The Scarlet Letter (1850)
by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
Could it be that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s purpose in writing The Scarlet Letter included indicting New England Puritanism and advocating a paradigm shift? The need is universal among all of us to identify the causes of human suffering and find a remedy which will always include a paradigm shift. Hawthorne could see that some of the aspects of the Puritan worldview were toxic and believed that future change would moderate some of the worst of the self-destructive behaviors.
He then created his heroine and had her embody some of the behavioral qualities that he hoped would appear over time in New England society. “She was, rather, a defeated but still hopeful prophetess of a brighter period when the relentless Puritan morality would be replaced by a new moral order: ‘In Heaven’s own time a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.’ Hester retained her faith that someday a woman ‘lofty and pure, and beautiful’ would appear as the angel and apostle of that revelation. ‘So said Hester Prynne and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet letter.’ That there was a touch of the Puritan in Hawthorne seems obvious when one considers the heavy price Hester is made to pay for having once yielded to her passion.”[i]
Believing as we do that all artistic creation involves a search for truth, we find Hawthorne engaged in a creative process where, in the words of another fellow novelist James Joyce, he is “trying to awaken from the nightmare that is history.”
At the same time he is grappling with his own personal insights into the problems of 17th century Boston (1642-1650), he is making significant contributions to the art of writing prose. “It is in his use of symbols in The Scarlet Letter that Hawthorne has made one of his most distinctive and significant contributions to the growth of American fiction. Indeed this book is usually regarded as the first symbolic novel to be written in the United States.”[ii]
However, being a creature of P-B he cannot often be in the present moment while he creates his stories. He will stumble in the darkness of unconsciousness as we all do and even reverse his insights so they end up leading away from rather than toward the truth. He uses the symbols of “undesirable” plants to represent “civilization corrupted by the elements.”[iii]
In Hawthorne’s narrative we have the common view of the early settlers of America that nature is hostile and dangerous and something to fear. In truth nature is benign and it is the human being failing in his/her stewardship of the planet that has created the unsustainable future that we should feel anxious about.
One of Hawthorne’s most significant insights, which is one of the foundational principles of P-A, is one that he reveals through his antagonist Chillingworth. Chillingworth commits two P-B “sins”, the Biblical injunctions “Judge not lest ye be judged” and “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.”
Translating this into the much more comprehensive and simpler P-A principle which Hawthorne again reverses due to his lack of profound understanding—his grievous error being the subordination of the heart to the intellect. If we depend on the intellect to help us find our way out of the morass that we have created, we will find that it is a task for which the intellect is ill-suited and severely limited.
To put it another way we find that the madness of P-B has humanity operating backwards and upside down and therefore it is no wonder that we are confused, lost, and mesmerized by the false self. Human behavior whether in the 17th or 21st centuries reveals that the intellect has a very difficult time distinguishing symptoms from causes, or truth from fiction let alone being able to understand the difference between reality and illusion. Let us continue to look to the “intuitives” among us and learn to acknowledge our own intuitive gifts for truth and guidance and we will learn to reverse direction and find our way to the beliefs, attitudes and values of P-A. Hopefully our future novelists will write stories that will reflect humanity exhibiting sustainable behavior as people with a perfect identity in a perfect Universe.
[i] Stewart, Paul R. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Lincoln: Cliffs Notes, 1960, page 43.
[ii] Ibid., page 50.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.