Witchcraft, the Demonic, and (Mis)Interpretation in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter should primarily be understood as allegorical, but it is also a historical romance, and because of this, there needs to be consideration of the historical context. Historical romances do not merely act out a quest or adventure but displays the beliefs and conditions of the time in which it is set, providing the author with a vehicle for criticism, satire and a greater poetic license within the tale. Considering The Scarlet Letter takes place in seventeenth-century Puritan Boston, there would inevitably be the mention of witchcraft. The Scarlet Letter does not directly focus on Salem witchcraft, especially because Hawthorne set the novel pre-witch craze in America but the novel is deeply influenced by the theme[i]. The internalised pattern of witchcraft was effected on a much larger scale in the cultural representation of women in general[ii] and this is evident within the characters of Mistress Hibbins and Pearl. However, Roger Chillingworth is also associated with necromancy in the novel, indicating that Hawthorne was not necessarily making a comment on gender through his incorporation of supernatural elements. By setting The 

Scarlet Letter in a time outside his own, Hawthorne has the freedom to create a more fantastical narrative and he uses the elements of witchcraft or witch-like happenings in the novel to explore themes of rebellion against an oppressive community and the troubles of representation and interpretation.

Hawthorne is ambivalent in where his loyalties lie within the text as shown by “The Custom-House” essay. Hawthorne describes his ancestors as two notorious persecutors of witches and heretics, William and John Hathorne, the latter said to have been the harshest judge of the Salem trials[iii], and he notes that “strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine”[iv]. He also remarks though that his ancestors would find him “positively disgraceful”[v] because of his idle lifestyle of writing. When he finds the manuscript and the weathered scarlet letter, he places the letter on his chest, which causes a “burning heat”[vi] that seems to ally him with Hester instead of his prosecuting ancestors, even though at certain times within the narrative he seems disapproving of some of Hester’s actions. Furthermore, there are other fantastical elements associated with him writing The Scarlet Letter, tying him even closer to characters in the novel who are considered preternatural in some way, such as Pearl or Mistress Hibbins. Hawthorne becomes compelled by the ghost of the Surveyor Pue to write and then remarks on how a moonlight-filled room is “most suitable for a romance-writer” and that in writing this story he is transported “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land”[vii]. There appears to be a link between writing and imaginative powers and the supernatural elements of the narrative; both are things that Puritans would have disapproved of and would not have understood, at least according to Hawthorne’s construction of Puritan Boston. Within The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne draws attention to characters that the townsfolk consider demonic or witchy and uses the ambiguity of the narrative to criticise the Puritan aesthetic.

Mistress Hibbins can be interpreted as a strictly allegorical figure in the text, similar to the witches in “Young Goodman Brown”, as she tempts both Hester and Dimmesdale to go into the forest (of sin), but Mistress Hibbins is based after a real person: Ann Hibbins who was executed for witchcraft on June 19, 1656. Hibbins was a clever, but increasingly bitter woman after the death of her husband. There are remarks from some of her contemporaries, such as Joshua Scottow who imply that she was unjustly condemned. Increase Mather and Cotton Mather do not mention her in their papers on witchcraft, which may possibly be explained by the feeling she had been unjustly condemned[viii]. Further tying Mistress Hibbins to history is the reference to her “especial friend”[ix] Ann Turner, who was hung for poisoning Sir Thomas Overbury in 1615. Giving Mistress Hibbins a grounding in an actual historical figure makes a better case for her being a real and not wholly symbolic character. The ambiguity in her guilt or innocence is similar to the way the community feels about Hester throughout the novel: there are mixed feelings about Hester’s crime and her subsequent actions of charity and goodwill as the narrative progresses. Mistress Hibbins is only a minor character who appears at pivotal points in both Hester and Dimmesdale’s stories to tempt them into the forest because she seems aware of their secret, probably not through any magical means but through intuition and observation of their actions[x]. The narrative voice consistently labels her as a witch, even at the beginning of the novel as the townsfolk are speculating about who is to be punished, and there is speculation that “it might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins…was to die upon the gallows”[xi] instead of Hester’s public shaming. The constant assumption by the Bostonians that Hibbins is a witch, probably because she is old, not very attractive, and cranky, contributes to the portrayal of the seventeenth-century Puritans as immensely detrimental in their assumptions about members of their community. Mistress Hibbins serves as an example, along with Hester and Pearl, of the casualties of the intolerant and misinterpreting Puritans.

On first impressions, Pearl seems to be the most allegorical figure of the text. Leslie Fiedler remarks that Pearl, “is so distorted in the interests of her symbolic role that she seems by turns incredible and absurd…she is disconcertingly benign—as often compared to a rosebush as to a witch”[xii]. She is the Pearl “of great price”[xiii]her mother paid, a figure that is simultaneously described as pure and beautiful as well as elfin and witch-like. Pearl is the living emblem of Hester’s guilt because not only she resembles the scarlet letter but also because she embodies what the letter can only represent— the passions that motivated Hester’s transgression[xiv]. Hawthorne’s use of “multiple-choice”[xv] in the ambiguity of his narration and varied use of imagery with Pearl means there are numerous ways in which to approach her, making it difficult to determine whether to view her as a witch-child or cherub. This ambiguity is partly because the narrator describes how the townsfolk, such as Governor Bellingham, might think about the child rather than the narrator indicating there is any truth in Pearl’s witchiness. Pearl is sometimes associated with demonic imagery: the narrator describes her at times as an “airy sprite”[xvi], “imp of evil”[xvii], and having strange behaviours, as “the unlikeliest materials, a stick, a bunch of rags, a flower, were the puppets of Pearl’s witchcraft”[xviii]. However, there are also very different descriptions of Pearl, making her out to be a child heaven-sent. She has an “absolute circle of radiance around her”[xix] and “the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to have been left there…after the world’s first parents were driven out”[xx]. Even within a few pages there is a radical difference in the way Pearl is described; she seems to be at once a child of Eden or a hellish trickster whose only purpose is torment.

Both demonic and angelic descriptions of Pearl are associated with nature, as sprites, imps, and elves are all fey-creatures, tricky and sometimes dangerous or evil fey creatures, but elemental in origin nonetheless. The Puritan community seems to have a discomfort with nature generally, as legend has it that a Black Man who steals souls lives in the forest[xxi] and Chillingworth is considered a necromancer because he learned herbal lore from his time spent with Indigenous people[xxii]. The apprehension to anything out of the ordinary in the community (such as Pearl’s illegitimate birth) puts the townsfolk on edge, reading witchcraft and demons into figures who are not necessarily supernatural. Like Mistress Hibbins, Pearl is a character who has accusations of witchcraft and demonic imagery imposed upon her by an intolerant town.  Frye says of demonic imagery that it is “closely linked with an existential hell, like Dante’s Inferno, or with the hell that man creates on earth”[i]. Interestingly, Pearl has demonic imagery imposed upon her but the narrator uses demonic imagery to describe Boston as well, suggesting that the real evil is the oppressive groupthink of the community. The novel opens with a description of a cemetery and a prison, immediately introducing an environment where “religion and law were almost identical…the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful”[ii]. This draconian town seems more similar to the “hell that man creates on earth” than Pearl with her intuitive questioning of her mother and Reverend Dimmesdale.

Hawthorne takes up the themes of unjust punishment, dissent and (mis)interpretation through the suggestions of witchcraft or witch-like descriptions in The Scarlet Letter. Creating a distance between the narrator’s attitudes and that of the townsfolk allows us to question the validity of the assessments that certain people in the community are evil, such as Hester, Mistress Hibbins and Pearl. By aligning himself with both Hester and more fantastical happenings (such as the ghostly Surveyor’s visitation) within “The Custom-House”, we can potentially draw connections between witchcraft, sin, and literature. Hester because of her adultery and Mistress Hibbins in her eccentricity and deformity are disapproved of in the eyes of the Puritan community, just as that same community, and Hawthorne’s ancestors, would have disapproved of Hawthorne’s idle lifestyle as a writer of fiction. The element of witchcraft merges with the other elements of the literary allegory to make a satire on the Puritan aesthetic[xxv] and allows an imaginative space for a freer exploration on the nature of intolerance and rebellion.

 


[i] Schwab, Gabrielle. “Seduced by Witches: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in the Context of New England Witchcraft Fictions.” Seduction and Theory: Readings of Gender, Representation, and Rhetoric. Ed. Dianne Hunter. 170-195. New York: University of Illinois Press, 1989, 170.

[ii] Ibid, 170.

[iii] Ibid, 180.

[iv] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Print, 12.

[v] Ibid, 13.

[vi] Ibid, 32.

[vii] Ibid, 35.

[viii] Poole, William F. “The Case of Ann Hibbins, Executed for Witchcraft at Boston in 1656.” Joshua Scottow Papers. Accessed 25 January 2014. Web, 4.

[ix] Hawthorne, 193.

[x] Wentersdorf, Karl P. “The Element of Witchcraft in The Scarlet Letter.Folklore. 83.2. (1972):   132-153. Accessed 18 Janurary 2014. Web, 144.

[xi] Hawthorne, 47.

[xii] Quoted in Nudelman, Franny. “‘Emblem and Product of Sin’: The Poisoned Child in The Scarlet Letter and Domestic Advice Literature.” The Yale Journal of Criticism. 10.1. (1997): 192-213. Accessed 18 January 2014. Web, 201.

[xiii] Hawthorne, 80.

[xiv] Nudelman, 193.

[xv] Wentersdorf, 144.

[xvi] Hawthorne, 82.

[xvii] Ibid, 84.

[xviii] Ibid, 85.

[xix] Ibid, 81.

[xx] Ibid, 80.

[xxi] Ibid, 70.

[xxii] Ibid, 223.

[xxiii] Frye, Northrop. “Archetypal Criticism: Theory of Myths.” Anatomy of Criticism, Four Essays. New York: Princeton University Press, 2000. 131.223. Print, 147.

[xxiv] Hawthorne, 47.

[xxv] Wentersdorf, 153.

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