Wednesday, June 3, 2009

But here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable - Hawthorne's audacity

In Chapter XII of The Scarlet Letter, "The Minister's Vigil," Rev. Dimmesdale is afflicted by Poe's Imp of the Perverse, and mounts the pillory in the town square in order to purge his sins. He's in public, but not really, since it's the middle of the night and no one can see him.

Hester Prynne and her elf-child Pearl somehow find there way onto the platform as well, where they hold hands in a circle. Just as Dimmesdale tells the elf that they cannot actually appear in public together, that "the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting," a meteor appears "with the distinctness of mid-day." Lesson: do not mess with the elf-child.

Ignoring the "Custom-House" introduction, the meteor appears in the exact center of the novel. In the Library of America edition, at least, on the exact pages at the center (250-1).* A page later, Hawthorne goes too far, as Dimmesdale sees the meteor as "an immense letter, - the letter A, - marked out in lines of dull red light." It's Henry James who thought this went too far.

I wonder if an older Henry James still agreed. Isn't this just another turn of the screw, Hawthorne pushing his symbolic structure to its imaginative limits. Hawthorne does this again and again in The Scarlet Letter, for example in that incredible description of Pearl in the woods, which culminates with "A wolf, it is said--but here the tale has surely lapsed into the improbable--came up and smelt of Pearl's robe, and offered his savage head to be patted by her hand." (Ch. XVIII) Even the narrator thinks the wolf goes too far. But the author knows better, and leaves it in. That the narrator and author are the same person is merely a detail.

One can turn a screw to the point where the wood splits and is ruined. Still, one mark of greatness - I have seen this again and again - is an author taking that one extra step that a lesser writer fears. Too implausible, too corny. Too audacious.

* The Scarlet Letter is structured exactly - exactly - on Syd Field screenwriting principles. "The Minister's Vigil" is Plot Point 2, the meeting in the forest in Plot Point 3, and so on.


  1. Hi, you might enjoy my 21st. cent. update of Poe's work, The Imp of the Perverse. It's here:

  2. Thanks, Brint, what a curious experiment in style. Poe can sometimes use a little assistance!