With the exception of the correction of certain typographical errors (and the addition of a bracketed insert to enhance a pun already there in the original), the text made available here is identical to the section dealing with The Scarlet Letter in my Pious Impostures and Unproven Words (Lanham - New York - London: University Press of America, 1990).

I offer this essay here as a sample from the book in question. It is a rather lengthy and perhaps difficult text, a (self-)deconstructive reading of a major American masterpiece from the nineteenth century.

[Special message for Prem Thapa ("Birahi") in Katmandu, Nepal: let me know if you find this essay helpful]

Errors of Truth:
Deconstruction in The Scarlet Letter

Steven C. Scheer

- To the untrue man, the whole universe is false.

This (therefore) will not have been a traditional reading of The Scarlet Letter (1850). My intent to open this chapter by echoing the first sentence of the "Outwork" of Jacques Derrida's Dissemination is by no means parodic. Attempting to find deconstruction in The Scarlet Letter may seem more than bold, it may seem downright absurd. How can one attribute a deconstruction of Puritanism to an author who has, among other things, been called a "Puritan of Puritans"? (Stewart 1958: 16). Such deconstruction (nevertheless) is what my non-traditionary attempt will uncover. I shall begin with the end, with Dimmesdale's public confession, "The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter" (Chapter 23), and the "Conclusion" (Chapter 24). Of particular interest here will be the question of Dimmesdale's salvation or damnation (an apparently irresolvable controversy in the critical canon) and the "fiction" of the reader's choice. I shall then continue by retracing the threads of Hawthorne's implicitly deconstructive "argument" in the romance proper as well as in the "Custom House" preface.


"Stand any here that question God's judgment on a sinner? Behold! Behold a dreadful witness of it!" exclaims Dimmesdale. What happens hereafter is not made clear. "It was revealed!" claims the narrator, "[b]ut it were irreverent to describe that revelation" (255). The revelation is, of course, the scarlet letter "imprinted" on Dimmesdale's naked bosom (258). Though the existence of this bodily sign of sin is not exactly shrouded in mystery, neither is it ever unequivocally affirmed. What the reader gets in the context under consideration is the breaking of the "spell" that unleashes Pearl's daughterly kiss and tears, and the final exchange of words between the once adulterous lovers. Hester expresses the hope that they may spend their "immortal life together," but Dimmesdale admonishes her (ever the incurable Puritan, apparently) by saying "[t]he law we broke! - the sin here so awfully revealed! - let these alone be in thy thoughts!" In the aftermath, Dimmesdale thanks God for his "afflictions," without which he feels he "would have been lost forever," and renders up his soul by "praising" God's "name" and asking for "His will [to] be done" (256-7).

Much of the salvation/damnation controversy in the critical canon is instigated by these final moments of Dimmesdale's earthly existence. The arguments on both sides (and the "logic" of each side is apparently unassailable) hinge on either version of a symmetrical question: if Dimmesdale thinks he is saved, he is damned; if he thinks he is damned, he is saved. Edward H. Davidson's argument (one of the strongest in the "damned" school) invokes the Puritan and Romantic concepts of the Fall, Dimmesdale's solipsitic separation of the body from the spirit (the argument claims that Dimmesdale erroneously attributes sin to the body but not to the spirit), and (finally, the clincher) Dimmesdale's "egocentric" assumption that he is, in fact, saved (1963: 90). One of the bits of evidence that Davidson marshals in support of this conclusion is Mistress Hibbins's recognition of Dimmesdale as belonging to the party of the "Black Man." Mistress Hibbins, Davidson writes, "even before the minister's public confession, knows [Dimmesdale's] state with unmatched clarity" (1963: 86, italics mine). Here there is an arguable fissure in the "logic" of this version of the "damned" school. At the point in question, as Dimmesdale is returning from the forest, where he has consented to Hester's plan of escape, Dimmesdale is in a potential state of damnation that nothing save the subsequent public confession can turn around (in fact, according to the "logic" of salvation, even the publicness of the confession may not be an absolute necessity).

Randall Stewart's American Literature and Christian Doctrine provides us with an adequate representation of the "saved" school. Although Stewart also emphasizes the "tension between the Puritan and the romantic" (1958: 85) in The Scarlet Letter, he harbors no doubts whatsoever that Dimmesdale is saved: "As for Arthur, he saw the problem all too clearly. He must have a public confession: 'Confess your faults one to another . . . that ye may be healed.' There could be no salvation without that. Arthur was saved, yet as by fire. He was truly a firebrand plucked out of the burning. The confession brought about a reconciliation with God and man." With respect to Dimmesdale's last words, Stewart claims that "Hawthorne has employed the Christian thesis: 'Father, not my will, but thine be done'" (1958: 88). And so it may be. The "logic" of the two schools appears well founded, but while the "damned" school grounds itself in textual ambiguity ("[t]he subtlety of Hawthorne's presentation is that the minister is his own deceiver; he is that truly damned man who convinces himself at every stage . . . that he is really 'saved'" [Davidson 1963: 82]), the "saved" school relies on a coincidence between certain formulations in the text and certain well-known Christian tenets that have always already pre/textualized it.

Most interestingly (the special "interest" of this assertion will emerge shortly), the advocates of the "damned" school attribute self-deception to Dimmesdale, which, if not utterly solipsistic, is at least highly egomaniacal. One characteristic formulation of this also involves an invocation of "Christian dogma." Here is how Frederick Crews puts it in The Sins of the Fathers: "Dimmesdale is so obsessed with his own guilt that he negates the Christian dogma of original sin: 'Behold me here, the one sinner of the world!' This strain of egoism in his 'triumphant ignominy' does not substract from his courage, but it casts doubt on his theory that all the preceding action has been staged by God for the purpose of saving his soul" (1966: 151, italics mine). Crews takes the rhetorically exaggerated sense of Dimmesdale's humility as a "strain of egoism," in other words, as the sign of pride, the deadliest of sins. Here the symmetrical question I have posed at the outset of this discussion shows the signs of a subtle disintegration. If Dimmesdale feels too strongly that he is damned he must be damned, for this feeling is surely a sign of egoism and pride (at once a contradiction in terms and an insight well supported by Crews's Freudian approach).

What do these lines of argument finally delineate? What do they tell us about either Hawthorne's text and/or (the texts of) its readers? At the risk of engaging in hasty generalizations, let me (nevertheless) assert the following: for every text cited in favor of Dimmesdale's final damnation, other (and equally telling) texts can be cited in favor of his final salvation. And in each case various Christian tenets or other theological, philosophical, psychological, etc., considerations may be brought to bear upon the argument. While it would be absurd to claim that the members of each school had made up their minds concerning this issue prior to even a first reading of The Scarlet Letter (so that in each instance each was merely looking for texts that would confirm his/her prior assumptions), the conclusion that (nevertheless) in some sense prior assumptions are at work in each reading, subtly guiding and determining its outcome, is inescapable. Hawthorne's text can clearly support opposing, even contradictory, assertions about the text. Of course, the citations marshalled for support in the unfolding of any argument are necessarily selected for the purpose on the grounds that they (at least) appear to support rather than subvert the argument in question. Again, the specter of prior assumptions necessarily presents itself. The citations (texts necessarily and always already out of context) are more than likely subtly intertextual with the assumptions on the basis of which they are selected in the first place.

This drama of "reading" in terms of admitted, unadmitted, or even inadmissible prior "readings" is also at work in the "Conclusion" of The Scarlet Letter where the reader encounters the "fiction" of the reader's choice. "[T]here was more than one account of what had been witnessed on the scaffold." The narrator's report, in fact, divides the spectators into two groups, the first (the majority) consisting of those who have seen a scarlet letter "imprinted in . . . [Dimmesdale's] flesh," and the second (the minority) who "denied that there was any mark whatever on . . . [Dimmesdale's] breast." This second group of "highly respectable witnesses" even denies that the dying minister has so much as "implied" any connection between himself and Hester Prynne. According to their "reading" of the scene, Dimmesdale "had [simply] made the manner of his death a parable in order to impress on his admirers . . . that, in view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike." It is clear that the narrator disputes this "reading": "without disputing a truth so momentous [that is, the fact that "we are sinners all alike"], we must be allowed to consider this version of Mr. Dimmesdale's story as only an instance of that stubborn fidelity with which a man's friends - and especially a clergyman's - will sometimes uphold his chatacter, when proofs, clear as the midday sunshine on the scarlet letter, establish him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust" (italics mine).

The "fiction" of the reader's choice, then, only applies to the first group (whose "explanations" the narrator regards as "necessarily conjectural") regarding the "origin" of the scarlet letter "imprinted" on the minister's bosom. Here the reader encounters three "conjectural" "explanations," the first of which attributes the "origin" of the letter in question to Dimmesdale himself (who inflicted it by "hideous torture on himself"), the second of which blames Roger Chillingworth for its appearance (who "caused it to appear through the agency of magic and poisonous drugs"), and the third of which ("those best able to appreciate the minister's peculiar sensibility and the wonderful operation of his spirit upon the body" [italics mine]) assigns it to the physical manifestation of the psychic "tooth of remorse, gnawing from the innermost heart outwardly" (258-59).

"The reader may choose among these theories," the narrator tells us at this point (259). The question is, how seriously should the reader take this offer of a "choice"? I have consistently referred to it as a "fiction" because it seems to me that the cards are stacked in favor of "those most able to appreciate the minister's peculiar sensibility" as well as the plot of the entire romance, especially Dimmesdale's habit of holding his hand over his heart, Chillingworth's discovery in Chapter 10, and Dimmesdale's own apparent knowledge of the scarlet letter "imprinted" on his bosom. In fact, the plot of the romance makes sense only if the reader chooses the right "reading" of the "origin" of the miracle in question. One function of the choice, then, may well be to preempt choices that would conflict with the thematic unfolding of the romance as a whole. Which is not to deny the fact that the very existence of conflicting interpretations concerning Dimmesdale's own "scarlet letter" in this case "shatters rather than binds [the Puritan] community," or that Hawthorne's offer of a choice does not serve to remind us that "in a world of untranscended appearance, all that remains to give meaning to community is what we call literature" (Kamuf 1985: 79).

In these final chapters, at any rate, Hawthorne's text clearly supports varying interpretations of Dimmesdale's salvation/damnation, but it does not support "choices" concerning either the existence or non-existence of the origin of the scarlet letter imprinted on the minister's bosom. The reason for this may not be hard to find. Hawthrone clearly eschews usurping the role of God (whether Dimmesdale is saved or damned is, finally, God's choice), but he refuses to take chances when it comes to the business of the "reality" imprinted within the text of the romance itself. The offer of a choice is nevertheless an important, even a crucial, maneuver on Hawthorne's part. It brings attention to the fact that various readings (some of which are clearly more rather than less "wrong") are possible and that these various readings are made by the same Puritans who otherwise always already assume that they are absolutely right when it comes to passing judgment on the sins of their fellow human beings. The Puritans who, in other words, do not eschew usurping God's role are nevertheless shown to differ among themselves to the point of offering "readings" that remain if not altogether unacceptable at least highly disputable. Ironically, this implicit indictment of those who judge is potentially expandable to (and voluntarily taken on by) the critics who, unlike Hawthorne himself, seem to know for certain what God's judgment on Dimmesdale will be.

Hawthorne's deconstruction of the Puritan community in The Scarlet Letter turns precisely on such willingness to judge and on the arrogant assumption that one's judgment coincides with that of God's. The particular form this deconstruction takes in the romance is the reversal of a writing/reading hierarchy with its concomitant reinscription of reading as the non-originary origin of writing. The "texture" of Puritan reality is grounded in or founded upon a reading of Scriptures and of certain related texts (which are not necessarily "literal" texts), but it is important to remember that the Puritans claim the texts themselves rather than their reading of the texts in question as the ground or foundation upon which the "texture" of their reality rests. It is also important to remember that not only the readings of the texts in question but the texts themselves are always already also readings, that is, interpretations. What is, in fact, writ large in Hawthorne's presentation of the Puritan reading which establishes "theocracy" is reminiscent of Nietzsche's dictum according to which there are no "facts" as such in the world, "only interpretations" (1901: 267). Impicit in Hawthorne's presentation of the making and sustaining of the Puritan community, then, is the notion that social realities are fictions based on a circular reading. The reality is determined by a reading of the ground or foundation of the reality in question where in each case the resulting reality is an occulted form of begging the question.

What begs the question is the interpretation (reading) which produces the interpretation (reading). But the underlying, the "productive," interpretation is really a form of writing-as-reading. If (for the moment), as Heidegger states, "[a]n interpretation is never a presuppositionless apprehending of something presented to us," if when, in other words (and Heidegger speaks of "exact textual Interpretation" here), one appeals "to what 'stands there,' [then] one finds that what 'stands there' in the first instance is nothing other than the obvious undiscussed assumption . . . of the person who does the interpreting (1927: 191-92). Such an interpretation is not so much a reading as it is a form of writing. In other words, what is read is what has been written in the act of reading. It is this prior writing (reading in the ordinary sense, that is, as the second term of the writing/reading hierarchy) which is occulted, and it is this occulting that Hawthorne's deconstruction concerning the ground or foundation of the Puritan community exposes. Hester's indirect question (raised at the time she decides to "redeem her error" [167] of promising not to reveal Chillingworth's identity to Dimmesdale), "whether there had not originally been a defect of truth" (166), haunts this paradigmatic occulting of the reading (writing) which produces the reading with relentless quizzicality. All "truth," Hawthorne thus implies, rests on some "original" "defect." All "truth" in other words, is culpable (and absolute truth can never be felicitously so). This is precisely what the Puritan community's harsh and rigid reading of the Scriptures and related texts (which are themselves always already interpretations) fails to acknowledge. Ironically, the Bible (as we have already seen in my introduction) both substantiates and unsubstantiates all human authority that equates itself with the divine. The "Book" (the Bible), the "Writing," is a "Reading" that further and subsequent readings inevitably and also almost always variably re-write (though the text, of course, remains unchanged and open to further re/mis[s]/readings). This revisionary nature of all reading and writing is what the question, "whether there had not originally been a defect of truth," keeps questioning, keeps open as a question. To put this another way, one would have to say that what is implied in Hawthorne's presentation of the Puritan community exemplifies that hidden "defect of truth" according to which all answers are merely sublated questions where each sublated question differs from itself and defers to its own elusive answerability.

Substantiations for these claims abound in the text. A few examples should suffice. In the very beginning of the romance proper, for example, the narrator speaks of the "earliest practical" necessity for a "cemetery" and a "prison" envisioned by the Puritan builders for their "Utopia of human virtue and happiness" (47). This is a direct result of the Puritan reading of the consequences of the Fall (to invoke practicality here would merely beg the question, of course, since cemeteries and prisons would have been unthinkable in the prelapsarian bliss of paradise). The community of "religion and law" (50) which the Puritans erect in the wilderness and at the cutting edge of the New World is, thus, from the beginning beset by a post-edenic or post-paradisiacal tyranny which fails to recognize (paradoxically in the very act of recognizing) that original sin has forever barred the human race from an earthly "Utopia of human virtue and happiness." Thus, "cemetery" and "prison" form part of a "text" imprinted on the wilderness by and according to a reading of "Genesis" which is itself always already a "reading" of the reason for death as punishment in and from the beginning.

This "imprinting" or "entextment" of a "reading" (of what is always already also a "reading") on the wilderness is actually a form of "writing." Cemeteries and prisons are, in a sense, the "literal" signs of a potentially "unlimited semiosis" (Eco 1979: 69) generated by an ongoing and sustained reading of the Scriptures. But this ongoing and sustained reading is always already a writing, though what is "read" is not necessarily what was "written" in the first place. It is, in fact, by virtue of this ineluctable discrepancy between reading and writing that Hawthorne's implicit deconstruction of Puritanism gets its forceful energy. Signs of this reading/writing are, again, everywhere abundant in Hawthorne's text.

Thus, the punishment (the "verdict") imposed upon Hester Prynne by the "grim rigidity" (49) of the Puritan community becomes (in the words of the "stranger" who will turn into Roger Chillingworth) "a living sermon against sin" (63, italics mine). The display of the scarlet letter on Hester's bosom, therefore, is a kind of "writing" not just in the literal but also in the metaphorical sense of the term (the sense in which I claim that Hawthorne is reversing the writing/reading hierarchy). This writing takes its energy from the forcible and violent transformation of concealment into revelation based on a general though totalizing Puritan reading which, in the words of the "grim beadle" derives its communal "blessing" from the forceful and violent creation ("writing") of a social structure "where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine" (56). The artful embroidery with which Hester "writes" her own letter "A" is at the same time an ambiguation of the stark texture of Puritan reality in which the transformation of concealment into revelation represented (in this instance) by the first letter of the alphabet becomes at once obvious and obviated. The sign of sin is also an artifice, the prototype of all works of art being the instigator of the Fall, the lie about a lie that was not a lie.

This ineluctable discrepancy between reading and writing becomes apparent for the reader who realizes that Hester is not only signified by the scarlet letter but also concealed behind it. Not only does it "shut [her] out from the sphere of human charities" (81), it also grants her a "freedom of speculation," which, "had they known it, [the Puritans] would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter" (164). This unstable connection between signifier and signified even extends to the members of the Puritan community "many" of whom "refused to interpret the scarlet 'A' by its original signification. They said it meant 'Able'; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength" (161).

The question is, is - in Hawthorne's scheme of things - every sign necessarily "artistic" (that every sign is, in a sense, "artifice" is clear), and does every sign necessarily displace the thing it signifies so that there can never be a signified save in the sense in which the signified is the signified in (and only in) terms of its own signifier. Does, in other words, the elusive difference between the signifier and the signified (the scarlet letter, for example, and what is and at once is not revealed/concealed about Hester in Hawthorne's text about the Puritan community and its transformation of concealment into revelation for the sake of dragging "iniquity . . . out into the sunshine") necessarily turn upon that difference which it both makes manifest and hides?

This "hiding-what-is-made-manifest" is the self-deconstructive element in Hawthorne's text. What the text in question presents is a kind of text-making (imprinting or entextment) that Hawthorne's own text must both compulsively expose and repeat. Hawthorne's writing is the reading of the Puritan reading ("writing") of a "reality" which is created by the imprinting or entexting of scriptural and related texts on the "reality" in question, even as that "reality" (or, rather, the reading that produces it) is put into question. As Hester, for example, reviews the personal past that has led her to the impasse of the scaffold, where she is forced to expose both the scarlet letter of her own making (in at least two senses of the term "making") and its living counterpart (Pearl, who for the Puritans is not simply an infant but a "sign" of adultery, a living revelation of previously hidden or concealed sin) made by both Hester and her still concealed partner, she is thinking of a "new life" which is yet "feeding on time-worn materials . . . on a crumbling wall" (58). This sentence fragment projects into Hester's thinking not only the contrast between the Old World and the New World, but also the etymological remnants of the notion of "paradise lost" (the "crumbling" of the walls of the "walled-in park" that was once "Eden" - a place of pleasure). Hawthorne's own text, thus, abounds in scriptural instances of intertextuality each of which imprints itself on a texture which is ultimately critical (at times subversively so) of the Puritan text-making by means of the same sort of imprinting.

This compulsive exposure/repetition makes Hawthorne's own text an interesting case of both deconstruction and self-deconstruction. The connection between sin and art in The Scarlet Letter has received ample treatment in the critical canon, but (as we shall see) Hawthorne's own text struggles with a simultaneous acceptance and rejection of this connection. Leslie Fiedler's remark about the "cryptic 'A'" which "may have represented to Hawthorne not only 'Adultery' but 'Art,'" by "involving precisely that adornment of guilt by craft which he attributes to Hester's prototype," also grounds Hawthorne's obliquely self-reflexive romance in "sin" which in the romance itself is projected as the "origin" of "art" (1966: 237). Interestingly enough, Claudia Johnson sees the "productive irritant" that goads Hawthorne himself into art as the "sinful" rejection of art which Hawthorne had always and everywhere encountered in the "disapproving tone of his own country, scornful of art, suspicious of artists, and fearful of the imagination" (1981: 8). This same charge, though, can be found in Hawthorne's own text levelled against itself. It is not that Hawthorne is scornful of art or fearful of the imagination, but that he feels that he has reason to be suspicious of the artistic endeavor precisely because of the unpredictable turns it may take.

This is, of course, at once an example and a critique of self-reflexivity. Hawthorne is certainly critical of the absence of self-reflection in the Puritans who remain blind to the reading that produces the reading which is responsible for the forceful and violent entextment of the "reality" they simply take for granted, but he is also cautious. As Richard H. Broadhead puts it in his Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel, "[h]aving understood the Puritans' sense of reality as a function of their scheme of perception, Hawthorne cannot but be aware that whatever he creates must be a function of another such scheme" (1976: 65). If this is not exactly an example of the proverbial tit for tat, it is certainly imbued by it. In other words, nothing in Hawthorne's practice of artistic "imprinting" gives the reader the impression that Hawthorne feels that the mere presence of self-reflection guarantees the exclusion of error.

Recent readings of The Scarlet Letter, those, for example, by Joel Porte and Nina Baym, which see the work as in some sense about artists as well as about the art of the romance itself are nevertheless well taken. Both these critics also speak explicitly about the connection in Hawthorne between sin and art. Joel Porte, for example, in his The Romance in America, claims that "[i]n a remarkable insight underlying much of his work and clearly anticipating Freud's notions, not only of the sources of art in general, but more particularly of those dreams and fantasies which are the type of romance, Hawthorne suggests that there is a connection between 'sin' (by which he means sexual knowledge and passion) and artistic understanding and power. In our sexual past and present, Hawthorne seems to say, lies our artistic - indeed, our human - future" (1969: 102-103). In her Shape of Hawthorne's Career, Nina Baym also sees and locates the substance and "origin" of art in passion. Indeed, according to Baym, the conflict in Hawthorne's romance is an "opposition between passion and authority," and - for Baym - it is precisely the necessity of this opposition that The Scarlet Letter questions. This thesis is especially well taken in Baym's interpretation of Dimmesdale as an "artist" in spite of himself: "Hawthorne shows what the minister can never accept: the true source of his power over the people is not the spirituality to which he sincerely attributes his success but his denied and despised passionate nature" (1976: 136-37).

The "opposition between passion and authority" is, naturally most tellingly manifest in Dimmesdale who, "[u]nable to identify his 'self' with the passionate core he regards as sinful, . . . is even less able to admit that this sinful core can produce great sermons." This is precisely why Dimmesdale is doomed to remain "obsessed with a feeling of falseness" (Baym 1976: 138). According to Hawthorne's text, Hester also shares to some extent this Puritan rejection of art, but not for the same reasons. Although said to issue from her "rich, voluptuous" nature, Hester's needle-work art is not what it "might have been," that is, a "mode of expressing, and therefore soothing, the passion of her life. Like all other joys, she rejected it as a sin. This morbid meddling of conscience with an immaterial matter betokened, it is to be feared, no genuine and steadfast penitence, but something doubtful, something that might have been deeply wrong, beneath" (83-84, italics mine). Baym is nevertheless right in asserting that Hester's art still represents "the impulsive heart defying the repressive letter of the law" (1976: 139), and that The Scarlet Letter itself is Hawthorne's "gesture of insubordination" (1976: 150).

The deconstructive enterprise "present" in Hawthorne's romance is itself, of course, a "gesture of insubordination" par excellence. Its most telling assertion (though never made in so many words) is that the Puritan construction of "reality" (based as it is on a reading/writing, "imprinting," or entextment) is itself an artifice, a work of art the artistry of which is almost totally indelibly repressed. And the source of this repressed art remains the Fall, though in the case ("fall," etymologically) of Puritan "authority" the particular "sin" in question is that precise humanly arrogative usurpation of divinity that deems itself unworthy yet acts as it it were worthy of God-like judgment.

The Puritan commitment to the revelation of concealed sin repeatedly and inadvertently resorts to "artistic" arrangements (scaffolds, pillories, dignitaries on balconies, the viewing public on the grounds surrounding the stage-like scaffold, etc.) without which the desired revelation of concealed sin would not be possible. To be sure, the narrator makes it clear that the Puritans were wary of any sort of ostentatious ceremony or "artifice," necessarily regarding it as sinful, they were nevertheless "native Englishmen . . . of the Elizabethan epoch" (230). Kenneth B. Murdock in his Literature and Theology in Colonial New England, for example, gives us innumerable examples of the dilemma Puritan divines faced in attempting to communicate their religious doctrines. "The fact that Catholics and high-church Anglicans alike used incense, organ music, and other means of sensuous appeal in worship was, for the Puritan, proof of their sinful neglect of Scripture. . . . Therefore [the Puritan] not unreasonably linked his distrust of ideas that seemed to him unworthy of a good Protestant with a dislike for the style in which those ideas were most commonly set forth" (Murdock 1949: 34). This inevitably led the Puritan to a rejection of metaphor, particularly the kind that appealed to the senses. Here the connection between sin and metaphor is quite explicit in the Puritan imagination. The Puritan divine had to reluctantly admit that even the Bible uses sensuous imagery. The reason for this is not hard to find. Since we are fallen, we cannot understand language that does not appeal to the senses. Such appeal, however, though necessary and "useful," is nevertheless "improper." The following passage from Richard Baxter's The Saints Everlasting Rest (7th ed., 1658) is characteristic of this dilemma: unless we do resort to sensuous imagery "we set God and Heaven so far from us, that our thoughts are strange, and we look at them as things beyond our reach, and beyond our line, and are ready to say, That which is above is nothing to us" (quoted in Murdock 1949: 55).

Hawthorne's romance is a historically true reflection of this Puritan dilemma. Not only does it hold for their religious services, it even extends to their political "ceremonies." On the Election Day, for example, the narrator claims that "[h]ad they followed their hereditary taste, the New England settlers would have illustrated all events of public importance by bonfires, banquets, pageantries, and processions. Nor would it have been impracticable, in the observance of majestic ceremonies, to combine mirthful recreation with solemnity, and give, as it were, a grotesque and brilliant embroidery to the great robe of state which a nation, at such festivals, puts on" (230, italics mine). Although on the day in question "[t]here was some shadow of an attempt of this kind" (ibid.), what the Puritans disallow is precisely the playful, the mischievous, the potentially subversive (which would correspond to metaphors that are considered "improper" because of their appeal to the - dangerous - "senses"). Thus, the narrator tells us, there were "no rude shows of a theatrical kind, no minstrel . . . gleeman, with an ape dancing to his music; no juggler, with his tricks of mimic witchcraft, no Merry Andrew, to stir up the multitude with jests, perhaps hundreds of years old, but still effective, by their appeals to the very broadest sources of mirthful sympathy." All this was disallowed by the Puritans' "rigid discipline of law." Nevertheless, there was stately attire for the "statesman, the priest, and the soldier," and even the public was "countenanced, if not encouraged, in relaxing the severe and close application to all their various modes of rugged industry, which, at all other times, seemed of the same piece and material with their religion" (231).

This conscious suppression of "artifice," of potentially mischievous appeals to the senses, of traditionally ostentatious religious and/or political customs, rites, or ceremonies, becomes - for Hawthorne - the sign of an unconscious repression of the "artistry" which is nevertheless (and ineluctably) the source of the Puritan community, of the Puritan reading/writing of "reality," of the Puritan conception of a grim and rigid version of the divine/human dichotomy itself. Yet, in spite of their arrogation of "art" and "artifice," the Puritans remain reluctant rhetoricians and dramatists - rhetoricians and dramatists in spite of and against their "better" judgment. But there is no fissure of uncertainty in the fabric they "imprint" on the face of their "reality." The Scarlet Letter is yet not a rejection of the religious impulse but a deconstruction of its morbidly absolutist totalization. It is the lack of a redemptive error in their theology which remains, for Hawthorne, the irredeemable error of the Puritan community.

Dimmesdale's case emerges as paradigmatic. The source of the powerful art of his Election Day sermon is in "sin" (Baym, I believe, is unquestionably right about this), that is why "it breathed passion and pathos, and emotions high and tender, in a tongue native to the human heart," and that is why it "had throughout a meaning for [Hester Prynne] entirely apart from its indistinguishable words" (243). Like the Puritans, though, Dimmesdale seems incapable of recognizing or acknowledging the true source of that power, but unlike the Puritans, he is capable of giving free play to a "sorrow-laden" "complaint of . . . [the] human heart" appealing "to the great heart of" all humankind, "beseeching its sympathy or forgiveness - at every moment - in each accent - and never in vain!" (243-44) There is, then, an uncertain hope in the "passion and pathos" of Dimmesdale's sermon greater than the tragedy of the hopeless certainty writ large within the Puritan community.

The question of the scarlet letter "imprinted" on Dimmesdale's bosom also partakes of this paradigm represented by the fissure between the minister's conscious Puritanism and his unconscious romanticism. It is the first which forces him to undergo the ordeal of a public confession, but it is the second which allows him to assent to Hester's assessment of their illicit love ("What we did had a consecration of its own," 195). It is, of course, impossible to pin Hawthorne down with respect to Puritanism vs. romanticism. Hester's "estranged view at human institutions," at "whatever priests or legislators had established; criticising all with hardly" any "reverance" at all, may have "set her free," but it has also "taught her much amiss." Dimmesdale's "sin of passion," on the other hand, together with his position in the "social system," with all "its regulations, its principles, and even its prejudices" keeps him "safer within the line of virtue than if he had never sinned at all" (199-200).

It is the imbalance between what he is and what he appears to be that torments Dimmesdale, even as it is the imbalance between what she appears to be and what she thinks she really is that enables Hester to reject the "system." If, as the narrator tells us, "wild, heathen Nature" has "never been subjugated by human law, nor [has it been] illumined by higher truth" (203). Hester's subjugation by Puritan law is external. Dimmedale's illumination, on the other hand, is internal though unacknowledged and inadmissible, like the sin which is the source of his art, like the sin which is the source of the Puritan "art" of a forceful and violent transfomation of the divine in the likeness of the rigidly and unforgivingly human.

The reader cannot tell whether Dimmesdale has already made up his mind not to escape with Hester the "iron men . . . and their opinions" at the time he sits down to write his already begun Election Day sermon anew, but it is clear the expression "he fancied himself inspired" (225, italics mine) permits a different construction from the one placed upon the "key" word by critics who belong to the "damned" school. The reason why Dimmesdale fancied himself inspired is not that he was not, but that he could not possibly admit to be, he could not accept the fact "that Heaven should see fit to transmit the grand and solemn music of its oracles through so foul an organ-pipe as he" (225). Again, what Dimmesdale denies here is the ineluctable connection between sin and art which is the inevitable result of the Fall, the biblically confirmed "origin" of both sin and art. It is this denial of the sin of art, of the error of truth, which is responsible for imprinting the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale's bosom. Hawthorne's deconstructive point should not be overlooked here: whether it is there or not is not important here, for nothing that is "merely" imprinted is really there at all, even though it is.

The "Custom House" preface also pinpoints this paradox. Quite apart from the traditional fictional ploy which validates the "truth" of a narrative (the finding of the manuscript upon which it is based, etc.), it chronicles the self-reversing structure of employment gained, artistry lost - employment lost, artistry gained. The modern-day equivalent of the Puritan system without a redemptive error is bureaucracy. "Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers," says "Hawthorne" (15). This is why he can confide in the reader, with the mischievous, the playfully subversive "voice" that "[n]either the front nor the back entrance of the Custom House opens on the road to Paradise" (13).

The business of the Custom House official is such "that he does not share in the united effort of" humankind. His occupation, in other words, is idle, bureaucratic. The support he gets for this from the state also has a devastatingly ironic "effect": "while he leans on the mighty arm of the republic, his own proper strength departs from him. He loses . . . the capability of self-support" (38). For "Hawthorne," of course, the self-support in question would be the art of the writer. Again, it is not without mischievousness and playfulness that he informs the reader concerning the "name" of the author lost and the "name" of the Custom House official found:

No longer seeking nor caring that my name should be blazoned abroad on title pages, I smiled to think that it had now another kind of vogue. The Custom House marker imprinted it with a stencil and black paint, on pepper-bags, and baskets of anatto, and cigar-boxes, and bales of all kinds of dutiable merchandise, in testimony that these commodities had paid the impost, and gone regularly through the office. Borne on such queer vehicle of fame, a knowledge of my existence, so far as a name conveys it, was carried where it had never been before, and, I hope, will never go again. (27, italics mine)

The target of this satiric voice is both inner and outer directed. The humor of the piece notwithstanding, the signs of deconstruction are unmistakable. The bureaucracy, like its Puritan counterpart in the historic past, is not only based on certain writings (constitutions, articles of incorporation, what have you), it perpetuates itself on writing (keeping records of all kinds of mundane events, taxes collected, etc.). Writing, both as ground or foundation and as "edifice," is the "key" to the existence both of the Puritan community of the romance proper and of the bureaucratic system of the Custom House "improper" which almost deprives "Hawthorne" of his art . . . and that would certainly have been a sin.

What compounds the irony is that the manuscript upon which The Scarlet Letter is based is found, in a sense, where it was long lost among "bundles of official documents" upon which "days, and weeks, and months, and years of toil . . . had been wasted" and "which were now only an incumberance on earth, and were hidden away in this forgotten corner, never more to be glanced at by human eyes" (28). Thus, the bureaucratic system, which commits the sin of denying art, provides the artist with his source, even as the subject-matter of the art in question becomes that Puritan community which had always already repressed art and which had always already exclaimed that "the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!" (10)

Unlike his Puritan ancestors, "Hawthorne" does give himself permission to be mischievous and playful, thus allowing himself the luxury of combining "mirthful recreation with solemnity," of permitting the "gleeman" with his "ape dancing to . . . music," and the "juggler, with his tricks of mimic witchcraft," and the "Merry Andrew, to stir up the [readership] with jests." Discussing the manuscript upon which The Scarlet Letter is based, "Hawthorne" claims that "it should be borne carefully in mind, that the main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue" (32, italics mine). Before the end of this same paragraph, however, "Hawthorne" proves himself willing to contradict himself. "I must not be understood as affirming that . . . I have invariably confined myself within the limits of the old Surveyor's half a dozen sheet of foolscap. On the contrary, I have allowed myself . . . as much license as if the facts had been entirely of my own invention" (33, italics mine). The choice of the word "foolscap" should also be noted here. It refers to writing paper, and it is so called because the watermark of a fool's cap with bells hanging from it had been customarily imprinted on it.

The humor of the Custom House preface does not, of course, negate or subvert the seriousness of the romance proper. But it does imprint the latter's entextment with an unwritten but nevertheless clearly perceptible question mark. The errors of its truth tell the story of a truth which is ridden with errors precisely because it deems itself error-free. The deconstruction of the Puritan system, like the deconstruction of all systems that totalize, especially though not exclusively, in the name of the radically other, is (therefore) the construction of a countersystem which remains (because it must) aprivileged by the same errors of truth the repeated denials of which are not only humorless but irredeemably "right."


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Broadhead, Richard H. 1976. Hawthorne, Melville, and the Novel (Chicago and London: U of Chicago P).

Crews, Frederick. 1966.The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (New York: Oxford UP).

Davidson, Edward H. 1963. "Dimmesdale's Fall," New England Quarterly 34: 358-70. Page references are to Twentieth Century Interpretations of "The Scarlet Letter", ed. by John C. Gerber (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall), 82-92.

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Johnson, Claudia D. 1981. The Productive Tension of Hawthorne's Art (University, Alabama: The U of Alabama P).

Kamuf Peggy. 1985. "Hawthorne's Genres: The Letter of the Law Appliquée," After Strange Texts: The Role of Theory in the Study of Literature, ed. by Gregory S. Jay and David L Miller (University, Alabama: The U of Alabama P).

Murdock, Kenneth B. 1949. Literature and Theology in Colonial New England (New York and Evanston: Harper & Rowe - Harper Torchbooks, 1963).

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1901. Der Wille zur Macht. Page reference is to the English trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, The Will to Power (New York: Random House - Vintage, 1968).

Porte, Joel. 1969. The Romance in America: Studies in Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, and James (Middleton, Conneticut: Wesleyan UP).

Stewart, Randall. 1958. American Literature and Christian Doctrine (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana UP).

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