On One Sentence from The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne’s stories are often imbued with a calculated fog that makes it difficult to draw any definite lesson or meaning therefrom, even though Hawthorne himself called many of them “allegory,” a tale that conveys a concept or moral. I’d go even further: not only is it impossible to assign a meaning to a given story, but also it’s often impossible to determine the actual course of events. For instance, in “Young Goodman Brown,” after the eponymous character witnesses the “witches’ sabbath” in the woods, the narrator asks:

Had Goodman Brown fallen asleep in the forest, and only dreamed a wild dream of a witch-meeting?
Be it so, if you will… .

We question the verity of the events narrated, even as Young Goodman Brown treats them as truth. He lives his remaining days suspicious of everyone, and “his dying hour was gloom.”

I’d argue that even The Scarlet Letter emerges from a similar ambiguous haze, though our need to narrativize—that is, to “read” like Young Goodman Brown, locking into to a specific account of events—is so strong that we disregard that haze. Instead, we draw our “moral,” our reading—however subtle, however theory-infused—from those events.

I have in mind a single sentence from “The Custom House,” the introduction to the novel that high school teachers and college professors alike have informed me that they skip, since it’s tedious and has no bearing on the story. Wikipedia—which, I recognize, is no authority, but is a stand-in for the “average view”—does not even bother to mention “The Custom House.”

“The Custom House” is narrated, ostensibly, by Hawthorne himself. He explains that, while he was working as a surveyor at the custom house, he discovered “a small package, carefully done up in a piece of ancient yellow parchment” that he realized was placed there by his “respected predecessor,” a Mr. Surveyor Pue.

This package contained the documents from which the story of The Scarlet Letter is derived. In one complicated, slippery sentence, Hawthorne explains their origin:

Aged persons, alive in the time of Mr. Surveyor Pue, and from whose oral testimony he had made up his narrative, remembered her [Hester Prynne], in their youth, as a very old, but not decrepit woman, of a stately and solemn aspect.

There’s a fascinating timeline here. Just before this sentence, Hawthorne relates that Hester “flourished during a period between the early days of Massachusetts and the close of the seventeenth century.” The colony of Massachusetts was founded in 1630, so Hester flourished some time during the 70 year span of 1630 – 1700. Note that we only have a “flourished,” which itself suggests uncertainty, since it is used when the dates of birth and death are unknown.

Surveyor Pue gathers oral testimony from “aged persons [who] remembered her, in their youth, as a very old, but not decrepit woman.” Let’s unpack that: “Aged persons… remembered her, in their youth.” That means that the information Pue collected was the oral testimony of older folks—60 years old, let’s say—recalling memories from their childhood. So if they were 10 years old when they learned about Hester, we’re talking about roughly 50 year-old memories.

Add to that the fact that they were children when they learned about Hester. Consider: how much can a child possibly understand about sin, guilt, adultery, and the nature of evil? No child has the conceptual tools or even the language to completely process much of the substance of The Scarlet Letter, yet if we are to believe Hawthorne, that’s precisely we have: the tale as filtered through the eyes of a child.

So far, we have a story with “mature content,” as they say, viewed through a child’s understanding, and recalled 50 years later and written down by Pue. But it gets worse: these so-called witnesses weren’t present during the events of the story: they only knew Hester as a “very old” woman. At the beginning of the novel proper, when Hester leaves the prison, she’s described as a “young woman.” So if Hester is 20 when she leaves the prison, and she’s 70 when Pue’s sources knew her, what they know is, at best, roughly 50 year old memories and rumors. And it seems unlikely that these second-hand witnesses actually spoke with the “very old” Hester, since they appear to see her from afar, as a “woman of a stately and solemn aspect.”

Finally, Pue died “4 score years” before the narrator’s present, which I’m assuming is roughly 1850, when The Scarlet Letter was published. So Pue’s document itself has to be over 80 years old, written sometime before 1760.

To put it in perspective, if we related this timeline to the current year, we’d be talking about a oral testimony of “aged persons,” written down by someone else in 1930, regarding what they heard as children in 1880 about events that happened in 1830.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: that sentence may be absurd, but it’s fiction! Be it so, if you will: what intrigues me is the care with which Hawthorne constructs this absurdity. Why did he bother? And why do we so often misread it?

Perhaps I speak only for myself: I confess, I passed by this sentence several times over the years, and summarizing it to myself as, “It happened a while ago.” I missed the point that, in his wily, oblique way, Hawthorne is saying: “The story is pulled from thin air; take care with the conclusions you draw from it.” I cannot help but feel like a (hopefully reformed) Young Goodman Brown.

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