June 11, 2000 BOOKEND / By MILLICENT BELL The Prophecy of Hester Prynne

eading ''The Scarlet Letter'' aacquire, I imagine Hester Prynne as she steps out of the Boston jail.

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She carries her out-of-wedlock baby in her arms but does not hide the ''A'' she wears on her breastern. Her crime, though it will never be called in the book by more than an initial, is put on exhibition. Yet she has actually converted the letter into her very own statement by terrific flourishes of gold embroidery. She is a secret past the reach not only of her fellow Bostonians but also of the reader. To the finish of her story she will certainly be someone whose final definition is as obscure as her factors for blazoning the letter so that it looks favor a badge of honor while it reinforces her condemnation.

Hester has actually been coming prior to us this means considering that ''The Scarlet Letter'' was published 150 years ago, and the book that made Hawthorne famed has actually remained our the majority of unchallenged classic, an Amerideserve to novel about the Amerihave the right to past. Its newest readers rotate to the Web for help in creating the assigned paper, and there is plenty to downpack -- bibliographies and also potted criticism, online hypermessage that highlights the hard words and also recommendations for accessibility to explanations. There is also a website titled ''How to Get an 'A' on Your Scarlet Letter Assignment,'' which, fortunately, advises only, ''Read the book!'' Teenagers periodically uncover this reading boring, sometimes thrilling, and also are not fairly certain what it adds up to. The punishment inflicted upon an unmarried mom appears excessive. The struggle in between husband and also lover, as soon as thneed to be the central drama, does not arousage a lot interemainder. But Pearl's self-reliance of adult expectations, her elfin spontaneity and disdain of the concept that she has actually been ''made'' by anyone, delights young readers; they understand why she feels prefer that. And most of all, they are gripped by Hester, a heroine who appears to be reaching for somepoint even more than either penance or justification. Meanwhile, their elders -- teachers and also movie critics -- continue to dispute what Hawthorne ''expected to say.'' In Hester's Boston next weekfinish, members of the academic Nathaniel Hawthorne Society are meeting to celebrate the novel's sesquicentennial year. There will be lectures and discussions and also likewise a rock musical of ''The Scarlet Letter.'' It is still a stvariety book, yet familiar.

Hawthorne offers hints to interpretation in ''The Custom-House,'' an ''introductory sketch'' added to his story, it is believed, bereason book buyers expected somepoint heftier. It is a slippery, baffling essay, half genuine autobiography, half fiction. The writer makes think simply where he prehas a tendency to be many factual; Hawthorne never before uncovered, as he clintends, a scrap of red fabric -- the veritable letter -- or a manumanuscript document of a actual episode of the 17th century; he is the inventor of his tale. But he speaks truly around his ancestors, who persecuted witches and also heretics in early american times, implying a desire to expiate the family guilt by sympathetically imagining one more Puritan victim. The Puritan theocratic state he goes on to depict in the novel had, in fact, been tested in Hester's time by someone a tiny like Hawthorne's heroine. He adds symbolic fantasy to attach a actual and an imagined womale. As Hester steps out of that prison through newborn Pearl, we are asked to alert, thriving by the door, a blossoming rosebush, sassist to have sprung up ''under the footprocedures of the sainted Anne Hutchinkid,'' previously imprisoned tbelow. Why does it offer its fragrance to Hester? The historical Hutchinchild had actually not committed adultery, yet she had been condemned for her antinomian (literally, ''against the law'') beliefs about the single importance of individual confidence. When Hester, in her lonely solitude complying with her condemnation, involves the point of spreading away the ''pieces of a damaged chain,'' believing that ''the world's regulation was no legislation for her mind,'' she seems to echo Hutchinson's feminine freedom.

In conceiving Hester, Hawthorne might also have actually been reasoning of his brilliant frifinish Margaret Fuller. The one female among the well known transcendental liberals of Concord, she had publimelted her feminist ''Woman in the 1ninth Century'' in 1845, and also then had gone to Italy, wbelow she joined the partisans of the nationalist struggle and also fell in love through one of them. As Hawthorne was composing his novel there were rumors she was on her way earlier with her lover and their boy, a prospect that sent out tremors of apprehension with the circle preparing to greet her. Romantic liberty of behavior and also revolutionary politics were principles some talked around yet few acted out in New England also in 1850 -- and also tright here may have actually been some relief once Fuller's rerevolve was tragically prevented when her ship was wrecked off Long Island also. Hawthorne had actually allowed his Hester to return to her America. But life composed an alternate ending to his novel. In later on researches of a Fuller-favor woguy -- sexually and intellectually independent and also crucial, and a feminist -- he let tragedy close the book.

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Death by drowning -- like Fuller's -- ends the career of magnetic Zenobia in ''The Blithedale Romance''; priboy encloses Miriam's lover in ''The Marble Faun.''

Hawthorne's mind was likewise on his very own current previous. His dismissal from his write-up at the Salem Custom Housage had actually been a scandal over which the Democrats, who acquired him his appointment, and the Whigs, simply then replacing them in office, had actually been squabbling for months. The hubbub marketed the book. But in ''The Custom-House'' he calls his firing a decapitation, arguing that he, like Hester, had actually been inserted on a scaffold. He sees himself as an artist -- the the majority of unpolitical of men -- that has been victimized by political leaders, and also his language makes one think of revolutionary guillotines. Perhaps the introduction's most vital relation to the novel consists in its authorial existence. The voice is that of a reflective man of letters that doubts his very own relation to culture and also its resources of power, as well as the power of his creativity to render truth. This invisible person will certainly tell Hester's story. But he is additionally Hester herself.

Hawthorne's adulterous heroine was a difficulty for the initially reviewers of ''The Scarlet Letter.'' They were too eager to prove that he had actually, as one shelp, ''treated his vulnerable topic without an infusion of George Sand,'' the French writer whose current novels promoted a gospel of unsanctioned love. A few readers might have actually viewed ''The Scarlet Letter'' as an idealistic vision of love blessed by nature if not by culture. Their Hester changed at last to Boston to remember her lover and also to be buried beside him. But the well-intentioned reviewers insisted, on Hawthorne's befifty percent, that he had actually made her penitential destiny noticeable. She had only for a moment been diverted when, after seven years of great works and humility, she convinced Dimmesdale to flee via her. In the secrecy of the wild forest she had actually told him, ''What we did had a consecration of its own''; she pulled the ''hateful token'' from her breast and the Puritan cap from her head, letting her hair loss to her shoulders. Yet the minister who had actually when sinned but would certainly sin no even more passed away on the scaffold exposing his guilt. Hester, though she left Boston, went back after many kind of years, wearing the letter in acquiescence to the Puritan law. It is an interpretation of the book that persists in an influential recent view that Hawthorne's actual topic is not the Puritan people but antebellum America. The submission of this latest penitential Hester is seen as an expression of the nation's need, in Hawthorne's very own day, to attain a ''consensus'' in a time of social discord.

It might be that Hester was a challenge also for her creator. One movie critic has provided the novel a ''Scarlet A minus,'' saying the writer ruined a powerful all-for-love story by his interpolated moralism. When she and also Dimmesdale rebrand-new their pledge of love, the narrator intrudes: ''The scarlet letter was her passport into regions wbelow various other women dared not tcheck out. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers -- stern and also wild ones -- and also they had made her strong, however taught her much amiss.'' The same author-voice concludes, ''The scarlet letter had not done its office,'' as though censuring her for not ending up being quiescent and conservative. But Hawthorne might be implying -- to Hester's crmodify -- that the repressive aim, the ''office'' of the scarlet letter as intended by her Puritan judges, faicaused stifle her genius.

In the end, Hester might have lived out her life in freedom in far-off England also. But by returning alone, Pearl having grown up and married, she can recover the prophetic mission she once put aside for her tiny child's sake. She is unmost likely to uncovered a brand-new sect, prefer Anne Hutchinson. But she can market prophecy at last -something even more, now, than her nursing abilities and also fine needleoccupational. She guarantees troubled young womales that some day ''a new truth'' will certainly be revealed ''in order to establish the whole relation in between male and also woman on a surer ground of common happiness.'' So the cshed of the novel comes earlier to its opening, in which the reader is available a climbed from ''sainted'' Anne Hutchinson's rosebush ''to indicate some sweet moral blossom, that may be uncovered alengthy the track, or relieve the darkening cshed of a tale of huguy frailty and sorrow.''

Millicent Bell, who stays in Boston, is the writer of books on Hawthorne and also Henry James and the president of the Nathaniel Hawthorne Society.

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