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The Scarlet Letter

Brownson's Quarterly Review, October, 1850
1. - The Scarlet Letter: A Romance. By Nathaniel Haw­thorne. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, & Fields. 1850. 12mo. pp. 322.
Mr. Hawthorne is a writer endowed with a large share of gen­ius, and in the species of literature he cultivates has no rival in this country, unless it be Washington Irving. His Twice-told Tales, his Mosses from an Old Manse, and other contributions to the periodical press, have made him familiarly known, and endeared him to a large circle of readers. The work before us is the largest and most elaborate of the romances he has as yet pub­lished, and no one can read half a dozen pages of it without feeling that none but a man of true genius and a highly cultivated mind could have written it. It is a work of rare, we may say of fearful power, and to the great body of our countrymen who have no well defined religious belief, and no fixed principles of virtue, it will be deeply interesting and highly pleasing.
We have neither the space nor the inclination to attempt an anal­ysis of Mr. Hawthorne's genius, after the manner of the fashionable criticism of the day. Mere literature for its own sake we do not prize, and we are more disposed to analyze an author's work than the author himself. Men are not for us mere psychological phe­nomena, to be studied, classed, and labelled. They are moral and accountable beings, and we look only to the moral and religious ef­fect of their works. Genius perverted, or employed in perverting others, has no charms for us, and we turn away from it with sorrow and disgust. We are not among those who join in the worship of passion, or even of intellect. God gave us our faculties to be em­ployed in his service, and in that of our fellow-creatures for his sake, and our only legitimate office as critics is to inquire, when a book is sent us for review, if its author in producing it has so employed them.
Mr. Hawthorne, according to the popular standard of morals in this age and this community, can hardly be said to pervert God's gifts, or to exert an immoral influence.. Yet his work is far from being unobjectionable. The story is told with great naturalness, ease, grace, and delicacy, but it is a story that should not have been told. It is a story of crime, of an adulteress and her accomplice, a meek and gifted and highly popular Puritan minister in our early colonial days, - a purely imaginary story, though not altogether improbable. Crimes like the one imagined were not unknown even in the golden days of Puritanism, and are perhaps more common among the descendants of the Puritans than it is at all pleasant to believe ; but they are not fit subjects for popular literature, and moral health is not promoted by leading the imagination to dwell on them. There is an unsound state of public morals when the novelist is permitted, without a scorching rebuke, to select such crimes, and invest them with all the fascinations of genius, and all the charms of a highly polished style. In a moral community such crimes arc spoken of as rarely as possible, and when spoken of at all, it is al­ways in terms which render them loathsome, and repel the imagi­nation.
Nor is the conduct of the story better than the story itself. The author makes the guilty parties suffer, and suffer intensely, but he nowhere manages so as to make their sufferings excite the horror of his readers for their crime. The adultevess suffers not from re­morse, but from regret, and from the disgrace to which her crime has exposed her, in her being condemned to wear emblazoned on her dress the Scarlet Letter which proclaims to all the deed she has committed. The minister, her accomplice, suffers also, horribly, and feels all his life after the same terrible letter branded on his heart, but not from the fact of the crime itself, but ftom the con­sciousness of not being what he seems to the world, from his hav­ing permitted the partner in his guilt to be disgraced, to be pun­ished, without his having the manliness to avow his share in the guilt, and to bear his share of the punishment. Neither ever really repents of the criminal deed ; nay, neither ever regards it as really criminal, and both seem to hold it to have been laudable, because they loved one another, - as if the love itself were not illicit, and highly criminal. No man has the right to love another man's wife, and no married woman has the right to love any man but her hus­band. Mr. Hawthorne in the present case seeks to excuse Hester Prynne, a married woman, for loving the Puritan minister, on the ground that she had no love for her husband, and it is hard that a woman should not have some one to love ; but this only aggravated her guilt, because she was not only forbidden to love the minister, but commanded to love her husband, whom she had vowed to love, honor, cherish, and obey.    The modern doctrine that represents the affections as fatal, and wholly withdrawn from voluntary control, and then allows us to plead them in justification of neglect of duty and breach of the most positive precepts of tjoth the natural and the re­vealed law, cannot be too severely reprobated.
Human nature is frail, and it is necessary for every one who standeth to take heed lest he fall. Compassion for the fallen is a duty which we all owe, in consideration of i?ur own failings, and es­pecially in consideration of the infinite mefcy our God has mani­fested to his erring and sinful children. But. however binding may be this duty, we are never to forget that sin^ is sin, and that it is pardonable only through the great mercy of «God, on condition of the sincere repentance of the sinner. But \n the present case neither of the guilty parties repents of the sin, neither exclaims with the royal prophet, who had himself fallen into'4he sin of adultery and murder, Misere mei Deus, secundum magnain misericordiam ; et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum^dele iniquitatem meam. Amplius lava vie ab iniquitate mea ; et a peccato munda me. Quoniam iniquitatem meam cognosco, et peccatum meum contra me est semper. They hug their illicit love ; they cherish their sin; and after the lapse of seven years are ready, and actually agree, to depart into a foreign country, where they may indulge it without disguise and without restraint. Even to the last, even when the minister, driven by his agony, goes so far as to throw off the mask of hypocrisy, and openly confess his crime, he shows no sign of repentance, or that he regarded his deed as criminal.
The Christian who reads The Scarlet Letter cannot fail to per­ceive that the author is wholly ignorant of Christian asceticism, and that the highest principle of action he recognizes is pride. In botli the criminals, the long and intense agony they are represented as suffering springs not from remorse, from the consciousness of hav­ing ofFended God, but mainly from the feeling, especially oh the part of the minister, that they have failed to maintain the integrity of their character. They have lowered themselves in their own Es­timation, and cannot longer hold up their heads in society as honest people. It is not their conscience that is wounded, but their pride. He cannot bear to think that he wears a disguise, that he cannot bo the open, frank, stainless character he had from his youth aspired to be, and she, that she is driven from society, lives a solitary outcast, and has nothing to console her but her fidelity to her paramour. There is nothing Christian, nothing really moral, here. The very pride itself is a sin; and pride often a greater sin than that which it restrains us from committing. There ai*e thousands of men and women too proud to commit carnal sins,and to the indomitable pride of our Puritan ancestors we may attribute no small share of their external morality and decorum. It may almost be said, that, if they had less of that external morality and decorum, their case would be less desperate ; and often the violation of them, or failure to main­tain them, by which their pride receives a shock, and their self-com­placency is shaken, becomes the occasion, under the grace of God, of their conversion to truth and holiness. As long as they maintain their self-complacency, are satisfied with themselves, and feel that they have outraged none of the decencies of life, no argument can reach them, no admonition can startle them, no exhortation can move them. Proud of their supposed virtue, free from all self-reproach, they are as placid as a summer morning, pass through life without a cloud to mar their serenity, and die as gently and as sweetly as the infant falling asleep in its mother's arms. We have met with these people, and after laboring in vain to waken them to a sense of their actual condition, till completely discouraged, we have been tempted to say, Would that you might commit some overt act, that should startle you from your sleep, and make you feel how far pride is from being either a virtue, or the safeguard of virtue, - or convince you of your own insufficiency for yourselves, and your absolute need of Divine grace. Mr. Hawthorne seems never to have learned that pride is not only sin, but the root of all sin, and that humility is not only a virtue, but the root of all virtue. No genu­ine contrition or repentance ever springs from pride, and the sorrow for sin because it mortifies our pride, or lessens us in our own eyes, is nothing but the effect of pride. All true remorse, all genuine re­pentance, springs from humility, and is sorrow for having offended God, not sorrow for having offended ourselves.
Mr. Hawthorne also mistakes entirely the effect of Christian par­don upon the interior state of the sinner. He seems entirely igno­rant of the religion that can restore peace to the sinner, - true, in­ward peace, we mean. He would persuade us, that Hester had found pardon, and yet he shows us that she had found no inward peace. Something like this is common among popular Protestant writers, who, in speaking of great sinners among Catholics that have made themselves monks or hermits to expiate their sins by devoting themselves to prayer, and mortification, and the duties of relig­ion, represent them as always devoured by remorse, and suffering in their interior agony almost the pains of the damned. An in­stance of this is the Hermit of Engeddi in Sir Walter Scott's Talis­man. These men know nothing either of true remorse, or of the effect of Divine pardon. They draw from their imagination, en­lightened, or rather darkened, by their own experience. Their speculations are based on the supposition that the sinner's remorse is the effect of wounded pride, and that during life the wound can never be healed. All this is false. The remorse does not spring from wounded pride, and the greatest sinner who really repents, who really does penance, never fails to find interior peace. The mortifications he practises are not prompted by his interior agony, nor designed to bring peace to his soul; they are a discipline to guard against his relapse, and an expiation that his interior peace already found, and his overflowing love to God for his superabound-ing mercy, lead him to otter to God, in union with that made by his blessed Lord and Master on the cross.
Again, Mr. Hawthorne mistakes the character of confession. He does well to recognize and insist on its necessity ; but he is wrong in supposing that its office is simply to disburden the mind by communicating its secrets to another, to restore the sinner to his self-complacency, and to relieve him from the charge of cowardice and hypocrisy. Confession is a duty we owe to God, and a means, not of restoring us to our self-complacency, but of restoring us to the favor of God, and reestablishing us in his friendship. The work before us is full of mistakes of this sort, in those portions where the author really means to speak like a Christian, and therefore we are obliged to condemn it, where we acquit him of all unchristian intention.
As a picture of the old Puritans, taken from the position of a moderate transcendentalist and liberal of the modern school, the work has its merits ; but as little as we sympathize with those stern old Popery-haters, we do not regard the picture as at all just. We should commend where the author condemns, and condemn where he commends. Their treatment of the adulteress was far more Christian than his ridicule of it. But enough of fault-finding, and as we have no praise, except what we have given, to offer, we here close this brief notice.