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Significance of Names in The Scarlet Letter

Why does Hawthorne give Hester Prynne the name Hester? Hawthorne himself, as is well known, changed his family 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 being of great price, – purchased 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 simply as an initial, the A notoriously hints at all sorts of names while claiming none. As a great orchestrator of meanings, Hawthorne is aware that names are full 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 carefully considered the question of Hester’s name.

The multiplicity of biblical intertexts may reflect Hawthorne’s desire to write a story of new world Puritanism that would acknowledge and, moreover, 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 love, 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 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.(4) To my knowledge there are no other references to the Book of Esther in the literature on Hawthorne. The lack of any serious critical investigation of The Scarlet Letter’s relation to the Book of Esther, despite the fairly broad hint of Hester’s name, remains puzzling. It may be that investigators have been thrown off track by Hawthorne’s revolutionary approach to the Book of Esther, his delight in turning the traditional story in quite untraditional ways.

“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 always refer me to the Bible as his authority.”(8) Recent critics have tended to scant Hawthorne’s imaginative involvement with biblical literature (as compared, say, with Melville’s), but have not done 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 extensive 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 without 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 (however quietly) to be read through the scrim and outline (however faded) of the Book of Esther, The Scarlet Letter positions itself as a kind of updated scripture that must be considered in the context of the broader trend Buell describes in antebellum writing. Yet if The Scarlet Letter has quasi-scriptural pretensions they are undercut by the scarlet letter itself, the letter Hester is made to wear. As a hermeneutically destabilized text, Hester’s A hints at the interpretive instability of any text. Hawthorne appears to throw into question his own appeal to the authority of scripture, to the grounding ur-text of the Book of Esther, by making of the “A” a symbol of authority’s inability to control interpretation.

These connections are extensive and elusive, at once 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 never resolved), as does Roger Chillingworth in Haman (who ruins himself in the course of an extravagant revenge against Mordechai). Major parallels include a central plot episode that the two texts share, analogies between the principal characters, and thematic congruencies

Visit to Magistrate. The decisive moment for Queen Esther occurs when she risks death to appear at King Ahasuerus’s inner court. Hester’s courageous visit 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 visit. Both heroines have until 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 makes; Esther’s namesake Hester, appealing to Bellingham as to a king (and herself distinguished by the scarlet letter as if she were “a great lady in the land”), also has her request granted. Bellingham’s decree is that she will be allowed to keep Pearl.

There are broader analogies between Esther and Hester than their dramatic scenes 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 too has been brought into “a false and unnatural relation” with the much older Ahasuerus; she is first brought into his harem and then made his wife. “I felt no love, nor feigned any” (1:74), Hester tells Chillingworth; Esther feels no love, nor feigns any, for Ahasuerus. To the extent that Hester represents Hawthorne’s version of Esther, Hawthorne seems to imagine 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 thus 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 live in his house, to be his wife), and hold that Esther and Mordechai are married at the time that Esther is made part of Ahasuerus’s harem. In the Septuagint version of the story, Esther and Mordechai – the passionate woman 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-child, 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 imagine Mordechai as a weak figure who looks helplessly on as the woman he cares for is made to endure a long ordeal of shame, solitude, and isolation.

Haman and Chillingworth are less fully-developed characters who come to make “the very 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 idea for “a story of the effects of revenge in diabolizing him who indulges in it” (8:278); the diabolizing effects of Haman’s revenge may have struck him in this regard. (Another journal entry of Hawthorne’s seems to look forward to a disguised representation of biblical characters: “The famous 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, however, break down. Haman’s pursuit of Mordechai leads to his death on the gallows he has had built for his enemy, and to Mordechai’s accession to power; Chillingworth’s pursuit of Dimmesdale leads to his public undoing on the scaffold of the pillory, and to Dimmesdale’s death of “triumphant ignominy 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 property is given to Esther; on Chillingworth’s Pearl is made “the richest heiress of her day, in the New World” (1:261).

Queen Esther and Hester Prynne both must keep, and must finally disclose, a secret. Esther conceals her relationship with Mordechai, Hester her relationship with Dimmesdale. “Esther had not told of her people or her kindred, for Mordechai had instructed her not to tell” (Esther 2:10); Hester’s keeping Dimmesdale’s secret is of course essential to The Scarlet Letter. Were 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 able 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 relationship to Hester were known. The turning point of both texts may thus be the heroine’s revelation of her secret identity.

Both Esther and Hester hold religious beliefs unacceptable to the societies in which they find themselves. Esther must hide her Judaism from Ahasuerus and his ministers (the Book of Esther takes place during the Babylonian exile), Hester her antinomian inclinations from Bellingham and his ministers (The Scarlet Letter takes place during the Puritans’ exile in America). Hester’s antinomianism associates her with Ann Hutchinson, in whose footsteps Hawthorne places her, and also with such strong Quaker dissidents as Mary Dyer. (13) If Hester is related to the impassioned biblical heroine Queen Esther, the fact seems perfectly in keeping with her religious heterodoxy and places her in a tradition of dissenting women that antedates Mary Dyer and Ann Hutchinson by far. The Scarlet Letter’s involvement with ideas of dissent and tolerance, individual and community, 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 include 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 seen as contributing to a literature of secrecy and hiddenness, coded signs, veiled clues, and cryptic meanings. While the correspondences between the Book of Esther and The Scarlet Letter are striking enough, they open upon further questions of how the deep analogy with the Book of Esther may have entered into The Scarlet Letter, and what may be its implications for Hawthorne’s text.

What is the meaning of Hester’s A? It is a symbol, a character, a letter from one of many possible sets of symbol-systems; it remains ungrounded, and resists the canonization of any given interpretation by any given authority. The sacred awe invested in the letter by the Puritan orthodoxy is undercut; the process begins with Hester’s own 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 times 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 rich old Hebrew, with Moses and the Prophets speaking to him, and God’s voice through all!” (1:223). In the same scene Hawthorne again shows Dimmesdale standing “with one hand on the Hebrew Scriptures” (1:223). And yet Mistress Hibbins pictures Dimmesdale as a dangerously subversive biblical exegete:

Who, now, that saw him pass in the procession, would think how little while it is since 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 purpose in going into the forest is to pay a visit to the Apostle Eliot – himself a translator of the Bible. Eliot’s Indian Bible (1663) is the subject of a chapter in Hawthorne’s first children’s book, Grandfather’s Chair (1841). The effect of The Scarlet Letter, as seen through the prism of the Book of Esther, is – in keeping with the “literary scripturism” of the age – to reanimate and reconstruct one of the Bible’s books. Hawthorne’s book of Hester may be seen in a midrashic sense as finding 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 appears 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 between the sacred text which Hawthorne seems to reinterpret and the scarlet text which Hester is made to wear (and which through her embroidery she reinterprets), it becomes necessary, finally, to consider Pearl – the living embodiment of the scarlet letter and the only principal character of The Scarlet Letter for whom I have not yet suggested a counterpart in the Book of Esther.

“Hath she any discoverable principle of being?” (1:134) Chillingworth asks of Pearl; and all the characters of The Scarlet Letter, including Hester, seem to be constantly wondering 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 times a text, a sign – a “living hieroglyphic” (1:207), “the scarlet letter endowed with life” (1:102) – and at other times a denizen of “that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth” (1:203). “Art thou a Christian child, – ha?” (1:110) Reverend Wilson asks in “The Elf-Child and the Minister.” “I am mother’s child,” Pearl replies. Reverend Wilson asks again, “Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee?” (1:110) – upon which Pearl claims she was plucked from the prison-door rose-bush.

All of these questions may be seen as interrogating Pearl’s status as a hieroglyph, a text, a sign. Is she a sacred text, written by God and conceived through divine guidance, or does she in fact, 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? Must she be either a product of heaven or, as the Puritan townspeople maintain, a “demon offspring” (1:99, 204)? Can she signify without being a transcendent signifier?

Esther and Mordechai in the Book of Esther have no children, but they do come together at the story’s end to write the final letter of the Book of Esther (the letter ratifies Mordechai’s previous letter establishing the holiday 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 question of whether Hawthorne’s unauthorized version of the Book of Esther is a demon-text; and Pearl’s development mirrors and is perhaps 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 become fully endowed with human life until the final scene on the scaffold, when her tears for her father are “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” (1:256).

Hawthorne’s characters are made to wear, embody and personify these vestiges and traces of their former lives. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl all try to shake off their identification with the various significations of a single letter. The questions Hawthorne’s characters face in the course of the romance thus seem to recapitulate many of the questions Hawthorne may 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 made to live?

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