Hawthorne's Theory of Moral Sentiments:
The Scarlet Letter
It is only the one-eyed who love to advise.
- Hawthorne, The American Notebooks
Nathaniel Hawthorne begins The Scarlet Letter by telling us that it is set in a peculiar sort of community. Early Boston, he tells us, was originally planned by its founders as a "Utopia," a community based on someone's conception of "human virtue and happiness"(p. 39).(1) It would be difficult to imagine a work of fiction set in such a place which did not comment in some way, however, indirect, on communities of this kind. This immediately suggests the possibility that The Scarlet Letter, like The Blithedale Romance, is to some extent a political work. Hawthorne also deals with a utopian community in Blithedale, and his treatment of it is certainly far from neutral. His characterization of Hollingsworth, whose high-minded plans ruin one human life and damage several others, puts one in mind of Adam Smith's severe comments, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, on "the man of system," the individual who is "so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government" that he cannot acknowledge the fact that each member of the community contains his own "principle of motion," which is likely to be "altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon" him. Hawthorne seems to agree with Smith's claim that, if the principles involved are indeed different, then "society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder."(2)
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne depicts old Boston as an example of one particular type of
utopian plan: one in which human life is reorganized in an attempt to base it entirely on moral
ideas. As in Blithedale, his response to the utopian plan involved is indeed an unfavorable one,
but here his response is based on ideas quite different from the notion of natural order embodied
in Smith's comment on the man of system. However, as I will argue in this chapter, the ideas of
Smith are still powerfully relevant to understanding what Hawthorne is about. Here the relevant
ideas are Smith's notions about the relationship between morality and sympathy. The Scarlet
Letter, as it turns out, embodies ideas on the very same subject. I will try to bring these ideas into
the open by interpreting them as a response - a critical one - to Smith's ideas. It will be found that
the criticism of Smith that emerges is acute and interesting one in its own right. In addition, it
will enable us to understand the radically non-Smithian nature of Hawthorne's objections to the
form of utopianism which Hawthorne found in old Boston.(3) At the end of this chapter, I will
suggest how these objections might very naturally be generalized into an argument against
utopianism as such, an argument which, it seems to me, is very much in the spirit of Hawthorne's
way of thinking.
2. Sympathy in Smith
Hawthorne's position will be easier to appreciate if one first understands the rudiments of the position taken by Smith. Sympathy, for Smith, is our tendency to feel what others feel upon perceiving expressions of those feelings (as when we hear someone crying) or become aware of the circumstances which cause them (as when we hear someone dragging his or her fingernails across the blackboard).(4) For our present purposes, we can understand well enough what Smith says about sympathy by grasping the following six theses, all of which he holds:
(1) Sympathy is an entirely natural trait. The suffering of others does not prompt us to have the same experience because we have been taught that it should; sympathy is not the result of culture or training.(5)
(2) Sympathy is "the source of our fellow-feeling with the misery of others."(6) When we care about the feelings of others, it is for the same reason that we care about our own feelings: in sympathy, their feelings in fact become ours.
(3) Everyone wants both to sympathize with others and to be sympathized with: it is a "healing consolation" which "can satisfy and support the heart without any auxiliary pleasure.(7)
(4) The presence and absence of sympathy are the source of our approval and disapproval of others. To approve or disapprove of someone's opinions is simply to share or not share them. Similarly, we approve of the emotions of others depending on whether we either can or cannot sympathize with them.(8) This thesis raises several problems that Smith himself seems to recognize. First, we generally tend to think that there are times when our disapproval of the emotions of others is based on something more than our simple inability to share them. For instance, moral disapproval at least purports to be more "objective" than this (whatever that might turn out to mean). How might we make this idea consistent with the idea that disapproval is based on lack of sympathy? The second problem arises from the fact that we always (tautologically) have whatever feelings we have. We could in this sense be said to always sympathize with ourselves. But that would seem to mean that we always approve of our own feelings. However, we obviously sometimes do disapprove of the way we feel. The problem is to show how this is possible.
There is an interesting point in Smith's psychology which might eliminate this problem, but only if it supplants it with a new one. He held that self-consciousness, unlike sympathy for the feelings of others, is not a primitive component of the human mind.(9) He maintained that human beings, in isolation from one another, could no more have a conception of what their feelings are and whether they are good or bad than individuals who have never laid eyes on a mirror could have a notion of what their faces look like and whether they are beautiful or ugly. It is only through the discovery that others are conscious of us and form judgments about us that we come to be aware of ourselves at all and, consequently, an anxious concern for what others think of us troubles us all our lives. One can see how this idea can be developed into an explanation of how, despite this fourth thesis, we do not necessarily approve of all our own ways of feeling, but we would seem to be left with another problem: Why do we not always accept the opinions others have of us? Smith avoids all of these problems (whether satisfactorily or not) by holding that:
(5) Sympathy is, in fact, the source of the objectivity of our approval and disapproval of emotions, and it is also the source of our independence of the judgments of others. This idea is developed by means of Smith's celebrated metaphor of "the impartial spectator." He believed that we are capable of evaluating our own sentiments by viewing them as if through the eyes of a fair and impartial judge and discerning whether, at that moment, we are able to "entirely enter into and sympathize with" them.(10) If we cannot, we find that we must disapprove of them. At such moments, "I divide myself, as it were, into two persons," and Smith calls the as-it-were part of me which does the approving or disapproving "the impartial spectator."(11) It is "objective" in the sense that it is unbiased, and it provides an autonomous standard against which we can evaluate whatever judgments others might make against us.
(6) The impartial spectator (and, through it, sympathy) is the source of all moral rules. The sense of duty which distinguishes a person who is morally decent from one who is not is a "sacred regard" for general rules of conduct.(12) The general rules are distinct from the judgments of the impartial spectator, which pronounces upon particular cases only. But the impartial spectator consistently condemns certain kinds of sentiments (such as envy, avarice, and unjust resentment), and consequently its judgments "insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or avoided."(13) Thus moral norms are formed by an autonomous exercise of individual insight, in the same way that empirical generalizations are said to be formed.
So much, then, for my account of Smith's theory. As we shall see, Hawthorne agrees with the
first three of the theses I have set out here, and with a modified version of the fourth. But, as we
shall see, in the logic of The Scarlet Letter they are turned against the close association between
morality and sympathy which is asserted in the last one.
3. Morality and Sympathy
We meet Hester Prynne when she steps from the darkness of the prison into "the too vivid light of day" (p. 43) and is taken to her punishment. This punishment consists, simply, in being presented to the view of the a crowd which Hawthorne consistently presents, throughout the novel, as if it were a single character. Indeed, there are important characters in Hawthorne - Hester's strange child, Pearl, is one example - that are drawn in no more detail than this crowd is. The crowd is bound together by shared attitudes and rules of conduct (it is a community and not merely a crowd) and, consequently, it can be characterized in terms of the way it sees things, just as an individual can.
The fist thing the author tells us about they way the crowd sees Hester is this: "Meager, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for from such bystanders" He immediately adds to this grim fact another which explains and in some small way extenuates it: "On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death." He tells us that these are "people amongst whom religion" - a highly moralized version of Christianity - "and law are almost identical." (p. 41.) This fact would explain why many sorts of conduct which do not in themselves affect the public interest are "strangely mixed up with the deliberations of legislators and acts of state" (p. 75): because their moralistic religion is competent to regulate all matters of conduct, their law has the same sweeping omnicompetence. All things are seen perpetually from the moral point of view. This is why their punishments have a kind of seriousness which is incompatible with mere ridicule. The experience of seeing someone as morally evil displaces the experience of seeing them as merely ridiculous. It also seems to displace the experience of sympathy. The crowd is unable to sympathize with Hester because their moral disapproval of her is so strong.
It seems obvious, once one thinks of it, that this is indeed what would happen: such people would have little or no sympathy with such a one as Hester Prynne. This resonates with common experience, with things often seen and said ("I have no sympathy for him: he got no more than he deserved," and so forth). The behavior of the crowd, together with the familiar phenomenon of which it is one convincing example, is related in a curious way to the fourth of the theses I attributed to Smith. That thesis asserts a very close relationship between sympathy and approval, as close as that which holds between sharing an opinion and approving that opinion. A relationship this close would seem to mean that one will approve of another's feelings if and only if one sympathizes with them.(14) This would mean that anything that prevents me from sympathizing with you would also prevent me from approving of you, but it would also mean that things that prevent approval likewise block sympathy.
However, the sort of approval Smith has in mind here is rather specific: he is speaking of one's approval of a passion as suitable to its object. Of course, the crowd does not disapprove of Hester in this sort of way: they think at least some of her current feelings are perfectly suited to their objects. In their view, her agony of humiliation is quite the right response to their dramatically expressed disapproval. And yet they do indeed have little or no sympathy with her, and their disapproval seems to be the reason why. Hawthorne's narrative suggests convincingly that the connection between their disapproval and their failure to sympathize has to do with a principle similar to the fourth thesis, but broader and more destructive.
Before I attack the question of just what this principle is, consider the following distinct, though closely related, question: Why does simply being looked at by the crowd constitute a punishment? Hawthorne's description of the incident suggests a profound explanation. As Hester stands on the scaffold "under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened on her, and concentered at her bosom," she realizes that the "solemn mood" she sees in those eyes is "much more terrible" than mocking ridicule would be (p. 46). Those eyes are all fastened on a baby Hester holds before her and an A she is compelled to wear.
What does the initial, so important that the book itself is named after it, stand for? Hawthorne is somewhat mysterious on this point. Later in the story, he tells us that people interpret it as meaning Able and even Angel, but he does not say what its "original signification," as he calls it, is. Nor, for that matter, does the Salem adultery statute of 1694, which seems to have inspired Hawthorne's device. Scholars sometimes take it as obvious that the original meaning of the letter is adultery.(15) This however is not consistent with something Hawthorne writes in another work. In an earlier and much briefer tale of Puritan New England, "Endicott and the Red Cross," he describes another woman who is forced to wear a scarlet A, one which, like Hester's, is embroidered "with the nicest art of needlework." There he tells us explicitly that the letter stands for adulteress.(16) It stands to reason that this is what it is in The Scarlet Letter.
Saying this may sound like insisting on a very fine distinction, but it does have a clear implication about the function of the letter itself. If what I have just said is true, it means that the letter does not stand for an abstract quality or idea: it stands for Hester. It names her. It declares to the world what she is.
Her punishment on the scaffold is a ritual in which this label is, as it were, magically affixed to her. Hawthorne describes, with a vividness that makes the reader squirm, the power this ceremony has. Standing before those eyes, fearing that she might "go mad at once," she finds that her surroundings "seem to vanish," and in their place images from her past come "swarming back upon her," important memories and utterly trivial ones alike "intermingle ... as if all were of similar importance" (pp. 46-47). She remembers games and quarrels from her childhood, scenes from her native village, and "her own face, glowing with girlish beauty, and illuminating the interior of the dusky mirror in which she had been wont to gaze at it." She seems to see her husband and the sights of Amsterdam, where they had lived. Finally, is compelled to return with a shock to "the townspeople assembled and levelling their stern regards at Hester Prynne - yes, at herself. ... Could it be true? She clutched the child so fiercely to her breast, that it sent forth a cry; she turned her eyes downward at the scarlet letter ... Yes! - these were he realities - all else had vanished." (p. 47)
Part of the power of this passage lies in our inescapable sense that we have witnessed a human soul being invaded and defiled. It is very tempting to explain this sense by using the long-familiar Sartrean notion that "the look" of others has the power to compel individuals to see themselves as mere things. It would be more accurate, though, to say that the weight of these eyes has pressed Hester into a moral category, compelling her to see herself as an adulteress and nothing more, robbing her of the indefinitely many other aspects of her self. The inmate of a moral category, a mere adulteress for instance, is not a thing at all, but an entirely different sort of being.
Hester then sees he husband, Roger Chillingworth, in the crowd. He seems to have the same effect on her that the crowd initially had, beginning with the same involuntary spasm: "she pressed her infant to her bosom, with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain" (p. 48). She the stands staring at him with "so fixed a gaze, that ... all other objects in the visible world seemed to vanish..." (p. 50). There is, in fact, a deep similarity between what the crowd has done to Hester and what Chillingworth does to Hester's lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, through the years that follow. In her first exposure on the scaffold, the Puritans punish Hester simply by looking at her. When Chillingworth says of Dimmesdale "Let him hide himself in outward honor, if he may! Not the less he shall be mine!" (p. 59), he is saying that he means to capture him simply by knowing him. And knowing Dimmesdale - that is, making him an object of consciousness, just as the crowd does to Hester - is virtually the only thing he ever actually does to him.
As Chillingworth stands, incognito, in the crowd before the scaffold, he has a talks to an apparently typical Puritan townsman about the fact that the identity of Hester's lover is as yet unknown (pp. 49-50). The two of them agree entirely on the necessity that "iniquity" be "searched out" and subjected to public view. The townsman even agree that Hester's husband ought to come and take up the search for the missing sinner. The only difference between them lies in the intensely personal nature of the concern Chillingworth presumably feels in the matter. He is concerned because someone has harmed him. The townsman, on the other hand, is not moved by that sort of consideration. While Chillingworth is moved by revenge, the townsman is moved by disinterested Puritan moralism.
One might think that this simple fact shows that the similarity I have exposed between Puritan punishment and Chillingworth's diabolical plan is superficial and coincidental, that it indicates no deep similarity between them. That, I think, would be an error. When Chillingworth first explains his plan, he lays down, as the source of all that follows, the fact that someone has wronged him, not merely that someone has harmed him (p. 58). Wrong is, of course, a moral category. It is on this that his revenge is founded. This is true of revenge in general. Revenge is an application - even if a deranged and diabolical one - of the sense of justice. If it were possible for me to lash out at someone simply because he has caused be pain, and not at all because he was wrong in doing so, that would not be what we call revenge.
The conduct of Chillingworth and the conduct of the Puritans of Boston are connected by an important fact about how morality works. Considered as a system of rules shared by members of a community, morality serves to regulate behavior, just as the law does. Unlike the law, however, it does not control what we do by imposing penalties like fines or prison sentences. Nonetheless, it does influence what we do. It does so, in part, because we know that others will notice what we do, and that they will perceive what we do in light of the rules. If we break the rules, they are apt to know what we have done so and in that case they will perceive us as rule-breakers. All by themselves, these facts seem to constitute a penalty grave enough to influence what our conduct. The nature of Hester's punishment indicates the thoroughgoing moralism of the Puritan utopia: it means that the penalties that back up the laws of Hawthorne's Boston are the same in kind as those which enforce systems of shared moral rules. The same is true of the penalty that Chillingworth inflicts on Dimmesdale: in each case, what one person is doing to another is precisely what morality is always doing to everyone.
Whatever we might think of the ways in which such methods are used by Hawthorne's characters, they do work, and we have reason to be glad that they work. They indicate that society can regulate our conduct by means that are at any rate less brutal than mere physical force.(17) Hawthorne, however, is turning our attention to another, darker side of the way these methods work, to their potentially devastating costs. To one extent or another, they rupture relations of sympathy. For Hawthorne, however, sympathy is the only basis for genuinely human relations. This, in fact, would seem to be an implication of the second thesis that I attributed to Smith, at least if we suppose that such relations involve caring about the other person. This would mean that the moral form of social control tends to destroy human relations as such.
The immediate effect the scarlet letter has on Hester is that of taking her "out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself" (p. 44). The way the Puritan community treats her in later years merely reinforces her status as an outsider: "in all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came into contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhibited another sphere..." (p. 61). She does not live in this community at all, she merely, as Hawthorne tells us, haunts it like a ghost (p. 61).
Part of the cause of this devastating effect lies in the fact that, as we see both in the case of the crowd and of Chillingworth, moral disapproval is an unfavorable attitude and, as such, is experienced as a form of hostility. It is perfectly natural that Hester would remove herself from such a community as this, in one way or another. Another part of the cause lies in the fact that it is not merely a matter of Hester removing herself: she is actually being ejected from her social world.
This interesting phenomenon is explained in a memorable passage from the scene in which Hester has come to the Governor's house to defend herself against powerful people who wished to take Pearl, then three years old, away from her. In the front hallway of the house, a suit of armor, which the governor had worn while leading a regiment in battle, stood on display. At Pearl's insistence, Hester looked into the polished surface of the breastplate, and there she "saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it" (p. 79).
This is precisely the effect that the letter has on her relations to the community. In standing for Hester to the world, it comes between her and the world. This is the result of years in which, "giving up her individuality," she became "the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point ... as the figure, the body, the reality of sin" (pp. 60-61).
Of course, there is something profoundly Puritan about this way of seeing Hester. However, the scene in which she first encounters with the crowd makes it clear that the psychological phenomenon of which it is an instance is not by any means unique to Puritans. This phenomenon is what we might call the "radical constriction of personal identity," the reduction of the identity of the individual to an extremely narrow collection of traits. In the first scene we see precisely this sort constriction, and it is a consequence of moral disapproval as such. There, the constriction occurs in the consciousness of the person who is the object of the disapproval of others. The subsequent course of events points out that the very same constriction occurs in the minds of those who do the disapproving. What is unique about Hawthorne's Puritans is not that they rely on moral blame, but that it so completely dominates the way of seeing people, to the virtual exclusion of all else.
What is most important here is the fact that this psychological phenomenon explains a fact that I pointed out some pages back: that the crowd cannot sympathize with Hester. The reason for their inability, as I have suggested, lies in their moral disapproval of her. It is not that such disapproval involves seeing someone as a thing, or inducing them to see themselves that way. Morally blameworthy people have clearly un-thing-like traits, such as desires and the power to make choices. However, so far as they are blameworthy, the desires and choices involved are bad ones. There are many aspects of Hester's identity with which the Puritan crowd would sympathize if they could be vividly aware of them but, to the extent that their attitude is one of moral disapproval, they lack the necessary awareness. Their attitude transforms her into something with which sympathy is not possible.
Now, by bringing together various things I have said in this section, I can attempt a formulation
Hawthorne's alternative to Smith's fourth thesis. It is this. Moral disapproval prevents human
contact with the person of whom one disapproves. It does so in two ways: First, such disapproval
is essentially hostile in nature and, consequently, tends to prompt the person disapproved of to
withdraw from the one who does the disapproving. Second, it constricts the apparent identity of
the object of the disapproval to features with which it is impossible to sympathize.
4. Is Morality Futile?
This principle calls into question the efficacy of the moral method of regulating conduct. The reason it does so is represented by Hester's eventual fate. The presumed function of her punishment, as of moral penalties in general, is to bring a wayward soul back into the fold, to teach her to follow the rules that bind these people into a community. And yet the immediate effect of this punishment - and this, once again, is a characteristic it shares with moral penalties as such - is to exclude her from the society in which these very rules have life and power.
In that case, what are the prospects that this method will work? As often happens, that depends on what one's purpose is. Hawthorne tells us bluntly that, seven years after the first scene on the scaffold, "the scarlet letter had not done its office" (p 120), meaning that it had not accomplished the purposes of its Puritan perpetrators. Because of her separation from society, there is little in her life that provides occasion for passion and feeling, and so her life turns, "in a great measure, from passion and feeling, to thought" (p. 119). Consequently, she becomes "little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself" (p. 116). "The world's law was no law for her mind" (p 119).
As a result of these factors, Hester strays into a "deadlier crime" (p. 119), at least from the point of view of the Puritan community, than the adultery for which she was originally punished: she becomes a heretic. When she sees Arthur Dimmesdale in Chapter XII, in the second scene that takes place on the scaffold, she is shocked by his psychological dilapidation. It gives her a "new theme of reflection" (p. 120). The results of these further reflections are the heresies she expounds to him in their subsequent meeting in the forest. The most startling of these is her claim that the crime they had committed together "had a consecration of its own" (p. 140).
She has pronounce adultery to be holy. So much for the success of the community's attempt to
teach her the wickedness of her act. The outcome of Chillingworth's plan provides a grim
contrast here. His plan, as I have said, is to stay close to Dimmesdale in a position, simply, of
closely attentive watchfulness. His hope is that he can cause his enemy painful harm simply to
know what he is, that even if poor Dimmesdale has no detailed awareness of his situation, he will
still sense a malignant presence nearby, eating away at him. This hope is fully realized. While
what the community does to Hester is a failure in their terms, what Chillingworth does to Arthur
is a success in his. The main reason seems to be that Chillingworth labors under a distinct
advantage: while they are trying to make someone a better person, he is not. He seeks only to
damage and destroy.
5. The Destruction of Dimmesdale
When Hester meets Arthur during the second scaffold scene, she is shocked to find that he has somehow been reduced to a mere shadow of what he once was. What is left of his "moral force" is "abased into more than childish weakness" and grovels "helpless on the ground" (p. 115). Exactly what has reduced him to this pitiful state? The easiest answer would seem to be that he is a sinner and, according to Hawthorne, this is what sine does to one if one does not exorcise it by confessing and accepting punishment.
At the very best, this answer is incomplete, since it leaves unexplained a factor which it identifies as crucial: Why doesn't he confess? More important, the only cause it names is obviously insufficient to produce such a horrible effect. As Dimmesdale himself tells Hester: "Were I an atheist - a man devoid of conscience - ... I might have found peace, long ere now". The mere fact of being an unconfessed and unpunished sinner does not account for what happens to him. He explains it by saying "whatever of good capacity there originally was in me, all of God's gifts that were the choicest, have become ministers of spiritual torment." (p. 137.)
That, as I say, is Dimmesdale's explanation. Hawthorne's explanation can be seen as a demythologized version of it. He tells us that there is "no state of society" in which Dimmesdale would "have been what is called a man of liberal views," adding that "it would always be essential to his peace to feel the pressure of a faith about him, supporting, while it confined him within its iron framework" (p. 91). He acquires his faith from the world around him in the way that conventional people absorb the conventions they find ready at hand. Beyond that: "At the head of the social system ... he was only the more trammelled by its regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices" (p. 143). Since the only important regulations and principles in his social system are moral ones, he is a merely moral man, in the sense that he sees the world entirely through moral categories. If Dimmesdale's own character is what lies behind his destruction, then the Puritan morality, as the foundation of his character, stands at the beginning of the entire ugly process, as its prime mover.
We can gather from Hawthorne's narrative a fairly clear account of how this process works itself out. Because Arthur perceives the world entirely through moral categories, he must see himself in just the same way as the crowd perceived Hester in the first scaffold scene: he is a sinner, nothing more. If it is terrible to be viewed in this way by others, it must surely be worse to see one's own self in this way. If consciousness becomes painful, one can only endure by diminishing it somehow, either by the spectacular means of going mad (p. 139), or by such more modest means as psychological evasion and repression. It is the latter course that Dimmesdale takes. He acquires "a ready faculty ... of escaping any topic" - and there are many - that irritates "his too sensitive and nervous temperament." At such moments, his mind softens it focus and points elsewhere, as if avoiding a subject he regards as "irrelevant or unseasonable" (p. 98). Indeed, he seldom even looks "straitforth at any object, whether human or inanimate" (p. 96).
Apparently, for Hawthorne, it is impossible to impair one's mind with respect only to a single, narrowly defined subject. To avoid awareness of one area, the mind's functioning must be damaged in some more far-reaching way. Although Dimmesdale's theoretical intellect is left intact for long discussions with Chillingworth on abstract subjects (p. 91), the part of his mind that he needs for his own survival - his ability to identify actual things in the world around him - is "darkened and confused by the very remorse which harrowed it" (p. 144). It is his crippled mind that makes it possible for Chillingworth to ruin him. He has a vague suspicion that Chillingworth is not to be trusted, but he has vague distrustful intimations about everyone: "Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared" (p. 96). He cannot protect himself because he cannot trust his own thoughts.
His guilt ruptures his relations with the world and the people around him by preventing them from entering his mind clearly and distinctly. In his most characteristic gesture, he covers his heart with his hand as if to protect it from probing eyes. He is possessed by the fear of visibility, of the sense of exposure that is symbolized by the "too vivid light of day" that torments Hester in the first scene. In his meeting with her in the forest, he finds, as she does, that no "golden light" was ever as "precious as the gloom of this dark forest" (p. 140). His desire to conceal what he regards as the single most important fact about himself, the fact that he is a sinner, results in a generalized desire for concealment as such.
This fact yields a surprising conclusion when we combine it with one stated moral of the book,
one among many possible ones, as Hawthorne tells us, but the only one he chooses to put "into a
sentence." This is Hawthorne's often-noted imperative, "Be true! Be true!" It means that we must
"show freely to the world" who we really are (p. 183). It is plainly meant to be an ethical
principle, a standard that distinguishes better persons from worse ones. It is a standard that
Dimmesdale is violating, which would mean that he is a deficient person - not evil, perhaps, but
not as good as he could be.(18) The inescapable conclusion, given what has gone before, is that the
deficiency is caused by Dimmesdale's morality, and by the guilt that results from it.
6. Morality and Human Contact
We can better understand the peculiar sort of devastation Dimmesdale's morality does by briefly turning our attention from him to his daughter, Pearl. Her most striking trait throughout the story is her more or less complete obliviousness to the feelings of others, especially when she is in one of the wild moods in which she seems "entirely out of the sphere of sympathy or human contact" (p. 98). She appears to have more sympathy with natural objects than with people (pp. 128, 146-47). Nonetheless, it is possible to enter into a sympathetic relationship with her, but only, as her name suggests (p. 67), if one pays a great price for it.
We are told explicitly what that price it. One day, when Pearl seems to have grown old enough to "be made a friend," she takes Hester's hand and stares with peculiar earnestness into her eyes, as if trying, "as intelligently as she knew how, to establish a meeting-point of sympathy" (p. 129). She asks why Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart and what the letter on Hester's breast means. Hester thinks, "No! If this be the price of the child's sympathy, I cannot pay it!" She dismisses the questions with a lie, though she "had never before been false to the symbol on her bosom" (p. 130). When Pearl persists with her questioning, Hester threatens to lock her up in a "dark closet" (p. 131). A moment before, she was wondering whether a sympathetic relationship with Pearl might "soothe away the sorrow that lay cold" in her own "tomb-like heart" (p. 130). By threatening to shut Pearl away, she is confirming her own continued incarceration.
In the second scene on the scaffold, Dimmesdale takes Pearl's hand and immediately feels a "tumultuous rush of new life, other life than his own, pouring like a torrent into his heart" (p. 111). Again she asks a question: Will he stand with her and with her mother in the same place the next day at noon? He answers that "the daylight of this world shall not see" them together (p. 112). When he sees a strange light in the sky that reminds him of his guilt, he places his hands over his heart, making it impossible to hold her hand any longer. Again, her mood passes, and she explains why: "Thou wast not bold! - Thou wast not true!" (p. 114).
For Hawthorne, as for Smith, sympathy is not a mystical power to divine the souls of others without the use of one's organs of perception. One knows how it is with others through their expressing how it is. This is why full sympathy can only be had at the considerable price of self-revelation, or what Hawthorne calls truth. By avoiding truth and the boldness it requires, Dimmesdale is shutting himself out of the reciprocal relationship of sympathy and the healing consolation it could bring.
There is another way in which Dimmesdale's morality promotes the destruction of his character. By blocking sympathetic relations with others, it also puts an end to a vital source of self-knowledge. He can no longer accurately perceive himself in the eyes of others. All he can see there are the false images of himself that he presents to them. "No man," Hawthorne says, "for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true" (p. 154). The result is a trait that one could think of as a sort of hypocrisy: partly because Dimmesdale is confused about what he actually is, he deceives others about it as well.
His inflamed and tender conscience is able to regulate his outward behavior, keeping him in fact "safer within the line of virtue, than if he had never sinned at all" (p. 143). However, it also drains the "strength or courage" (p. 142) he needs in order to really be, and not merely seem, a better person. In particular, it accounts for the fact that he does not restore truthful relations with the world by confessing his sin.
It is true, however, that he eventually does confess. In the third and climactic scene on the scaffold, just as he and Hester were planning to escape together to Europe, he ascends the platform and confesses his sin. Yet the strength that enables him to do this comes from a source utterly alien to his morality. Speaking from the scaffold, he tells the thunderstruck crowd that it is from Hester, his partner in sin, that he has sympathetically acquired the strength to do what he believes is the right thing (p. 179). He had found this new strength in his secret meeting with Hester in the forest three days earlier. There, in a brief flood of sunshine, he finds himself for the first time in seven years "in the same sphere"(p. 137) as another human being and, as a result, his mental forces are reborn. Hester had been hoping that his new inner resources would give him the courage to escape with her, but he admonishes her from the scaffold that his strength must "be guided by the will which God hath granted" him (p. 179).
As we hear Dimmesdale's statements in the context of what we have seen of his inner development, they amount to an admission that, in order to accomplish the ends that his morality has set for him, he must tap sources of power from which that same morality systematically alienates him. Originally, it gave him a task that is then made it all but impossible for him to fulfill.
In Hawthorne's terms, this task, what might be called Dimmesdale's redemption, is only complete when he turns to Pearl and presents to her the fact that he has now paid the heavy price of human contact with her, saying "dear little Pearl, wilt thou kiss me now? Thou wouldst not yonder, in the forest!" And then: "Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it." (p. 181.)
Dimmesdale's task is completed, not when he turns to the crowd, the representative of his moral
code, but to the living issue of his sin, and then he accomplishes not merely his redemption, but
hers as well.
7. Tragedy and Utopia
What Hawthorne has been saying about the ethical and psychological effects of Puritan morality have applications that are far wider than their implications for a discussion of the shortcomings of Puritanism. In the story as I have been reading it here, the factors that distinguish Puritanism from other forms of morality - including its asceticism, its rigorism, and the inevitable hypocrisy of any code that is as ascetic and rigorist and Puritanism is - have played no part at all.
What has brought about the effects Hawthorne describes is a collection of attributes that all moral codes possess, insofar as they are moral. All such codes, in order to work as the framework for a community, depend on the sorts of penalties Hawthorne has described with such deadly phenomenological insight. If his account of these penalties is correct, then all moral codes tend to make visibility and self-awareness painful and costly. If he is right in his view of the nature of these costs, then if follows that all moralities tend to undermine the workings of sympathy. Given his implied psychological and ethical views about the nature of sympathy, it also follows that moral codes in general tend to undermine the accomplishment of their own ends.
Clearly, Hawthorne's account of the relationship between morality and sympathy contrasts starkly with the one given by Adam Smith. The most important contrast, one might say, is not with any one of the theses I have attributed to Smith, but with their general import. One way to describe this general import would be this. Prior to our acquaintance with Smith's theory, sympathy appears to be passionate (in that it is a capacity to feel emotions) and autonomous (in the un-Kantian sense that the exercise of this capacity is something we do on our own and not something that is imposed on us by other people). On the other hand, morality, apart from Smith's theory, often seems to be something that is dispassionate (as the cold judge of our passions) and heteronomous (in that most of our moral principles appear to be absorbed from the culture around us). The idea of the impartial spectator enables Smith to give us the impression that sympathy and morality are much closer together than they at first appear. The impartial spectator is simply one of the functions of sympathy and has in some measure both of its immediately apparent characteristics. In serving as a foundation for moral rules, it enables Smith to build a conception of morality that is not dispassionate and not certainly heteronomous - in Smith's view, the individual builds morality in the same way that (according to a simple sort of empiricism) a scientist builds science.
The effect of the argument of The Scarlet Letter is to deny the accuracy of the impression Smith gives us by undermining the importance of the impartial spectator. As we read the first scaffold scene, we do not expect to see an impartial spectator emerging to preserve her judgments of herself from the terrific pressure of the crowd's moralistic loathing. We are not at all surprised when her identity simply implodes. Disturbing though it is, this fictional event resonates with much that we have learned of human nature, and from bitter experience. It does not seem realistic to suppose that Hester can, as it were, divide herself into two parts and objectively assess the crowd's disapproval of her.
This would mean that moral judgments against us on the part of other people carry more weight with us than Smith thinks. If this is so then, according to the case Hawthorne has built up, those judgments have a greater power than Smith can envision to drive us out of sympathetic relations with others. It would also mean that morality is ordinarily more heteronomous than he thinks it is. Dimmesdale's response to the social world is, we feel, an omnipresent factor in all of us.
If the impressions brought home to us by the fates of these two characters are correct, then morality interferes with whatever goods that can be secured through sympathy alone. According to principles that Smith would admit, these would include the very foundations of self-knowledge and happiness.
Smith connects sympathy with morality in the way he does in order to provide a foundation for morality. In setting these two things against each other, Hawthorne inevitable raises doubts in our minds about whether he is trying to disestablish morality, given that his attitude toward sympathy is clearly very favorable. Is Hawthorne a sort of Romantic proto-Nietzsche? Actually, nothing I have said here commits him holding immoralist views. He might be solidly in favor of both sympathy and morality.
For instance, he might hold that morality is an indispensable necessity if human beings are to live together. Since living together is the only way for human beings to live at all, this would mean that morality is indispensable for life itself. On the other hand, he could also hold that sympathy is an important part of what makes life worth living. That is, he might believe that there is a certain sort of conflict between what makes life possible and what makes it desirable.
In that case, the tension Hawthorne sees between morality and sympathy would not represent a conflict between something good evil, so that it would make sense to be against one of them because one is in favor of the other, but rather a tragic conflict between things that are good. Conflicts that are tragic in this sense are typical of Hawthorne's point of view. When he writes of conflicts between values, as for instance between tradition and progress, or between pagan values and Christian ones, it is not typical of him to be in favor of one and opposed to the other. It might be natural to see him at such times as afflicted, as his friend Herman Melville certainly was, with a tormented indecisiveness before the great questions of life.(19) It is probably more accurate to suppose that he believes, decidedly enough, that there exists a certain relationship of tension between things that are indeed necessary and good.
What if this is his attitude toward the relation between morality and sympathy? By a plausible
association of ideas, it would yield a very important result: it would suggest a reason, distinct
from the Smithian one I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, for rejecting utopianism
itself, and not merely the Puritan version of it. People with utopian views claim it is possible to
possess a plan for a perfect society. To make such a claim, one must also maintain that it is
possible to increase the totality of the goods that society makes available to the individual, and
that one can, at least in principle, increase it to the greatest possible sum. But when goods
conflict, one can only promote one of them by sacrificing the other one to some extent. This
means that one can only make the utopian's claim if one can say that what one sacrifices is worth
less than what one gets from the sacrifice, so that society and the individual come out ahead in
the end. But it certainly seems doubtful that one could rationally say such a thing if the goods
involved are anything like morality and sympathy or the other values with which Hawthorne is
concerned. In such cases, the goods between which one must choose would be ones that have
effects on human life that are so enormously broad, and so utterly different from one another, that
we could not imagine comparing them with one another in this way. If one of them were to be
sacrificed, we could only say that the good has been mutilated in one way or another. We could
not conceive of a utopia of both virtue and happiness.
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.
1.Hereafter, I will identify passages from The Scarlet Letter by page number (placed in parentheses) in the Norton Critical Edition edited by S. Bradley, R. C. Beatty, E. H. Long, and S. Gross (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).
2.Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1976), p.234.
3.The position I will take here does not depend on the idea thaT Hawthorne consciously intended The Scarlet Letter as a criticism of Smith's ideas. Nonetheless, I think that the soundness of the strategy of illuminating Hawthorne by comparing him to Smith is to some extent supported by the fact that we do have evidence that Hawthorne knew Smith's book, and that he came into contact with it at an early and impressionable age. We know that he borrowed a copy of The Theory of Moral Sentiments from the Salem Athenaeum when he was in his early twenties. See Marion L. Kesserling, Hawthorne's Reading, 1828-1850 (New York: New York Public Library, 1949).
4.The Theory of Moral Sentiments, pp. 9, 10. He also sometimes speaks of sympathy as a tendency toward "conceiving what would be our emotions" if we were in the other person's place (p. 13; see also pp. 9 and 12). The is not at all the same thing, as one can conceive of an emotion without feeling it. Since this is not what Hawthorne (nor, for that matter, Martha Nussbaum) means by that word, I will ignore it in what follows.
5.See ibid., pp. 9, 10.
6.Ibid., p. 10.
7.Ibid., pp. 13-16, p. 15.
8.Ibid., p. 16.
9.Ibid., pp. 110-12.
10.Ibid., pp. 109-10.
11.Ibid., p. 113.
12.Ibid., p. 163.
14.Actually, the principle as understood by Smith is stronger than this, as it asserts that the relationship between sympathy and approval is identity: "To approve of the passions of another, therefore,as suitable to their objects, is the same thing as to observe that we entirely sympathize with them; and not to approve of them as such, is the same thing as to observe that we do not entirely sympathize with them." Ibid., p. 16. However the weaker, and probably more plausible, principle suffices for the point I wish to make.
15.Hyatt H. Waggoner, Hawthorne, A Critical Study (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963), pp. 148, 151. See also Larzer Ziff, Literary Democracy (New York: Viking, 1981), p. 137.
16.Paragraph 4. The story is in the second volume of Twice Told Tales.
17.See my "Some Advantages of Social Control: An Individualist Defense," Public Choice 36 (1981), pp. 3-16.
18.In Hawthornian terms, it is Chillingworth who is evil, because he freely chooses self-concealment (p. 59). Dimmesdale, who is driven into it by unbearable pain, belongs in a different category.
19.For an extremely insightful version of this thesis, see Waggoner, pp. 258-64.