Hawthorne’s Counterfeiting History in The Scarlet Letter

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In the first half of the nineteenth-century, the question of history – its origins, its continuing burden, and the possibility of transcending it – preoccupied American thinkers, writers, and political leaders. Specifically, the controversy of slavery explicitly raised the question of history to the forefront of the national debate, with the United States’ declaration that all men were created equal but also having codified slavery into its Constitution. The reaction to the question of slavery and therefore to the country’s own past ranged from political and social movements of northern abolitionism and southern conservatism to intellectual debates of philosophical transcendentalism and scientific materialism. In spite of the variety of themes, topics, and subjects that American writers explored in their literature, this question of history hovered constantly in the background of their works.

For Nathaniel Hawthorne, the burden of history particularly weighed heavily upon him, for one of his ancestors had participated in the Salem witch trials – another original sin, to which the nation had been party.[1] Hawthorne also confronted the contemporary controversy of slavery from his involvement in politics, such as in the 1852 presidential campaign for Franklin Pierce, when afterwards he saw his friend as president unable to deal effectively with the sectional controversy over slavery.[2] The mistake of Salem and the controversy of slavery were part of Hawthorne’s personal and political past that had created a burden which he was to cope with in the present. Whether escape would be possible was the continuing question in Hawthorne’s literature as he devised a new literary form to explore this possibility: the counterfeit history, or more commonly known, the allegorical romance.

Edgar Allan Poe was the first to recognize Hawthorne’s new genre. In his criticism of Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales, Poe commented that “the Tale . . . has peculiar advantages which the novel does not admit. It is, of course, a far finer field than the essay. It has even points of superiority over the poem.”[3] For Poe, the highest literary form was the poem, the second was the short story, and the third was the novel; but Hawthorne’s writing evaded the categorization of any of these genres. Poe had difficulty in defining what type of writing Hawthorne’s was, for it was neither a short story nor an essay: it was some special combination of “half tale and half essay.” According to Poe, the tale was the most pure and highest of the literary genres, while the essay was the lowest (571-73). The former was narrative, dramatized incident, and tone that would press towards a single unified effect in order to reveal some truth about human nature; the latter was a self-conscious, critical reflection that spoke directly to the reader. Although Hawthorne’s new genre of allegory was original in “both of incident and of reflection,” the Twice-told Tales’ incorporation of the essay into its tale corrupted the purity of the latter and consequently devalued Hawthorne’s literature.

Poe specifically criticized Hawthorne’s literature for its “mystic” or “allegorical” qualities. Hawthorne’s use of allegory made him unpopular because the “strain of allegory completely overwhelms the greater number of his subjects, and . . . in some measure interferes with the direct conduct of absolutely all” (582). According to Poe, allegory was unable to arouse any deep “emotion” and interfered with fictional effect: “if allegory ever establishes a fact, it is by dint of over-turning a fiction.” For Poe, fiction must be self-contained in order to have a dramatized effect, thereby reducing allegory to subtext, background or “under-current . . . so as to never show itself unless called to the surface” (583). Preferably allegory should not be used at all; but if employed, it should be placed in the subtext – remaining “as a shadow or a suggestive glimpse” – and subordinated to the overall dramatic effect of the literary work (582).

A secondary consequence of Hawthorne’s use of allegory for Poe was that it had failed to create an aesthetic distance for the narrative voice because allegorical writing was inherently moralistic. For Poe, the writer should create literature as an “ever-present force of imagination” characterized by “its own hue” and “its own character” instead of crafting a didactic presentation of “morals” attached to narrative (580). By converting agents, action, and plot into general moral concepts and qualities, Hawthorne’s characters lacked any independent voice, for they represented some moral doctrine or thesis that the writer was trying to prove. There was no aesthetic distance between the narrative voice and the text in the allegorical genre, resulting in a monotony of tone in Hawthorne’s writings. Rather than constructing characters that were independent and self-conscious, Hawthorne created ones who were flat and moralistic and that reached back to the medieval era instead of pushing literature forward into the future. By trying to become original, Hawthorne had in fact made “nothing novel” (580).

Contrary to Poe’s criticism and claims about literature, Hawthorne’s allegorical romance was an effective means to escape the burdens of the past as well as to prevent a historicization of his own works. By making his works allegorical, Hawthorne’s literature can be understood neither as an accurate historical reconstruction of past events nor – like Poe’s works – be analyzed as purely aesthetic creations. The Twice-told Tales, The Scarlet Letter, The Blithedale Romance, and other such works are able to examine enduring human themes of guilt, redemption, and sin that transcend a specific historical time and place. The allegory genre therefore resists a historicization of it work – a categorization of a work of literature as a “period piece” – in erasing time from its narrative through allegory. What the reader is left with is a literature that explores fundamental questions of human nature in a suspended or erased time.

The other charge that Poe leveled at Hawthorne – allegory was nothing more than moral didacticism – rings untrue. Rather than be forcefully explicit in its presentation, allegory can ambiguously portray the action, thought, and feelings of characters so as to open up a realm of possibilities for both the characters and the reader to make sense of what constitutes the moral core of the allegorical work. The possibility of exploring a variety of moral options and issues under the cover of fiction, which is not neatly resolved at the end, is the great strength of the allegory genre. How characters and the reader confront and try to make sense of this realm of moral possibilities evades a moral didacticism and instead asks them to question their own assumptions of the human condition and to explore other possibilities that history had ignored. This exploration is best demonstrated in Hawthorne’s allegorical masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter.

Hawthorne’s romance began with the narrator’s bemused reflections on the Puritans’ attempt to establish a new world: “the founders of a new colony, whatever Utopian or human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison” (47).[4] The theme of the human desire to transcend their past in order to create a new world but ultimately failing to do so is powerfully revisited when Hester realized that the radical reforms she had wished would require “the whole system of society to be torn down, and built up anew”; and when she pleaded to Dimmesdale in the forest to “Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened! Meddle no more with it! Begin all anew!” (165; 198). Although the Puritans attempted and both Hester and Dimmesdale contemplated a new world to escape from the burdens of the past, Hawthorne did not allow them a new beginning. For Hawthorne, in spite of their best efforts or most sincere desires, humans were not able to transcend their past sins.

However, the inability to transcend one’s past did not necessarily condemn one to perpetual doom. Hawthorne presented the reader a dilemma and an escape from the problem of the Puritan authoritarian and religious rule. Although the reader sympathizes with Hester and Dimmesdale, Hester was correctly sentenced by the Puritan magistrates for her adultery. But it was only Hester who over the course of the novel developed the “power to sympathize” that indirectly challenged the rule of the Puritan community (161).[5] Instead of advocating an absolute submission to civil and religious authority, Hawthorne suggested the possibility of an alternative type of human relations that was based on sympathy and imagination instead of rules and rigidity. The capacity to imagine another’s plight and therefore sympathize with that person was discouraged, if not outright prohibited in some cases, by the Puritan community, e.g., the branding of the A on Hester. Nonetheless, it is Hester with whom the reader identifies, and it is Hester at the end of the novel who had created a new form of community based on sympathy, imagination, and charity.

A possible reason why the reader may sympathize with Hester is that her adultery took place under the assumption that Chillingworth was dead. When he appeared, Chillingworth was not only the cuckolded husband but also representative of the past that will preclude Hester and Dimmesdale from achieving their new world. Chillingworth was the counterpoint to Dimmesdale’s and Hester’s dreams of creating a new world: the future could be a dystopia of scientific materialism instead of the utopia of Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s forbidden love. For Hawthorne, Chillingworth was the latest manifestation of a long series of scientists who had sought human perfection in the material world, or what Chllingworth called, the “mechanism.” To these scientists, life was strictly a function of the “mechanism”; and to have power over the mechanism was to have power over life itself. This project of human perfection based on scientific materialism was rooted in human pride and the belief that the scientist was superior to all of humanity and therefore no long needed community. Chillingworth thus withdrew “his name from the roll of mankind” by instructing Hester not to reveal his name to the Puritan community (118). The dream of Prometheus was pursued by Chillingworth at the expense of his wife, community, and God.

If Chillingworth represented the scientific movement of materialism, then Dimmesdale represented the nineteenth-century movement of spiritual Transcendentalism. Dimmesdale renounced the physical, the “mechanism,” in order to achieve spiritual perfection; but the cost of this search for spiritual perfection was physical decay: “His form grew emaciated; his voice, though still rich and sweet, had a certain melancholy prophecy of decay in it; he was often observed, on any slight alarm or other sudden accident, to put his hand over his heart, with first a flush and then a paleness, indicative of pain” (120). Also like Chillingworth, Dimmesdale sought his penance in private – apart from his community – in the belief that his individual spirituality would be enough to save him. Thus, if Chillingworth’s sin was the pride of the scientist, then Dimmesdale’s sin was the pride of the Transcendentalist. By his own efforts, Dimmesdale believed that he could purify himself. Instead he must discover the truth about himself and announce that truth publicly, for:

. . . to the untrue man, the whole universe is false, – it is impalpable – it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or indeed, ceases to exist (145-46).

Because Dimmesdale has not been truthful to himself and to others about his affair with Hester, the only truthful about himself him, paradoxically, was his lie: “The only truth that continued to give Mr. Dimmesdale a real existence on this earth, was the anguish in his inmost soul, and the undissembled expression of it in his aspect.” It was this tension, that kept Dimmesdale from ceasing to be altogether.

But perhaps the worst sinner of them all was Hester, whose adultery was less of a crime than her act of self-consecration. When the narrator remarked that “the scarlet letter had not done its office,” Hester still has to learn from her “freedom of speculation”: her love for Dimmesdale required more than the consecration of its own but the consecration of her community, history, and God (166). Whereas Chillingworth and Dimmesdale had respectively sought salvation in the physical and spiritual, Hester looked towards herself – a type of self-deification – to escape her sin of adultery in order to start a new world. Both Chillngworth and Dimmesdale had submitted themselves to some higher authority, whether it be science or religion and albeit flawed, but Hester refused to submit to any person or idea other than herself. This refusal to acknowledge anything superior to herself was to make Hester’s sin the worse of all of them.

Yet the only character to experience a psychological and spiritual transformation was neither Chillingworth nor Dimmesdale but Hester. In the conclusion of the novel, Hester returned to New England to reveal that the A no longer symbolized adultery but had been transformed to represent her recognition and need of community, history, and God. She incorporated both her affirmation and the community’s condemnation of her adulterous love into acts of sympathy, imagination, and charity that ultimately reconciled the various themes in the novel:

Women, more especially . . . came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counseled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, 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. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized that 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 life-long sorrow. The angel and the apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise, moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy (263).

Although the narrator recounted Hester’s return to New England and resumption of wearing the A, he allowed the reader to speculate what had caused the change in Hester’s psychological and spiritual transformation. What initially was a symbol of shame and servitude, the A was now taken up “of her own free will, not for the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it” and transformed into a symbol of sympathy, imagination, and charity (263).

One possible explanation for Hester’s transformation was Dimmesdale’s public declaration of his sin, after Pearl had kissed him. What ultimately saved Dimmesdale was Pearl’s kiss at the end of the novel; and this act of freely-given human love transformed not only Dimmesdale but Chillingworth too. Dimmesdale repudiated his belief in spiritual autonomy by announcing his sin publicly, while Chillingworth lost his object of hatred and subsequently vanished from human sight. Hawthorne seemed to suggest that neither Transcendentalist spiritualism, in the character of Dimmesdale, nor scientific progress, as represented by Chillingworth, fully captured the fullness of the human condition. Only Pearl’s kiss as an act of charity seemed to have any transformative effect on the human heart.

Furthermore, Dimmesdale’s public pronouncement of his sin was an acknowledgement of Pearl as a fully human being who deserved a place in the Puritan community. Prior to Dimmesdale’s announcement, Pearl was made into a living symbol of Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s sin. But with his open declaration of his wickedness, Dimmesdale freed Pearl of this narrow and distorted symbolic identity imposed upon her by the community. In this sense, charity had both a transformative and a therapeutic effect for both the giver and receiver. Hawthorne seemed to suggest that it was only freely-given human love and not the promise of either physical or spiritual human perfection that can have a significant and permanent impact upon the human condition.

By recovering the virtue of charity from his Puritan past, Hawthorne was able to depart from the practice of his Puritan ancestors but also present a possibility to be reconciled with his past. The allegorical genre allowed Hawthorne to explore the possibilities of sin – whether it was scientific progress (Chillingworth), Transcendentalist spirituality (Dimmesdale), or autonomous self-consecration (Hester) – and transform symbols like the A from one of condemnation to redemption. The allegorical characters portrayed in The Scarlet Letter consequently are not flat and moralistic, as Poe had criticized, but possess a sense of openness to the possibilities of life that the reader must navigate through: What is Chillingworth ultimately after? What does the A symbolize? Why did Hester return? The answers to these questions may not be solvable, especially when the narrator gives the reader few if any clues; but by asking the reader to solve these questions, Hawthorne was not engaging in a moralistic didacticism that Poe had claimed. By inviting the reader to imagine and sympathize with what his characters were experiencing, Hawthorne appealed to the reader to actively seek what can we learn from the past, both real and possible, in order to determine what are the moral and ethical possibilities that life now presents.

The Scarlet Letter therefore is not a historical reconstruction of the Puritan period because it is written as an allegory. The novel certainly takes advantage of historical account of the New England Puritans, but it is not bound to be historically accurate. Nor is The Scarlet Letter a purely aesthetic creation, as Poe proclaimed to be the purpose of literature. By having some anchor in a historical epoch but not being bounded by it, The Scarlet Letter is able to address issues that transcend literature itself: theological, philosophical, historical, political, and social. Whereas Poe’s aesthetic theory seals literature off from the world, Hawthorne’s allegorical works can engage the world because characters represent some general concepts or qualities. The lack of dependence on a specific time and place can be filled with tales that had been forgotten and consequently imaginatively reconstructed to examine contemporary social and political issues.

Hawthorne himself referred to the allegorical genre as counterfeiting: “In any case, he generally contents himself with a very slight embroidery of outward manners, –  the faintest possible counterfeit of real life, – and endeavors to create interest by some less obvious peculiarity of the subject.” According to Hawthorne, counterfeiting did not express “real life” badly but in a “less obvious way,” because it communicated a resemblance of something. Of course, all language represents reality; but the writer who uses counterfeiting recognizes and explicitly acknowledges this fact. In fact, it would seem that someone who believes that literature should portray aesthetic ideals as an exact correspondence to reality is naïve about the nature of language and its relationship to reality. Allegorical language explicitly states that A could represent concept X or Z. The writer’s counterfeiting expands the possibilities not only of the characters in the work but also literature’s engagement with the world around it.

Thus, the allegory genre allowed Hawthorne to overcome the burden of his personal history of the Salem witch trials. In The Scarlet Letter Hawthorne was able to recover or reconstruct virtues like charity, patience, and sympathy that may have existed but were not recorded in a Puritan community. The past itself could not be changed; but, through the use of imagination and sympathy, the writer may be able to present a realm of possibilities from which we could learn and apply today whether it be personal matters like our father’s sins or political controversies such as the legacy of slavery and the problem of race relations today. Contrary to Poe’s criticism, Hawthorne allegorical writings are the best literary device to accomplish the task of exploring the question of history – its origins, its continuing burden, and the possibility of transcending it – because it invites the reader to contemplate about enduring questions of the human condition in a non-historical way. Although Hawthorne believed we are not able to escape or transcend our history, no matter how much science or ideology promises, he did believe that one certainly could be reconciled to it with all our faults and accomplishments, like Hester at the end of The Scarlet Letter.




[1] McFarland, Philip. Hawthorne in Concord (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 18.

[2] Hawthorne wrote the campaign biography of Franklin Pierce in 1852. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Life of Franklin Pierce (Fredonia, NY: Fredonia Books, 2002).

[3] Edgar Allan Poe, review of Twice-told Tale, in Essays and Reviews, ed. G. R. Thompson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 568-88. Unless otherwise identified, all subsequent citations in the article will be in reference to this work.

[4] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter, vol. 1 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, eds. William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, Claude M. Simpson (Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1962). Unless otherwise identified, all subsequent citations in the article will be in reference to this work.

[5] For more about Hawthorne’s use of sympathy, refer to Hunter, Gordon. Secrets and Sympathy: Forms of Disclosure in Hawthorne’s Novels (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1988).


This article was originally published with the same title in Anamnesis on January 23, 2012.


Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan where he teaches political philosophy, constitutional law, and American Politics. He is also the university's pre-law adviser and the author and editor of several books. He is a Board Member and editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and the editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).