Margaret Fuller achieved notoriety, not only for her writing career and political advocacy (see previous post), but also for her private life. While in Italy, in 1848, she bore a son to Giovanni Ossoli, whom she may or may not have married the following year. The three of them died in a shipwreck just off the coast of New York on their voyage to the U.S. This tragedy might well have been seen by her contemporaries, and even her family and friends, as God’s punishment for sexual sin.
For Nathaniel Hawthorne Fuller seemed to evoke powerful feelings. He called her a “great humbug…defective and evil in nature” in his journal and may have had her in mind when he created the character of Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance and Hester in his 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter.
Near the end of “Woman in the Nineteenth Century,” Fuller invokes a kind of prophetess: “And will she not soon appear?—the woman who shall vindicate their birthright for all women; who shall teach them what to claim, and how to use what they obtain?” At the end of The Scarlet Letter, we are told that Hester had once imagined herself a “prophetess” of women’s future: “Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a lifelong sorrow.”
Like Fuller, Hester bears a child out of wedlock. If Fuller’s punishment came from God, however, Hester’s comes from the God-fearing humans of her Puritan community in Massachusetts Bay Colony. In Hawthorne’s story Hester evolves from “scarlet woman” in the eyes of her community to well-respected, one might almost say revered, wise counselor of women. Does Hawthorne hold out hope of redemption for the reputation of Margaret Fuller, or does he see her legacy forever tainted by the "scandal" of her private life? If Hester does represent Margaret Fuller, then the answer, like a lot of those in Hawthorne’s work, would have to be ambiguous.
The Scarlet Letter, however, is much more than a reflection on Margaret Fuller or on sexual morality or on women’s rights. It actually constitutes a contrast, even a debate of sorts, between two world views—the Puritan, Biblical world view of the 17th century setting of the novel and the Romantic, individualist, expressive world view of the early 19th century—both of which are still very much with us in the 21st century.
From the Puritan, Biblical perspective, the world is a drama, a cosmic conflict between God and Satan, good and evil, the saved and the damned, heaven and hell. At the human level God’s “saints” (the saved) are responsible for representing God’s will, enforcing his laws as laid out in the Bible and punishing the sinners, for their own good of course, to elicit their confession, repentance, and salvation.
Obedience to the Word of God, as interpreted by church leaders, is one’s ultimate responsibility. Though lip service was given to the “priesthood of all believers” during the Protestant Reformation, those Puritans who sought to interpret the Bible for themselves (Anne Hutchinson) or who advocated for freedom of religion (Roger Williams) were banished.
Socially one is expected to put one’s obligations to family, church, and community ahead of one’s own personal desires and wishes. In this sense the Biblical world view upholds a communitarian, rather than an individualist, ethic, but the Puritan obligations were to the orthodox body of belief. American Indians, Quakers, and any others who did not subscribe to the approved system of belief were considered outcasts, ripe for persecution.
The free individual is not to be trusted because “original sin” had left human nature essentially evil, able to be redeemed only by God’s grace, not by one’s own effort. In such a world view social control is necessary to maintain order, and self-control, that is to say repression of one’s natural desires, is necessary for sainthood and salvation.
Conversely, from the Romantic, individualistic perspective the world is an organism. God is a dynamic energy, power, and life force manifesting in nature, which is healthy, good, and trustworthy. Nature is not just God’s creation; it is God’s body. It is itself divine. Human nature, then, participates in the beauty, goodness, and divinity of the natural world.
Ultimate authority is to be found within oneself. Authenticity, integrity, and self-trust are the highest virtues. The drama in this world view is not between God and Satan, but between the god-like individual guided by nature and the society which seeks to train, shape, and control the individual into conforming to a pre-determined standard of behavior and belief.
Social authority and power are to be resisted and natural feelings are to be expressed, not repressed. Freedom of thought and expression are valued, as is the natural sympathy for others, which provides an organic, affective basis for social relations and community, as opposed to the artificial, legalistic basis of the Biblical world view.
The drama of The Scarlet Letter is played out between these two world views, a conflict which is left unresolved at the end, or, if there is any resolution in these terms, it is an affirmation that the truth lies in a middle ground somewhere between the two.
The Biblical world view is represented by the Puritan town that puts the mark of sin, the letter A, on Hester’s bosom and places her on the scaffold with her newborn child to be reviled by her townspeople. The Romantic world view is represented by the forest, where Hester and Dimmesdale meet in secret, where Hester literally lets down her hair, and where little Pearl can wander freely, though under the watchful eye of her parents.
The three scaffold scenes mark three different aspects of the Biblical perspective: public punishment, private guilt, and public confession (but is it truly confession or merely another form of self-protection and hypocrisy?) Some spectators claim to have seen a scarlet A on Dimmesdale’s bosom when he pulls back his shirt, heard him confess his long secret sin, and seen him acknowledge his long unrecognized family. Others claim that he was merely speaking allegorically and that his bosom was as bare and white as the driven snow. His words, indeed, are highly ambiguous and open to interpretation, making it possible for his fellow Puritans to hear what they want to hear and, for that matter, see what they want to see. The whole Bible-based narrative of sin--repentance/confession--salvation is cast into doubt.
The forest scene dramatizes the triumph of the Romantic perspective, when Hester and Dimmesdale are reunited, along with their daughter, renew their vows of love, and plan their escape from Puritan oppression to a place where they can live and love openly as a family. It is there that Hester unburdens Dimmesdale’s guilt-ridden conscience, assuring him of that their love is blessed and that his good works far outnumber his sins, and it is there that Hester removes the scarlet letter and tosses it away. However, it is also there that little Pearl returns the scarlet letter to her mother, insisting that she wear it, and that the narrator questions the absolute innocence of nature: “Such was the sympathy of Nature—that wild, heathen Naure of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth—with the bliss of these two spirits.”
And the novel denies the two lovers their happy, Romantic ending, for Dimmesdale, unable to overcome his guilt, chooses to make his dramatic, final statement, however ambiguous, on the scaffold with Hester and Pearl before drawing his last breath.
From the Puritan, Biblical perspective Hester is a fallen woman, though capable of redemption. Her story is a cautionary tale. To the Romantic, she is a natural woman, whose free expression is thwarted by an oppressive and repressive society. Her story is the age-old scapegoat narrative in which she unjustly bears the punishment for others’ secret sins.
Similarly, from the former view Pearl is an “imp,” tainted not only by original sin, but by that of her earthly parents, while from the latter she is an innocent child of nature, unjustly treated as an outcast. The Puritans see Dimmesdale as either a sinful, but just, saint (assuming he confessed at the end) or as a spotless spiritual leader taking others’ sins on his own head (assuming he spoke allegorically), whereas the Romantics see him as a repressed, tormented soul, unable to break free from the bonds of his misguided religion. Chillingworth, to the Puritans would be a just punisher, whereas to the Romantics he is a villain.
Neither world view is allowed to triumph in the novel. The Biblical view is cruel, intolerant, and hypocritical, while the Romantic view is self-indulgent, permissive, and naïve in its unqualified trust in the goodness of human nature. Both are self-righteous. Wisdom is to be found in the middle ground of humility, self-discipline, forgiveness, and sympathy. Communitarianism must respect individual rights and freedoms; individualism must temper itself and value the well-being of others, social cohesion, and the common good. Tradition must bend to women’s rights, and women’s demands must be mediated by social reality. Margaret Fuller deserves redemption but cannot escape the judgment of her peers.