for including these many testimonials of Dimmesdale’s death. Perhaps Dimmesdale’s last living hour is ambiguous because it reflects the idea that bearing witness is a subjective process. Hawthorne then asks the reader to choose among the various theories, which parallels the idea that reading is also a subjective process. Just as each witness has constructed his or her own account of what happened to Dimmesdale, Hawthorne shows that the critical reader has the ability to do this, too.
Courtney says, “The whole story of the Scarlet Letter is about perception” (Courtney 17-Oct). To further the idea that the process of recounting history is a construct, the next quote brings attention to social stigmas that shape not only how we recall past events, but also our perception of the present. Hawthorne writes:
More than once—nay, more than a hundred times…[Dimmesdale] had told his hearers that he was altogether vile, a viler companion of the vilest, the worst of sinners, an abomination, a thing of unimaginable iniquity…Could there be any plainer speech than this? Would not the people start up in their seats, by a simultaneous impulse, and tear him down out of the pulpit which he defiled? Not so, indeed! They heard it all, and did but reverence him more. (Hawthorne 1430)
As we can see from this excerpt, Dimmesdale has confessed his sinful nature to his people long before his alleged confession of adultery on the scaffold. And yet, to quote Sofia, the puritans “see it as further evidence of his piety!”. The irony operating here could only be detected through critical thinking. More than a hundred times Dimmesdale has plainly spoken his hypocrisy, so why does the community not believe him? Sofia has some interesting insight on this question:
To the Puritans, their priest is the most sacred of all individuals. He is a role model and their guide to the spiritual realm. The priest is a symbol of the Puritanical community and Reverend Dimmesdale is this villages shining beacon. They hold him to great standards, often referring to him as one of God’s angels sent to earth. How ironic that Dimmesdale is a farce of a priest. He is as sinful as Hester Prynne, whom they force to wear the scarlet letter every day of her life. (Sofia 2-Oct)
Sofia’s commentary brings to light the interesting contrast between Hester as a sinner, and Dimmesdale as a sinner. The congregation reprimands Hester, but they see Dimmesdale as even more pious because his position as a minister labels him so. Therefore, through the narrator’s voice, Hawthorne calls us to think critically about how society creates the illusion that Dimmesdale is righteous and faithful, but in fact he is not. The puritans are the epitome of American citizens whom Emerson would want to reach, because even when they are blatantly presented the truth, they cannot think for themselves.
To continue the discussion of social illusions, labels, and perception, it is crucial to discuss the symbolism of the letter A. In chapter XIII, Hawthorne writes:
The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her,—so much power to do, and power to sympathize,—that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original significance. They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman’s strength. (Hawthorne 1439)
As already established, because the scarlet A is a label, it affects how Hester Prynne is perceived and treated. At the time of Pearl’s birth, Hester was treated as an unworthy member of society. Now, seven years later, Hester is no longer an outcast and this changes the meaning of the “A”. The critical thinker might ask, what does such easy manipulation of the A say about its significance? Its many meanings suggest how often we project our own meanings onto our day-to-day encounters. Therefore, labels and symbols such as the A, or a title such as “Reverend” mean nothing by themselves – they are manmade constructs. The way in which Hawthorne mocks the puritans for believing in these symbols is telling. At first, the A defined Hester, and now Hester defines the A. It is possible that Hawthorne is advocating for awareness of society’s power to influence our perceptions. We must better tune into our own ability to think for ourselves and create our own meanings. We must, as Emerson says, ‘strive to be inventors’ (Emerson 1142).
Click here to watch a 60 second video on the power of the letter A:
See my highlights in Arlin Turner’s article – Great connections to Emerson and how Hawthorne raised questions concerning the affairs of his time through fiction. You can download it here!
Also, please see Sofia and Courtney’s Commonplace Books.
Sofia’s Commonplace Book:
Courtney’s Commonplace Book:
Baym, Nina, Robert S. Levine and Arnold Krupat, eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume B: 1820-1865. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2007. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar”. Baym. 1138-1151. Print.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter.” Baym. 1352-1493. Print.
Turner, Arlin. “Nathaniel Hawthorne in American Studies.” College English 26.2 (1964) : 133-139. Jstor. Web. 13 Dec 2011.