The Scarlet Letter is one of the most uniquely autobiographical novels in the history of American literature. The “Custom House Introductory,” which sets the stage for Hawthorne’s morality play, is a remarkably verbose and pious admission of the sins not only of his direct Puritan forebears, but of the Puritan moral ethic. As Hawthorne takes upon himself the sin of his tyrannical ancestors, so America bears the sin of its intolerant and oppressive beginnings. Hawthorne’s rich use of imagery acts as a poignant reminder that profound injustice is done when redemption is denied to the humbled, and the blight it leaves on the oppressor’s soul is as undeniable as the “A” that Hester Prynne bore.
For Hawthorne, the great promise of America, born in the concept of inalienable human rights, was morally compromised by the inflexibly stark theocracy that held sway in 17th-century New England. Its hypocrisy lay in that its founders had fled one tyranny only to establish another in the New World. For Hawthorne, the righteous symbolism that Americans identify so dearly with their notion of freedom can just as easily be made an emblem of their own repression. Hawthorne’s Custom House eagle represented this paradox for Americans, who imagined “that her bosom has all the softness and snugness of an eider down pillow, but she has no great tenderness, even in her best of moods, and, sooner or later – oftener soon than late – is apt to fling off her nestlings, with a scratch of her claw, a dab of her beak, or a rankling wound from her barbed arrows” (Hawthorne, 4). The eagle may stand for retribution, but whose retribution is not always such a simple matter.
Perhaps the most misinterpreted and misappropriated passage in the Bible is surely the one that says vengeance belongs to the Lord. The “stern and black-browed Puritans” in The Scarlet Letter have taken upon themselves the mantle of divinely appointed authority (Hawthorne, 9). Hawthorne’s darkly ominous prison door is a symbol of the oppression they wield in the name of their God. The door represents the dead end which is their moral bankruptcy, above which one might expect to see the words, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” or “Arbeit macht frei.” Upon this “ugly edifice,” the “rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than anything in the New World. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era” (Hawthorne, 54).
Yet on the very threshold of this image of hopelessness grows a rose bush, the incongruous presence of which stands as testimony to the persistent presence of redemptive hope. Its blossoms “which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him” (Hawthorne, 54). Hawthorne’s pairing of two such disparate symbols tells us that that which is bleak and that which renews are often found on opposite sides of the same coin. As such, the rose bush “may serve…to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow” (Hawthorne, 54).
In the dour, iron-grey world of Puritan New England, redemption is in scant supply. It’s there to be found but, as with the rose bush, it exists in unlikely places. Salvation is represented by unlikely symbols and characters. Pearl, the very embodiment of Hester’s sin, is both the cost of her mother’s adultery and her route to redemption. Pearl has cost Hester everything; her good name, her standing among the theocratic Puritans and, as Hester’s judges would have it, her very soul. She is a “pearl” in the truest sense, rare and precious not only to Hester but to this unforgiving, self-righteous society that surely as guilty as Hester. Born into sin, representative of sin, Pearl exists, Christ-like, in a state of grace that places her beyond the petty ugliness of the world around her. At play, she adorns herself with a rudimentary version of the “A” her mother bears. Blithely unaware of its meaning, in a sense, its taint cannot touch her. “’Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?’” “’Truly do I!’” answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother’s face. “’It is for the same reason the minister keeps his hand over his heart!’” (Hawthorne, 209).