The Letter or Its Traces in Discourse

by Robert Silhol

October 25, 2010




We already know that my discourse tells who I am as a subject. And by « subject » I mean the subject of an unconscious desire. The « Letter » would then be what designs an « object, » provided we manage to read it or, rather, to analyze it, for it cannot be said to have only one signification. As I see it, one can look at this letter as the final stage of the metaphor, an effect which has now to be deciphered, for « all signs, » in the words of Michael J. Colacurcio, « are signs of something. » (1)


Such a deciphering–which I take to be different from a « reading », however personal—is not always easy, but provided one has taken the trouble—or been lucky enough—to give oneself the adequate psychoanalytic « tools ,» with prudence and patience, it can be done. (2)


But I am starting too hastily, for to bluntly state that a subject’s discourse reveals his or her unconscious desire—an essential tenet of psychoanalytical thinking—may need some clarification, particularly when the discourse whose analysis is envisaged is a text. The debate is not new, and  is likely to continue yet for some time, if only because one of the functions of literature—and the condition of our reading pleasure—is precisely to make us forget that we are dealing with representation. (3)


Coleridge warned us about this over two centuries ago : reading implies the « suspension » of our « disbelief , » which is a manner of saying that one of the functions of literature is to maintain an illusion of truth while fundamentally deceiving us about its very nature, for the word can never be the thing. In short, like the act of speaking, the act of reading implies the hallucinatory satisfaction that between words and things there is no void, which leads to a definition of reading as the intimate reconstruction of a meaning whose function is to make the reader forget the existence of this void, a fable to conceal it. 


That the fable is not devoid of a particular meaning, of this there is no doubt, but we must realize that such a meaning differs with each subject, and this is precisely why I speak of a reconstruction by each reader (See Norman Holland and reader response). Indeed, there are two texts, or a multitude of texts : one for its author, and one for each reader. And this is where the concept of subject comes into the picture, and it is a concept that may not have been handled with sufficient epistemological care by psychoanalytical critics, I think. For we cannot speak of the particular subject psychoanalysis has in mind without insisting on the fact that it is an unconscious subject, S/. It follows that when we try to account for the actions of a literary character, however carefully observed and rendered, what must be borne in mind is that we are only dealing with a representation and not with a « subject » as defined above. A character is but a sign, and signs cannot be said to « behave » unconsciously ; only the visible part of the iceberg, they point to what is unconscious, but no more. All this is well known, or should be : outside the presence of somenone producing them, signs have no existence of their own ; they exist as the sum of individual readings produced when read by individual subjects and transmitted through the ages. Naturally, there is some agreement as to what the visible part of the iceberg signifies on its own, without this no language would be possible : « communication » rests on this minimal agreement, only then can misunderstanding occur, and the free play of interpretations take place about what the immersed part of the iceberg                    represents. To cut a long story short, as a « sign ,» a character cannot be moved to act according to unconscious processes, the apparent autonomy of a character is simply the representation—the reflection—of someone else’s (would be) autonomy, the author of the portrait namely. (4)


It remains of course that some representations are more accurate than others. There is no denying that the portraits of Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth, to take some striking examples—but there are plenty of others, from Flaubert’s Emma Bovary to Faulkner’s Benjy—, testify of the accuracy which is sometimes found in literary characters, and there is no reason why we should deprive ourselves of the opportunity of studying « human nature » through these portraits. In the very end, though, the logic, or the lack of it, behind a character’s behavior cannot be accounted for by an analysis of the portrait alone as if he or she were a person of flesh and blood. And this, above all, because a portrait is but an effect, the result of unconscious processes which can only be approached thanks to a careful analysis of the words that constitute the portrait. These words can uncover a far larger ground than what can ever be found through the study of a character. In short, the information we are now capable of obtaining from the analysis of the discourse which « brings to life » literary characters proves richer than the portraits themselves.


Which brings us back to a letter which would be the sign of an unconscious subject. It is of course a sign which has to be interpreted, but thanks to psychoanalysis we know how to do this, even though it is not always such an easy task. 


The enterprise will consist in the construction of an hypothesis concerning the «desire » at work in the production of the text considered, and then its verification, a « verification » which will account for the coherence of the work examined, and this means the logic of its development, or the lack of such, which may thus render more intelligible what would otherwise have remained obscure. In the end, it all amounts to a simple and obvious question : « But what does it mean ? » which can be rephrased thus : «What does the letter tell us about the subject it represents ? ». 


Once this is done, a second question comes to mind, which may even be more essential for the psychoanalyst. I refer to an hypothesis on the conditions of production of the very subject we have uncovered, its determinations. For indeed I take these determinations to be inscribed in the very discourse of each subject and this naturally leads to what I take to be a fundamental question : « But where does the letter come from ? » 


The thesis here adumbrated is that the nature of a subject’s desire is to be looked for in its history and this may really seem obvious although the difficulty of the inquiry clearly indicates how, as subjects, we are reluctant to pursue such a search. One will recognize in the enterprise a development of Lacan’s « desire of the Other, » a concept he more especially dealt with in one of his last « Seminars » where he spoke of Joyce. (5)


But first, for the sake of clarity, a word about Jacques Lacan’s letter or, rather, the one Edgar A.Poe reported « purloined. » This letter, in fact this enveloppe--which by the way may well be empty—which in the tale goes round from one person to another, is a perfect metaphor of what may be conceived as « unconscious desire, » that is, in Lacan’s words, the desire for the phallus, the imaginary object the mother lost when she lost her veil. Stolen, purloined, that letter, in its « travels, » goes from one to the other and points at each stage to the desire of the person who momentarily holds it. Lacan’s demonstration is well known, there is no need to repeat it here, it is a brilliant and rigorous essay on sexual difference, on one aspect of unconscious desire and on the notion of the phallus. We shall not be overly concerned here if the approach Lacan has chosen leads him to wish that the letter should be returned to the King in the end even though we know quite well that Poe’s neurotic desire had it returned to the Lady.


Lacan’s reading of the letter made explicit, we can now proceed from the generic to the particular and begin to look for a dimension of the said symbol more closely related to the destiny of an individual subject. In this respect, it seems Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) constitutes a perfect object of analysis for the psychoanalytic critic and we may quickly realize how the very title of Hawthorne’s romance already testifies of his extraordinary psychological insight.


Much has been written about The Scarlet Letter—books and articles on Hawthorne’s novel probably number nearly a thousand--, but what has perhaps not been said, beyond the moral problem raised by the plot, beyond the psychology of the characters and, naturally, beyond what the story may reveal from the point of view of social history, is that this scarlet letter constitutes a metaphor of the highest interest for psychoanalytical research. In short, I read the letter Hawthorne placed visibly and invisibly on his characters as a sign —object a if you like—which indicates how the law, and not only the law of the city, is inscribed in a subject, S/. Such is the hypothesis I wish to verify. 


And now to the logic of the narration in The Scarlet Letter, a novel Hawthorne labelled with insistence a romance, thus clearly claiming his intention to free himself from the rules of realism. (6) 


Already, the title of the novel—this has been remarked—is fraught with symbolical meanings : scarlet, an obvious reference to the « sin » of the flesh because of a possible association with « scarlet woman,» can also be interpreted, because of scar, as pointing to what is inscribed on the body, a wound, an indelible mark, a stain. 


The actors and  « events » narrated in the drama are well known : Pearl, a child born out of wedlock ; Hester, a yound mother whose (old) husband disappeared two years before ; Chillingsworth, the husband, who suddenly reappears at the opening of the story but commands Hester’s silence about his return ; and last, but not at all least, the absent father, of course.


In the first few pages of the tale, the young mother, who has been condemned to wear a scarlet A on her dress—A for Ad, as in adultery—, is summoned to reveal the name of her child’s father. But in vain. The interrogation is carried out by Arthur Dimmesdale, the young and brilliant  minister of the community, but his emphatic questionning leads nowhere. Hester will remain silent, and silent in more ways than one, since she complies with the imperative bidding of her old husband hidden among the crowd not to reveal his presence. 


There is no need, I think, to insist on the obvious Oedipal structure of that part of the story, as several critics--but not all--have remarked. Perfectly describing the Oedipal scene, the triangle is also a  good representation of the three roles held in adultery, and there are several such triangles in The Scarlet Letter.  Beyond this simple situation, however, not so unusual after all, something else attracts our attention, for what from the start is emphasized is the importance of the father, and also, more pregnant perhaps than his absence, the silence that prevails about it. Here, then, is what we have: a husband who hides himself and who is not the   father of the child, and a father who hides himself and who is not the husband of the mother. The surface of the narration will thus consist in making the father appear. 


However kept in ignorance by the storyteller, I do not think it takes us too long to guess that the hidden father is none other than Arthur Dimmesdale, the respected and talented pastor of the community. Indeed, as the story develops, the clues left here and there by the author reveal the clergyman to be the father everybody is looking for. Only the readers are allowed such knowledge however (after the scenes in the forest, in Chapters XVI and XVII there can be no doubt), for the crowd assembled around the scaffold will have to wait till the end of the story to find out who the absent father is. In short, as I have just pointed out, the novel represents, stages, the gradual unveiling of the father’s identity. For secrecy controls the behavior of Arthur Dimmesdale, and he will remain as silent as the other two persons concerned in the triangle. In fact, whatever the « conscious » reasons for his behavior—and they cannot explain everything in the story-- : concern about the reputation of his holy ministry, plain selfishness, cowardice, inability to assume his sexual desire, it matters little, since he is only a character in a fiction, the logic of his actions residing elsewhere than in the would be psychology of the portrait, that is to say in its symbolic dimension. For it is Hawthorne, of course, who—before carefully organizing the unveiling of the truth--prevents « him » from revealing his secret, and Hawthorne also who condemns him to be a victim of the pangs of guilt, a feeling of guilt, needless to say, that is no other than that of the Oedipal son and which will have to be commented upon. 


All this because of a « letter, » that is to say because of what happened between Hester and Dimmesdale and which resulted in a stain that cannot be blotted out : the child (which incites me to insist in passing on the fact that one of the significations of this union, besides its evident Oedipal dimension, is to have transformed Hester and Dimmesdale into parents). Hester’s letter, the first to appear in the story, is easily legible : flamboyant, it is the sign of a rebellion or at least of a severe criticism of the laws touching sexuality in Puritan times in America (1642) and perhaps also somewhat still prevailing at the time the novel was written. Many critics, although not all, have dealt with this aspect of the story.


The letter Dimmesdale bears on his very skin is much more complex. In the first place, it is only openly revealed at the end of the novel, which means that, contrary to Hester’s letter, it is supposed to remain secret. In fact, there is only one letter, simply, Dimmesdale’s represents its hidden face. This makes us realize the importance of silence in the tale, a silence that characterizes three of the main actors : it is indeed the mainspring of the plot . Because silence commands the unfolding of the tragedy almost to the end, The Scarlet Letter is an apt  metaphor of unconscious forces in us. Hawthorne’s book is a perfect illustration of the blindness of the subject, it constitutes a representation of our unawareness when unconscious desire is concerned, and I hope it is clear I am not speaking of sexual desire only, even if, in the event it has its role to play ! In short, what we have here is an unconscious « content » that manifests itself but whose meaning is unknown to us at first. It is easy to understand why some critics, discussing  Dimmesdale’s « case, » have thought of Hamlet. Unconscious desire cannot openly reveal itself, at best it can be named or half-named rather, can only be guessed at through what is being manifested, but no more. If we can attempt to speak of it it is only because of the existence of a « letter .» It is only through it, and only should be stressed, that the hypothesis of a latent desire is possible. All this is well known.Beyond this general symbolic dimension, a faithful image of  our unawareness , what other information can we infer from the muteness of three of the main characters in the book ? The hypothesis is that if we consider the novel as discourse-- parole de sujet-- it will inform us on the Desire of its producer. The above question naturally indicates we have now left the  domain of literary criticism proper to engage in an inquiry akin to clinical work, or, more modestly, in an approach which we can label « literary anthopology. » 


One thing we can easily understand, and that is Dimmesdale’s silence in as much as he represents the « son » in a triangular configuration in which the place of the « father » is empty. His guilt, in fact, originates in this absence, a void  which corresponds to one of his unconscious desires and which explains his guilt : « If the husband of the woman I love is not here, if he has disappeared, it is because I have wanted him to disappear. » To the question : « Why doesn’t he speak ? » then, we can answer : « Because his desire is too heavy and dreadful to be consciously admitted. » As we shall see, however, this is not the only symbolical dimension of the character : for Dimmesdale , as a « signifier, » has indeed several « signified. »


As far as the silence which burdens the story is concerned, however, another question, prompted by the fact that no one except the child accepts to tell the truth, comes to mind: indeed, how can we explain the author’s choice, not only of one psychologically understandable silent character, but of the other two who remain equally silent ?  Thus are we lead to consider silence in The Scarlet Letter as our first important clue. Which again leads us to ask ourselves what it could possibly reveal of the unconscious desire of the subject responsible for the story. 


But first, a word about the child, for she is the only one to ask questions. (Chillingsworth also asks questions--or rather « the question »--, but because he knows so much, suspects so much  from the beginning, we can consider him as one who knows rather than as one who asks questions ; in fact, all he does is conduct an interrogation, for all he wants is a confession.) With the character of Pearl, then, there is no ambiguity, we have here the representation of a child and nothing else : Hawthorne’s daughter first, as we know, and as some passages of the writer’s Journal explain, but much more than this, for if it is a known fact that Hawthorne took Una as a model for his character, Pearl is also the representatrion of a child who is kept estranged from the truth. 


Now, if we do not lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a « sign » and not with a real person, any question about « her » will bear on the meaning of the portrait rather than on the verisimilitude of the portrait itself. Exactly as in the analysis of a dream, what information we can obtain from « Pearl » will help us to acquire some further knowledge, not of the child who was consciously and outwardly described but on the subject of a given discourse. So that in the end, the child who is trying to find out what the truth is will turn out to be also a portrait of the writer himself, our « patient.» And the question « What is hidden from the child ?» will receive what may seem a simple answer : the mystery of her origin, which is much more than the mystery of the « primal scene », present, nevertheless, in several passages of the book also. ( 7) A « mystery, » then, and this is never simple ; it is the mystery  I take to be at the origin of the creation of Hawthrone’s fiction and it defines clearly what the task of the « analyst » is now going to be : find out what this mystery was.


If we now turn to the other three characters, what they represent when we analyze them as parts of  the writer’s discourse might help us to understand more precisely what Pearl is trying to find out. 


Touching Hester’s silence, to begin with, we should not worry too much about the obvious lack of verisimilitude in  the episode in which  Chillingsworth orders her to remain silent and to keep his return secret. This, after all, is a romance, and the rules of realism clearly do not apply. What I cannot help noticing is that Hester’s compliance remains unexplained and also that much in the story depends on her silence. Exactly as in a dream, again, the episode may seem strange but is not devoid of meaning ; its very lack of realism makes it all the more interesting for the analyst. What does it mean, then, to have this character refuse to speak the truth ? Docility ? Fear ? But what has she got to lose, condemned as she already is by all ? Obviously, to reveal her old husband’s sudden return would not make her appear less guilty in the eyes of the community, but it might at least constitute an explanation, an attempt to lessen the blame attached to her conduct. And then, her silence represents a serious risk for her companion. If she doesn’t want to reveal her husband’s return to her judges, couldn’t she at least warn the man she loves ? Warn Dimmesdale not to confide in the inquisitive old man with whom he is going to share lodgings ? Isn’t there some disloyalty in this ? I know I am here considering Hester’s « psychology,» and have thus fallen into the trap of fiction, but this  permits me to draw attention to the utter lack of logic in Hester’s behavior. What is certain is that Hawthorne’s handling of Hester’s apparently incomprehensible silence must have mattered a great deal to him. And could it be that the explanation of such an incomprehensible behavior lies in the fact that there was « something » no one must know, but which, all the same, had to be expressed ? It is this something we shall have to clarify. 


Let us hope a patient analysis of the words which make up the story will help us to understand what must have been at stake here.  For the time being, we shall content ourselves

with the explanation that there was something which could not be said. In the end, Hester’s letter may have been to seek reclusion and to live on the edge of the village, there to lead a silent and obscure life.


And now let us take one more step : we saw how Dimmesdale was prevented from telling the truth because he could not bear to recognize what we analyzed as the desire of the son to see his father removed from the scene, a desire to see him dead. Is this, however, all of his letter ? A feeling of guilt on which Hawthorne insists so much and that is openly related to the sin of the flesh ? Must we limit the symbolical dimension of Dimmesdale to this ? For beside the Oedipal child in his character we must not forget « he » is also the father of Pearl. A father, yes, but an absent one. Not only Hester’s absent companion, the husband hidden to the eyes of the community, but also the father who does not want to be discovered. 


Those who know Hawthorne’s biography no doubt guess what I am driving at. But if we want to trace the writer’s words to their origin, can we renounce to use the information available to us about the writer’s life ? My purpose here is not to establish the aesthetic value of The Scarlet Letter ; my research is of a psychoanalytic nature and is, in the ordinary sense of the word, not « literary. » The whole point of the enterprise is to point out again that the status of the analyst as I understand it is not that of a simple reader ; as I have written elsewhere, we can no longer follow Keats and say that « Beauty is truth, truth beauty. » (8) As for Hawthorne, one of his truths is that he lost his father at the age of four ; a ship’s captain, the latter disappeared at sea in the Philippines. It is more than likely that the reason for the lack of proper information at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter about the identity of the two male characters—as husband and as father—is to be found in that single fact which confronted mother and child: death and absence. In the book, however, death is not what emerges at first. The reader will have to wait for this ; what he only comes across are the signs of what is fundamentally missing : shadows, obscure presences, ghosts in a word. Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale are not dead yet, at first, both are the absent bearers of a secret, that is all. 


Using the fact of the death of Hawthorne’s father as a starting point—which doesn’t at all mean that I shall privilege the writer’s biography, my purpose being simply to verify the hypothesis dictated by what is to be found in the writer’s discourse—, a whole series of details found in the written text acquire a signification unsuspected at first. I have just mentioned absence, and silence also, not yet completely analyzed but which already speaks of death to us, and in a moment we shall come across several words which will help us to better imagine what Hawthorne’s unconscious desire must have been.


 For the writer’s unconscious desire did organize the narration in The Scarlet Letter and drew the various features of the four main characters.Examining them one by one we might identify such desire with more precision and come to the conclusion as to what the role of this « architect » must have been.


We can begin with the walk in the forest mother and daughter take in chapter XVI. So openly allegoric of the mysteries which surround Pearl and Hester, the forest will no doubt yield some clues to us. « The day is chill and sombre, » and almost as if he wanted his reader to lose his way, Hawthorne  describes the forest as « black and dense on either side,» fraught with « the mysteries of the primitive forest , » and only disclosing « such imperfect glimpses of the sky above. » The insistence is such, however,  that one may well venture to read the « cold and dark » forest as foreshadowing death. And yet, it is true, there is a light « breeze, » and the sun does appear here and there. It is a timid sun, « feebly sportive, »  but it can yet play with Hester and Pearl, withdrawing as they approach, as if there were some hidden signification in its presence, the sign of something, or of someone rather, someone who in real life can also hide or disappear. And what better metaphor of language than this ? The world is dark, it is true, but not quite, and some light remains : we are separated from the world out there, from the Real, but we can speak, that is to say symbolically represent what we do not have!


Thus is the game Pearl plays with the sun fraught with meaning. See how Hester’s child knows how to place herself in the spaces where the sun shines—and here we can think of Una of course—while her mother, less happy, cannot manage to stay long in those « magic » circles. We can think of the games Una may have been playing with the sun, of course, but we cannot help noticing how child and parent are treated differently in the scene: as parent, Nathaniel may well have wished that his daughter be spared his own particular fate. 


          « It will go now ! » said Pearl, shaking her head.


And indeed, the sun disappears. Not much psychoanalytic knowledge is needed to give an interpretation of that sun as a likely sign of what Hester is deprived of. (We all know that children’s drawings or writings often use the sun as a representation of  their father.) The explanation, prompted by the writer to the child, is clear enough :


           « …the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it

           is afraid of something on your bosom. »


Having directed Pearl to point the letter, Hawthorne almost explains its symbolism, stressing, as the little girl is not far from guessing, that it all started with the death of a husband and of a father, and also telling us in passing how the absence of a parent can be interpreted by the child as a loss of love ; a loss of love which the other parent also suffered from. The letter defines a destiny, and even if the one proceeds from the other, letter and absence are given as indissociable ; Hester is that lonely woman, alone like a widow and in more ways than one.


Then comes what--if it were in a dream, or because of what we already know--would constitute an essential element of Hawthorne’s symbolism, a necessary piece of the puzzle. Weary, the mother wants to rest and sit down, but the child doesn’t at all agree :


          « Come, my child […] We will sit down a little way within the wood, and 

          rest ourselves. »


          « I am not weary, mother, » replied the little girl. « But you may sit down, if you will

          tell me a story meanwhile. »


The terms of the « bargain » are clear, expressed by the « meanwhile. »  The child lays down her conditions, she insists and wants to know. For it seems only an explanation—an analysis ?—can set Hawthorne’s soul at rest ! 


          « A story, child ! » said Hester. « And what about ? »


          « O, a story about the Black Man ! »


The Black Man ! But what does Pearl know about this mysterious personage ? She knows that he haunts the forest, and that he always carries a book with him—a book which may hold a secret, a secret which is about to be revealed perhaps—and above all she knows that the man is wicked—Hawthorne wrote « ugly »--because of the way he « offers his book and his iron pen (9) to every body that meets him here among the trees ; and they are to write their names with their own blood. » And when they have written their names in the book, « he sets his mark on their bosoms ! »


The portrait is more precise–more realistic even—than we might have thought at first, and yet nothing is said that could inform the child, or the reader, about the identity of the Black Man.  


          « Didst thou ever meet the Black Man, mother ? »


The mother will not reply, and this, again, in more ways than one, is quite realistic. For as we have noticed from the very beginning of the novel, Hester is the person who does not speak.  A moment later, it is true, Hester does give an answer to her insistent daughter, but this does not tell anything new about the fantasmatic figure.


          « Wilt thou let me in peace, if I once tell thee ? » asked her mother.


          « Yes, if thou tellest me all, » answered Pearl.


          « Once in my life I met the Black Man ! » said her mother. « This scarlet letter is his

          mark ! » 


But the confession stops here and nothing more will be said. If we want to know the last word of the drama, we must pursue our analysis. Already, though, the passages I have just quoted are meaningful. Here is what we have so far : a child who puts questions to her mother, and a mother who does not answer or whose answers, not devoid of some poetical symbolism, always remain vague. (And one can only conclude that she remains vague because the author does not wish her to say more.) Veiled as they are, however, her answers are interesting clues and enable us to venture a guess as to the identity of the Black Man who haunts the dark forest, a forest dark as death and dark as silence. In Hawthorne’s Black Man, I see a representation of Pearl’s absent father, and through this character a representation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dead father. The novel thus appears as a quest for a lost parent and, if we want to be more specific—for things are slightly more complex—as a quest for whatever traces he may have left. For as commonplace and uninteresting an analysis of The Scarlet Letter’s rich symbolism--which relies and utilizes such a tragic event as the death of a parent--can seem, we must bear in mind the fact that the writer’s father was lost at sea.


Quite as much as the great trees of the forest, it is this absence which haunts Hawthorne’s characters.The images the writer resorts to, the poet’s images, in their own way always tell the truth : the great book, the iron pen, and above all the injunction made by the Black Man to all he comes across to write their own name in the book before he himself sets his mark on their chests can today be analyzed as a representation of what takes place between child and parents. I find in The Scarlet Letter a perfect illustration of one of the meanings—the last and probably the most fruiful—of Lacan’s well-known phrase « the desire of the Other .» (10) The bearer of a hidden letter, Dimmesdale is not only the representation of a silent father : he is an actor who plays two roles and his letter carries a second symbolical meaning. When we come to consider the large A marked on his chest we can conclude « he » is no other than « the child. » A child, as we are going to see presently, who identifies so much with his dead father that he is haunted by a desire to disappear too.  


Isn’t this obvious ? For we can also ask ourselves why Pearl asks her mother « a story » and above all « a story about the Black Man. » In the scene, I see Hawthorne as a child asking his mother to speak of his lost father, and here, of course, Pearl is the child, while Dimmesdale, still hidden in the dark for a while, represents the absent father, a parent whose darkest features will be represented by Chillingsworth elsewhere in the book. Didn’t Hawthorne’s real mother answer his questions ? Did he refrain from asking ? Weren’t her explanations  sufficient ? But what I think we can be certain of is that the « story » the child requires of her mother would, if told, very much resemble the romance Hawthorne is writing !


In any case, the story is not finished, and neither is our analysis of Hawthorne’s text. We can then go a bit further and « listen » to Chapter XVI, already so rich in interesting details.


Consider the brook, for instance. Perhaps it is significant that Pearl should play with its clear water, talking to it and reproaching it for being so sad :


          « O brook ! O foolish and tiresome little brook ! » cried Pearl, after listening awhile

          to its talk. « Why art thou so sad ? »


The water runs among the stones, and its « sighing and murmuring ,» quite in keeping with the general mood, do not tell us more than what the babble of a young child would. Outside the fact that Pearl takes part in the scene, no specific meaning can be interpreted here. But then, isn’t this what is precisely described in the tableau, the absence of a clear meaning ? 


          It was a little dell where they had seated themselves, with a leaf-strewn

          bank rising gently on either side, and a brook flowing through the midst, over

          a bed of fallen and drowned leaves.The trees impending over it had flung down

          great branches, from time to time, which choked up the current, and compelled it

          to form eddies and black depths […]           


The same image is repeated some lines down, with even more clarity : « All these giant trees and boulders seemed intent in making a mystery of the course of the small brook ; fearing, perhaps, that, with its never-ceasing loquacity, it should whisper tales out of the heart of the old forest whence it flowed, or mirror is revelations on the smooth surface of a pool. » I have emphasized the most striking terms of the passage. What better metaphor than this, indeed,  to illustrrate the way our « mind » functions ? We have here a perfect description of our compulsion to speak while at the same time remaining silent : something very much like the structure Freud designed when he wanted to depict and explain the relationship between what is conscious in us and what remains unconscious. It is a structure whose essential feature is the « bar »  





between the two concepts, a bar, paradoxically, which is impossible to cross and yet is crossed all the time provided that what is « below » has managed to find a suitable disguise.                                                      (As we know, Freud also speaks of what is Manifest—expression of an unknown desire—and of what is Latent— unconscious desire.) The same structure enables Hawthorne to express symbolically further down what I take to be at the heart of The Scarlet Letter :


          Continually, indeed, as it stole onward, the streamlet kept up a babble, kind, quiet,

          soothing, but melancholy, like the voice of a young child that was spending its

          infancy without playfulness, and knew not how to be merry among sad acquaintance

          and events of sombre hue.


No mystery here ; what is said of the brook simply repeats what we already know of Pearl, and I cannot help thinking of the child Nathaniel, even though, it is true, the character was consciously meant to represent the writer’s daughter. For Nathaniel’s destiny must surely have depended, at least partly, on his father’s disappearance. What I am sugggesting is that the physical absence of the father, his death in distant seas—an event « of sombre hue »--, no doubt rendered the child’s mourning more difficult than it would have been in a normal case. It is also possible, and this forms part of the hypothesis I am making, that the bereaved wife and mother didn’t discuss her husband’s death enough with her child. At this point of the narration, « The Black Man, » a « sad acquaintance, » assumes a particular meaning : he is the person who has lain his mark on the child’s « soul .»


Thus, child, brook, and…Nathaniel Hawthorne, even though unable to say what it was, 

cannot help speaking of what has been lived--« so solemn an experience »--, and we are left to read from Hawthorne’s hand that the brook « seemed to have nothing else to say. » Nothing more to say, this is what explains the sadness of the brook. And it is not too difficult to understand why the child cannot help being haunted, ceaselessly indeed, by such a « nothing, » hoping it may one day unveil what it hides. A neat illustration of Lacan’s phrase : « Ca ne cesse pas de ne pas s’écrire. »


This is why the narrator repeats himself a few lines further on, when he explains that « the little stream would not be comforted, and still kept telling its unintelligible secret of some very mournful mystery that had happened […] » And yet, since at this very moment the young pastor comes into sight, an answer to the child’s question is somehow given. Not a straight answer, a metaphor only, it cannot be understood by the actors of the drama, but remains meaningful for us. For we must understand that when it comes to representing the father, between the two male characters there is a division of labor, so to speak : on one hand the Black Man, the master of all destinies, on the other Dimmesdale, at the same time a complex Oedipal victim of the same Black Man and, by his absence, a reresentation of the dead father. Exactly as in a dream, we have a slippage of the signified, from one meaning (a tyrannical figure) to the other (an absent father), under the same signifier : Father. As we can see, Dimmesdale is the representation of the son of a dead father and, by his silence, of this father as well who, by his death, weighs so heavily on the son’s destiny. In the same way as the minister, Nathaniel’s father failed in his role as a parent. None of this, however, is ever clearly said, and we have to rely on the symbolic meaning of the tale to arrive at such a conclusion. Like the brook, which we have seen keeping « its unintelligible secret for itself, » all the actors of the drama keep their secret for themselves and say nothing, save perhaps this obscure hint that the secret touches some mysterious event. This particularly applies to Hester, who is unable to answer the child’s questions and almost hides herself « under the deep shadow of the trees. » And perhaps we are beginning to understand the relevance of biography here : triggered by the precocious death of a young father about which one may have been silent too long, The Scarlet Letter is a tale in which no one knows anything or says anything.


And yet, this death greatly affects the son—I am referring to Hawthorne here whom I see in Dimmesdale--, affects him to the point of depression.  In his meclancholy, indeed, the son identifies with his dead father and wishes to die also : 


         There was a listlessness in his gait ; as if he saw no reason for taking one step further,

         nor felt any desire to do so, but would have been glad, could he be glad of any  thing,

         to fling himself down at the root of the nearest tree, and lie there passive for evermore.


One has no doubt noticed « root of the nearest tree. » The image is at once strong and precise, it speaks of generations and of an « object » the writer may have been deprived of. But I also find in the passage, besides the novelists’s desire for identification, a slight movement of hesitation : « Death was too definite an object to be wished for, or avoided. » I take such hesitation to be a sign, if not of a neurosis, at least characteristic of a person who cannot make up his mind. Once again, I am reminded of Hamlet and of his famous soliloquy. On the other hand, and this is a question for which I don’t have an answer : in the case of « Dimmesdale, » doesn’t such hesitation inform us on the writer’s relative good health ? 


But there is more, and we are surprised to discover that such an autobiographical scene is also built around an image several times recurring in the book and a possible key to the whole « fantasmatic » edifice. Let’s listen to Dimmesdale speaking, or possibly expressing himself as in a daydream :


          The leaves might betrew him, and the soil gradually accumulate and form a little hillock

          over his frame, no matter whether there were life in it or not. Death was too definite

          an object to be wished for, or avoided. 


The « hillock » here fanticized is not too difficult to identify, all the more so as a careful reading of the book reveals many occurrences of the same image, up to the very last paragraph of The Scarlet Letter in fact, as we shall see. Consider for instance the passage where Hester and Pearl, in their walk in the forest, find a place to rest :


           Here they sat down on a luxuriant hep of moss, which, at some epoch of the preceding

           century, had been a gigantic pine, with its roots and trunk in the darksome shade, and

           its head aloft in the upper atmosphere.


Because of the frequency with which the image appears in the pages of the book, the heap of moss or the mound are very likely representations—such is my interpretation—of the tomb the son must have wished for his father lost at sea. In the sentence above, in any case, all is here : a reference to the past, a giant tree—a good image of the way a small child looks at his tall parents--, roots, which we have already met, shade—a reference to our unawareness, perhaps, or to our « ghosts »--, and head aloft, no doubt not unlike a visage out of reach for the child in mourning. These words are not idle, each of them has a specific, and secret, meaning.  The mound and the moss heap in particular reveal what unconscious desire presided over the elaboration of The Scarlet Letter : to provide a sepulchral monument to the lost and invisible parent, thanks to some material object which would come and replace the absence of the dead father’s body—frame ?--, enable in some way the mourning process to take place.


All this poetically expressed only, half-said, unconscious in a word, the consequence being that the child will for ever ask questions about the nature of the missing image :


          Pearl’s inevitable tendency to hover about the enigma of the scarlet letter

          seemed an innate quality of her being. From the earliest epoch of her 

          conscious life, she had entered this as her appointed mission. (Chapter XV.) 


Appointed mission, two words which I think define Nathaniel Hawthorne’s destiny, and which at any rate complete the portrait of the « child. » Essentially, he does not know. And perhaps he does not know because he was left in the dark. And what he does not know but which occupies him so much is going to be used to construct his fantasy. This cannot naturally be considered as an answer to his question(s),  but for us, today, thanks to Freud’s work on the dream, such fantasy is a precious piece of information.


If I have chosen to spend so much time on Chapters XVI and XVII, it is because I found in them so many images that can be interpreted as answers to the child’s interrogations. Such answers tell us what the conditions of production of The Scarlet Letter must have been.


In the forest, in Chapter XVII, stepping forward, with an unsteady gait, here comes the minister, not unlike an apparition in a dream or an hallucination, in fact. Already, this is an answer to Pearl’s question : « But, mother, tell me now ! Is there such a Black Man ? » A few moments later, Hester will try to deny this, but the ambiguity of the scene leaves no doubt :


          « Is it the Black Man ? » asked Pearl.  


          « Go, silly child ! » said her mother impatiently. « It is no Black Man ! Thou canst see    

          him now through the trees. It is the minister ! »


What hadn’t yet been revealed can now be said. 


Indeed, this chapter, « The Pastor and His Parishioner, » not only represents an important source of information for the analyst, but will enable us, besides, in quite another register, as if in vivo, to observe how what belongs to the domain of conscious intention is attached to, carries alongside with it, or even is produced by, what is not consciously known but remains effectively pronounced. Such is the structure of discourse, of the slip of the tongue and of…literary production. 


But let’s go back to the scene in the forest. The encounter of the two former lovers is obviously placed under the sign of death, and even, more precisely, under the sign of the man who disappeared in a far away ocean. The difficult—impossible ?—relationship to an absent body here informs the very writing of the passage.


           « Hester ! Hester Prynne ! » said he. « Is it thou ? Art thou in life ? »


           « Even so ! » she answered. « In such life as has been mine these seven years past !

           And thou, Arthur Dimmesdale, dost thou yet live ? »


           It was no wonder that they thus questioned one another’s actual and bodily existence,

           and even doubted of their own.


Do we need to add anything to the passage ? We must remember that this meeting, and Hawthorne says it most clearly,  was the first « in the world beyond the grave, of two spirits who had been intimately connected in their former life, but now stood  coldly shuddering, in mutual dread ; as not yet familiar with their state, nor wonted to the companionship of disembodied beings. Each a ghost, and awe-stricken at the other ghost ! » Yes, ghosts, « beyond the grave, » that is to say as if in another world where, perhaps, the man who disappeared would be encountered at last ! These words do not lie, we have met them many times in the book : « ghost, » and above all « tomb, » « heap of moss, » « grave, » the last, which is the tomb, but also the adjective with a different signified (serious) for the same signifier. To this we only need to add « death » and « dead » to have a catalogue of the meaningful vocabulary used by Hawthorne to express his desire.       


After so many years of separation, the two lovers are at last reunited. And what do they do ? They go « and sit down on the heap of moss where she and Pearl  had before been sitting. » (11)


From this moment on, Dimmesdale, as signifier, acquires a new signified, is given another role, no longer a representation of the dead father but of the orphan. On the fantacized paternal tomb—the heap of moss--, at the side of Hester, « he » is now the child in search of a grave for his father.


This « slippage » of the signified can easily be illustrated :


                                                                         Hester, the mother



       Chillingsworth, the dead father                              .                                      Pearl, the child


                                                           Dimmesdale, son and absent father


The three triangles clearly show the roles held by each of the three characters : a mother, a father and an child or orphan, but Dimmesdale’s double role stands out clearly. 

Was it because the Oedipal situation was so obvious—almost obvious—and Dimmesdale’s ambiguity, as a sign, so apparent, that Hawthorne felt he had to reinforce the psychological coherence of his character ? He nearly says so himself :


             They thus went onward, not boldly, but stpep by step, into the themes that were

             brooding deepest in their hearts. 


The dialogue that follows is devoted to the minister’s despair and misery :


             « What else could I look for, being what I am, and leading such a life as mine ?


             What can a ruined soul, like mine, effect towards the redemption of other souls ? »


As a member of the clergy, he only speaks of the salvation of his « soul, » but the passage can also be read as expressing a more general anguish and is not far from describing the duality of each « subject. »


             « I have laughed, in bitterness and agony of heart, at the constrast between what I

            seem and what I am ! And Satan laughs at it ! »


Whether this is the son describing the wretchedness of the guilty Oedipal child (His « sin » is to have wished the death of another man and to have taken his wife.), or expressing, more generally, the metaphysical anguish of the human subject facing the void, Lacan’s Real, the world out there from which he or she is for ever estranged, the suffering is the same. No wonder, then, that words like insanity or madness come under in the author’s pen . 


            […] the suffferer’s conscience had been kept in an irritated state, the tendency of

            which was, not to cure the wholesome pain, but to disorganize and corrupt his spiritual

            being. Its result, on earth, could hardly fail to be insanity, and hereafter, that eternal

            alienation from the Good and the True, of which madness is perhaps the earthly type.


What can Hester do in front of such suffering and despair ? She is « the friend » he has « even wished for,» and with whom, « to weep over [his] sin. » Can she help him ? Help him, that is to say try to make him understand what causes his anguish. Perhaps he only suffers so much because some « enemy » wishes to destroy him, someone very close to him ?


          « Thou hast long had such an enemy, and dwellest with him under the same roof. »


This idea of proximity can easily be interpreted : it is an apt description of the ailment which inhabits the sufferer. The terms of the narration are almost clinical, and Hester will reproduce the diagnosis further down (12).


          The very contiguity of his enemy, beneath whatever mask the latter might conceal

          himself, was enough to disturb the magnetic sphere of a being so sensitive as Arthur



Now informed of the cause and nature of his suffering, Dimmesdale readily accepts the explanation : « I might have known it ! murmured he. « I did know it ! » But without effect. 


For the seond time, they sit down, « side by side […]on the mossy trunk of the fallen tree.» The passage is quite idyllic, but the triangular structure of the scene cannot be misinterpreted, for we must notice that in the triangle also figures a « solemn old tree. »


           The forest was obscure around them, and creaked with a blast that was passing through

           it. The boughs were tossing heavily above their heads ; while one solemn old tree

           groaned dolefully to another, as if telling the sad story of the pair that sat beneath,

           or constrained to forebode evil to come.     


Isn’t there any means of escape ? How can Dimmesdale free himself from Chillingsworth’s grip ? Can he go on breathing the « same air with [his] dead enemy ! » ? Hester wishes to save him ; her advice is sound : « Thy heart must be no longer under his evil eye ! »


Our « patient, » alas ! is more than reluctant to give up his disease. Separate himself from the old man ? « It were far worse than death, » replies the minister. What is to be done, then ? « What choice remains to me? » he asks once more, « Shall I lie down again on these withered leaves ? Must I sink down there, and die at once ? » Yes, this is what the minister says, and Hawthorne’s discourse hardly needs any commentary. Dimmesdale  cannot separate himself from what is destroying him. It is too difficult, and if he vaguely thinks of an alternative we cannot help noticing how much it resembles the ailment itself : to lie down on a bed of dead leaves—so like a tomb—or to « sink » and die obviously show how repetition is at work here. Death and the dead captain hover over the whole scene.   


Hester insists, she wants to convince him, she wants to save him !


          Is there not shade enough in all this boundless forest to hide thy heart from the gaze of

          Roger ? (12)


But she beseeches in vain, her insistencce will not prevail—«  Preach ! Write ! Act !, »--one has the impression one hears Hawthorne speaking to himself ! But no exhortation can calm the « son »’s anguish. For Hester, of course, is also one of Hawthorne’s characters and is tied up to the novelist’s desire ; however reasonable and generous, her own discourse still bears traces of darkness. What we understand here is that an act of the will—however good—is not enough to help us change when unconscious desire is at stake. Dimmesdale is the perfect representation of a subject inhabited by a stubborn desire : to disappear like his dead parent. 


« Give up this name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another[…], » Hester suggests. But it cannot be : even though there is no grave with a name on it that could be read, the child remains attached to his father and all he wishes is « to die here. » And this desire is so essential, constitutes such an integral part of the subject that traces of it can be found on Hester herself, in spite of the fact that her role in the novel is not to provide a representation of anguish. It is true she is also inhabited by the guilt of not having warned Dimmesdale of Chillingsworth’s presence near him, but she had not until then been described as thinking of death :


          And now, rather than have had this grievous wrong to confess, she would

          gladly have lain down on the forest-leaves, and died there, at Arthur 

          Dimmesdale’s  feet.


We are acquainted with the fantasy by now : the leaves of the forest, and death. All this speaks of the Oedipal transgression, of the grave discovered under the leaves, and reveals an identification with the dead father. These are precisely the terms which make up Dimmesdale’s portrait. The fight for freedom is therefore lost in advance. Why not go away ? Hester asks, leave the country whose laws are so harsh—a judment which no doubt also applied to Hawthorne’s time—, find peaceful skies beyond the seas ? « There thou art free ! » For « why shouldst thou tarry so much as one other day in the torments that have so gnawed into thy life ? »


But this is of no avail. To the offer to run away, to this suggestion to free himself from the old man’s gaze, Dimmesdale always opposes the same answer : « Yes, Hester ; but only under the fallen leaves ! »  The « clinical » description of the case is faultless : the character I have labelled « son » hasn’t the strength to leave, he finds himself « powerless to go. » To this, there is nothing to add.


We have thus gradually encompassed the meaning of the letter, seen what part it took in the constitution of the neurosis ; this leads to a new question, perhaps even more essential than the description already achieved. Here it is : where does the letter come from ? It is at this point that Chillingsworth’s place in the narration, « his » symbolical role, will take all its signification.


We saw how the father’s absence had weighed on the child’s destiny. In The Scarlet Letter, this absence constitutes the major element of the narration. Such is at any rate my own reading. For even if the absence of Hester’s husband had not had any influence on the passion—the moment of passion—of the two lovers, and even if Dimmesdale would have remained just as guilty for his « sin, » Chillingsworth’s return is not without increasing the minister’s sense of guilt. I am making this comment to remain a moment on the level of literary realism. But we have yet to discover what the symbolical meaning of this return is and what is its role in the overall fantasy.


The reader who has followed the analysis I have developed so far shouldn’t have too much difficulty in interpreting Chillingsworth’s return as the effect of a desire to see the dead father reappear. Perhaps, in spite of the ambiguity of the term, this even explains why the narrator so often speaks of the old man as if he were a ghost. For his name, which is not Prynne as one might have expected, is Chillingsworth and lends itself to an interpretation that says enough  what the character is made of : chill, chilling, this is an image of death. (In the course of the narration, Hawthorne uses « chill » » several times.) If to this, we add worth, the portrait is complete : Hester’s husband, as a character, has no more value than a cold corpse. The fact may have been noticed by other critics, but I must admit I haven’t come across such an explanation in my readings. 


Now, this desire to make the father return is not without posing us a problem, naturally, since if he comes back one may think it is in order to haunt his son and  remind him of his fault. Is there a contradiction here ? « He died because I have wanted him to disappear, » the guilty child thinks. But on the other hand he knows he cannot live without him ! Can this be explained ? A first reason is to be found in the need for a name, no doubt : a child needs to have a place in the  family line. But there is at least another reason, I think, and it is more important : a child also needs a model, two in fact—an image, which Nathaniel must have had in his first years--, an object of love and of identification no child can do without.(13) 


And at this point I feel inclined to say that a child is nothing but wat has been inscribed on him or her, which by the way may explain why Pearl refuses to see her mother without her letter on, in ChapterXIX.


It is because we are nothing without this « inscription »--good or no so good—that it is so difficult to get rid of it. Arthur Dimmesdale is a good illustration of the alienation of each subject : the child is the effect of a desire that was not his own at first, he is the product of an inscription. There were no doubt many other « components » in the case of the child Nathaniel, but, as far as the central fantasy at the origin of The Scarlet Letter,  an absence is the major factor. Guilty because of his Oedipal « sin ,» no doubt, Hawthorne’s character is also—and for me this is what matters most—an object submitted to an alien order. No wonder that he bears his own letter on his very skin, like a scar. It is indelible.


I have already mentioned in passing the recurrence of terms like death, dead, tomb, grave or tombstone in Hawthorne’s vocabulary. Just as much as a quest for a dead father, we have in The Scarlet Letter a search for a missing corpse, a body one would want to bury. The absence of such a concrete object must have haunted the son and greatly impeded the mourning process. Perhaps do we better understand now the meaning of this search for an impossible grave and particularly the symbolical function of the grave—graves rather—to which the last paragraph of the book is devoted. 


The passage is worth analysis. Hawthorne speaks of Hester’s letter—yes, she still wears it, after all these years !—and of two graves placed side by side by the writer : one which is « old and sunken » and a new one « delved » by the side of the first, and it is not indifferent to mark that one of the two graves is described as « sunken, » like a ship indeed, or a sailor lost at sea ! « Two sleepers, » then, just like two parents, and one tombstone, « a simple slab of slate, » with « the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. »  Such are the last words of the novel : the image of a coat of arms that simply reproduces Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s letter.


This tombstone tells many things, and for instance the importance of this letter for each of us ; but it represents above all the accomplishment of the fantasy, the keystone of the whole building. What Hawthorne, as a son, represents in this conclusive passage, is his father’s grave found at last, with stone and heraldic shield standing no doubt for the family name. That this last paragraph mentions two graves is a way to figure the two parents and confirms in any case the hypothesis that The Scarlet Letter is also the story of mourning and probably of two. (14)


This is why, I think, his « romance » completed, Hawthorne attached « The Custom House » to it. It is an introductive post scriptum of about thirty pages which he ends with the relation of the discovery of the real scarlet letter, in the archives, « in a corner » of the custom house wher he has been a civil servant for several years. There is no doubt that « The Custom House » is a humorous satire both of the political manners of the time and of the way the affairs of the state were run, but if one reads the piece carefully one realizes that its symbolic meaning is in fact similar to that of the fiction which follows it in the printed book. It is easy to see that the actors of this little « political » drama are all old men—some of them are deceased--, and we are not surprised to read that some of them are naval officers or sailors. (15)  If we add to this that we come across « grave » several times—and « buried » also--, we can come to the conclusion that we are dealing with a piece whose « fantasmatic » architecture is similar to that of the story of Hester and Dimmesdale. Finally, what Hawthorne says of  the ancient Surveyor who could « authorize » the story and « authenticate » the « original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself,» completes the picture :


          With his own ghostly hand, the obscurely seen, but majestic, figure had imparted to me

          the scarlet symbol, and the little roll of explanatory manuscript. With his own ghostly

          voice, he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence

          towards him,--who might reasonably regard himself as my official ancestor,--to bring

          his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public. « Do this, » said the ghost of

          Mr. Surveyor Pue, emphatically nodding the head that looked so imposing […] But, I

          charge you, in this matter of old Mistress Prynne, give to your predecessor’s memory

          the credit which will be rightfully its due ! » And I said to the ghost of Mr. Surveyor 

          Pue,--« I will ! »


All is said, and I take it it is sufficient to emphasize the terms which reveal the unconscious source of this preliminary tale. For all is true in this confession : Nathaniel did receive the story from a ghost, and « The Custom House, » written after the novel, simply repeats and corroborates what the analysis of the novel had revealed : the tale was « inspired » by a dead father, one of the two persons responsible for the inscription of the son’s letter. In fact, as is often the case, the « commentary » reveals much more than the fiction which  follows. 


But the book still has other informations to yield. I have already mentioned what we could call an unconscious injunction from the parents. But in the case of The Scarlet Letter, since the father disappeared when his son was only four, and since, besides, the problem that emerges from the text is that of mourning, can we really speak in this case of a « desire of the Other, » a desire constitutive of the subject ? Could The Scarlet Letter  possibly be only the effect of an impossible mourning ? Indeed. And yet, we must not forget the portrait of Hester, as a spouse, as a lover and as a mother. As a mother, I interpret the character as a representation of the widow of the dead captain ; as a lover, I have pointed out her role in the Oedipal fantasy, the love object in the triangle. There remains her role as a mother. In the latter case—which does not at all limit the other roles Hawthorne gave his character--her letter simply becomes the mark of her widowhood ; the clothes she wears, gray and plain, are a confirmation of this. A mother and a widow, then, that is to say a possible portrait of Nathaniel’s own mother, particularly when we know how the loss of her husband affected her. Ralph E. Roughton, as a psychoanalyst and critic, following the biography, rightly commented :


          Hawthorne’s father was a ship’s captain who died of yellow fever while on a voyage

          when Nathaniel was only four years old.


          The young boy essentially lost his mother as well. She moved with her three children

          back to her parents’s home and rarely left her bedroom for the remainder of her life.


          Hawthorne did not lack for surrogate parents, however. Three aunts and five bachelor

          uncles still lived at home.   

                                                 (Proceedings of the « First IPA Conference on Psychoanalysis

                                                  and Literature, » London, 6-7 November 1992, p. 2.)


I think this explains the unrealistic episode when , at the beginning of the novel, Hester is ordered by her old husband to remain silent about his secret return. We can « read » this return of the old husband as an oneiric apparition of the lost father, an image in a dream, and Hester’s silence can thus be understood : because the image is not real—he is dead, no longer exists--, his return can only be taken for what it is, an hallucination, the event is nothing other than a « non-return » and does not deserve to be verbally mentioned. All the dead man can do now is manifest himself in this fashion, in the mind and memory of the living, in their imagination, in their dreams !


But Hester’s silence may represent something other than Chillingsworth (fanticized) return, and we can also see in her an image of the mother who does not speak, or not sufficiently, to her child. A widow who cannot speak to her children of the death of her husband. For there are some clues here and there. In Chapter XVII, still, when Hester reveals Chillingsworth’s real identity to Dimmesdale, Hawthorne as her say, speaking of the silence she has kept until then : « […] a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side ! » I find the sentence strange, almost mysterious, but the hidden meaning of that « other side » which seems to concern much more the world of the dead than that of the living doesn’t seem so strange to Dimmesdale as the narrator remarks : « Never was there a blacker and fiercer frown, than Hester now encountered. » Yes, the character whom I call « the son » is now furious. But what is the meaning of this anger ? I think he reproaches his mother—I am speaking of Hawthorne’s mother here—either not to have succeeded in carrying out her mourning to its conclusion or with not having sufficiently helped her son in his own mourning. Two paragraphs further down, Dimmesdale says so without restraint : « Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this ! I cannot forgive thee ! »


This incites me to think that the mother may well have discharged herself of her own mourning on to her son, may have, quite unconsciously of course, inscribed such a desire in the child’s soul. Such an hypothesis takes us to the last chapter of the book, in which the minister—father and son at the same time—unveils his own letter.


Once again, what says Hawthorne ? The conclusion of the tragedy—for it is a tragedy—is well known. As hero of the day, Dimmesdale has just delivered the Election Sermon :« The eloquent voice, on which the souls of the listening audience had been borne aloft,

as on the swelling of the sea, at length came to a pause. » (my italics),  and the narrator remarks : « […] never had man spoken in so wise, so high, and so holy a spirit, as he that spake this day . » The admiration and wonder of the crowd are complete. 


Coming full circle, the tale ends where it started. At the foot of the scaffold, Hester and Pearl have listened to the sermon at some distance, and now, walking towards them, unsteady in his gait, pale and exhausted, comes the minister.The narrator has marked his ghastly aspect : « It seemed hardly the face of a man alive, with such a deathlike hue ; it was hardly a man with life in him […] »


          He still walked onward, if that movement could be so described, which rather

          resembled the wavering effort of an infant, with its mother’s arms in view,

          outstretched to tempt him forward. 


Now his father’s ghost, now the guilty son, like a baby also, Dimmesdale has reached the scaffold where Hester and Pearl are standing. He adresses the crowd : 


          Lo, the scarlet letter which Hester wears ! Ye have all shuddered at it ! 


          But there stood one in the midst of you, at whose brand of sin and infamy ye

          have not shuddered !


          Now, at the death-hour, he stands before you ! He bids you look again at Hester’s 

          scarlet letter ! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of

          what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more

          than the type of what has seared his inmost heart ! 


          With a convulsive motion he tore away his ministerial band from before his breast. It

          was revealed !


It is the moment of catharsis : revealing what he calls his fault, Hawthorne’s character appeases his anguish. At least, we can think this is the signification of the scene imagined by the author: it explains the public nature of the « Revelation, » it had to be public. But above all, and this is probably more important, proclaiming his guilt aloud, Dimmesdale fully accepts it, I mean recognizes it as no longer unconscious. And of course for us, in the XXIst Century, his « offence » is not so much a sin as a classic component of the human psyche. I hinted above why I thought The Scarlet Letter could be considered as an Oedipal tragedy : the disclosure of the « fault » is part of the picture. As the expiation that follows.  


If now we consider the details of the scene, we cannot help noticing how different Dimmesdale’s letter is from that of Hester. Hawthorne wrote very clearly : Hester’s letter is « but the shadow » of what the minister « bears on his own breast. » In fact, there are two letters and Dimmesdale’s is not only on his chest but is written in his flesh. I mentioned this at the beginning : the young woman’s letter is nothing else than a sign of the laws of the city. This enables us to understand why Hester can subvert her own letter in becoming a model for the women of the community. The fact that she can only succeed in gaining respectability after so many years of severe punishment—which doesn’t at all mean that she has repented--, doesn’t make any difference. Hawthorne, through this character in his fiction, very likely gives us his opinion on the said laws ; which means that he knew what he was doing, thus passing, quite consciously, I think, such judgment. 


What changes in the novel with the apparition of Dimmesdale’s letter is that we realize it has remained hidden from the very beginning, repressed at it were. This explains Clillingsworth’s dismay : 


          Old Roger Chillingsworth knelt down beside him, with a blank, dull countenance,

          out of which the life seemed to have departed.


          « Thou hast escaped me ! » he repeated more than once. « Thou hast escaped me ! »


Four lines above, Hawthorne has just spoken of a « victory ; » but what victory ? Quite simply

a victory over the dead father’s influence over him, over the domination of the absent parent which, because the child thought himself responsible for his absence, caused his anguish. Accepting to recognize his desire, Dimmesdale deprives his « Other » of the power he had. And if one wishes one more argument in favor of this thesis, one only has to read once more the lines about the old man whose countenance was  « blank » and « dull », and « out of which the life seemed to have departed. » 


Chillingsworth is not dead yet, but already he is like a corpse…or a ghost ! Thus, when he wrote « Thou hast escaped me ! » Hawthorne was highlighting what is meant today by « Désir de l’Autre, » even if « desire » here requires some specification since it neither expresses a wish nor a conscious will and simply refers to what caused the child’s anguish, an affect with unconscious causes. 


We then begin to understand Hawthorne ‘s comment when Pearl comes and kisses her father’s lips : « The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies […] » The child is saved and will no longer be anguished. At least this is what Hawthorne must have consciously wished, and this is why he wrote that « Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled. » 


In the last pages, entitled « Conclusion »--as if they weren’t really a chapter of the book, an Act in the tragedy—Hawthorne seems to explain himself, as if to reveal the « meaning » of what we have just read. We remember how in these last pages the last paragraph represented two graves and how it seemed to give the lost father a name, a family name,  providing him with something like a concrete existence. Hawthorne’s novel as a child’s quest amounts to an unconscious attempt to give a body to a father who left no trace when he died. The Scarlet Letter is a search for a grave, a sign which might prove that this parent ever existed. From this point of view, Hawthorne’s « mission » can be said to be accomplished. The book is the result of a conscious wish for a life, if not happy, at least free from anguish, and possibly the end of a very difficult mourning. 


I mean that this « child » can at last get rid of the ghost who haunted and tormented him. And indeed, in the last pages, the father, or at least the bad part of him, dies.  Chillingsworth’s death, « which took place within a year, » had already been announced with terms sufficiently  explicit-- « withered up, shrivelled away »--, already he had « almost vanish[ed] from mortal sight, like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun. ». Yet a father, the ghost couldn’t  completely be hated, and it is no wonder the « Conclusion » sees him leave the stage almost peacefully: « It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. »


But there are some shadows still, and the nature of the letter is not completely clarified, whatever the author’s explanations in his « Conclusion. »


          We have thrown all the light we could acquire upon the portent, and would gladly, 

          now that it has done its office, erase its deep print out of our brain ; where long

          meditation has fixed it in very undesirable distinctness.


We would gladly erase its deep imprint…if we could : it is a fact, there are traces that remain.


And this is a way of insisting, if not on a possible inalterability of what is unconscious, at least on the difficulty of coming to terms with it. No doubt, writing The Scarlet Letter must have had some effect on its author, but our « patient »--the patient I fanticize, that is—may not have done with what secretly inhabits him. There are still signs…For if we now understand what a letter is, and what it seems to have meant for Nathaniel, we still have to discover where it came from. 


I have already sugggested whence the son’s letter came ; we can now try to verify the hypothesis. It is possible that, confronted with a mourning apparently too difficult for her, the writer’s mother may have unconsciously asked her son to accomplish this mourning in her place. Thus would be explained the passage where Hawthorne speaks of what can be called a heritage ; I consider such an heritage as forming the essential part of the unconscious desire of all subjects. In Chapter XVI, in the forest, the narrator, apparently « thinking » as if it were Hester speaking, wonders about Pearl ‘s relationship to the sun, often a father symbol:


          There was no other attribute that so much impressed her with a sense of new and

          untransmitted vigor in Pearl’s nature, as this never-failing vivacity of spirits ; she had

          not the disease of sadness, which almost all children, in these latter days, inherit, with

          the scrofula, from the troubles of their ancestors. Perhaps this too was a disease, and but

          the reflex of the wild energy with which Hester had fought against her sorrows, before

          Pearl’s birth.


Some readers may find the reference to tubercolosis strange or even clumsy, but if we read « Hester » as a representation of the writer it becomes very clear and in the end what is said leaves little doubt. In this portrait of a « solar » child we can without too much difficulty recognize Una Hawthorne, and it expresses the very reasonable hope that the daughter has not inherited the writer’s own propensity to sadness, which might  explain  « new vigor » and also the very strange « untransmitted. »


But this passage on the heritage we receive from our parents has another side to it, I think, and this is of great interest for the interpretation I am here submitting. I am speaking of the general tone of the passage, not simply of a father’s worry about his own daughter, but of a writer making a general statement about human nature. For I read in the passage the adumbration of a theory which also says that children inherit « the troubles of their ancestors. » This is not openly proclaimed, I know, and is even denied, but we all know that a denial in the end mostly emphasizes what it tries to deny ! (16)


Such an heritage we can call « determination of the subject, » and observe how, at the end of the novel, it represents the sacrifice of the minister. It is a « death by identification ; » the son has borne his letter to the end. His letter explains his destiny, and this we can read in his very name : Dim, which is the lack or scarcity of light, of sun, and it evokes the sadness of mourning, while dale, which is « valley, » is not so far from « Vale of Tears ». This is probably the implicit lesson unconsciously wished by the novelist, and it is meaningful that he should have saved Pearl and her mother. For it is not without reason that he entrusts Hester with a mission, a mission not so unlike that of the thinker, or of the psychoanalyst. 


          And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit 

          and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her

          counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble. Women, more

          especially […] came to Hester’s cottage demanding why they were so wretched,

          and what the remedy ! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might.

          She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world

          have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in

          order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground

          of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she might be the

          destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission

          of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin […]


I know, Hawthorne only speaks of man and woman, of love—hatred has not been forgotten, as we saw--, and even Heaven’s agreement is mentioned, but « prophetess » does mark the hope, I find, that there are new truths to be found, and among them this idea that I have tried to develop here that the determinations of the subject are to be read in a « désir de l’Autre. » 








1. « Introduction, » New Essays on The Scarler Letter, (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 14.


2. I have dealt with the problem of the difference between reading and analysis in several articles and more particularly in « Jouissance and Knowledge or the Critic’s Curse, » Ltierature and Psychoanalysis (Lisbon : ISPA, 1997), pp.83-87, or in « ‘Kubla Khan’ : genesis of an archetype, » PSYART, the online Journal, 2008.    


3. If only, also, because of the recent advances in neuroscience, which should encourage psychoanalytic critics to defend the specificity of their own research.


4. This is precisely the point Michael Davitt Bell makes, with great subtelty, in his « Arts of Deception : Hawthorne, « Romance, » and The Scarlet Letter, » New Essays on the Scarlet Letter : « If we wish to understand the author, we must understand how he has both hidden and revealed his own « essential traits » by projecting them into his characters—including, of course, the character « Nathaniel Hawthorne » who addresses us in the prefaces. »(p.45) The paper also presents a fine analysis of the « psychology » of Dimmesdale (pp.47-48), which proves that « characters » can sometimes be considered as valid metaphors, even though this should not restain our inquiry into discourse.


5. I have mentioned this aspect of Lacan’s preoccupation with the Other (Séminaire XXIII, Encore) in two articles in Gradiva, Volume IX, Numéro 2 and Volume X, Numéro 1, « Comment ne pas se faire des nœuds avec les noeuds de Lacan. »


6.   In this respect, see Michael  Davitt Bell’s article, mentionned  Note 4 above.


7.   In Chapters III and IV, for instance, or, more discretely, in Chapter XVII.


8. See « ‘Kubla Khan’ ; genesis of an archetype, » PSYART, 2008. 


9.  Let us notice « iron pen » in passing, no doubt an aggressive attribute of the father figure.


10.  I consider this as the last « meaning » of a phrase Lacan used through the years but whose

      signification varied as he proceeded in what seems to have been his own search. His  

      interest in parents is obvious in Seminar XXIII, but the thesis is present in his work as

      early as 1957, in Seminar IV.


11. In passing, we have noticed Dimmesdale’s hand « chill as death » and Hester Prynne’s 

      « chill hand, » and also the way Hawthorne makes them move : « […] they glided back 

      into the shadow of the woods […] »


12. « She doubted not, that the continual presence of Roger Chillingsworth,--the secret poison of his malignity, infecting the air about him—and his authorized interference, as a phsysician, with the minister’s physical and spiritual infirmities, —that these bad opportunities had been turned to a cruel purpose. »


13. In the penultimate page of the novel, speaking of Pearl and Hester, the narrator mentions 

     the name again, although with a slight difference : « For many years, though a vague report   

     would now and then find its way across the sea,--like a shapeless piece of driftwood tost  

     ashore, with the initials of a name upon it,--yet no tidings of them unquestionably authentic 

     were received. » We know that Hester and Pearl have crossed the sea.


14. Hawthorne’s mother died while he was finishing his novel.


15 .Which of course does not exclude the fact that Hawthorne, who had just lost his post in  

      the Customs, did somehow write « The Custom House » out of bitterness. When the book  

      came out, as we know, this aspect of « The Custom House » did attract a lot of attention.  


16. A good example of this can be seen in Hester’s energetic exhortation to run  

      away…beyond the seas…which bears the trace of the subject’s desire not to run away. 

      The terms are worth noticing : « But thou shalt leave it [your misery] behind thee ! It shall  

      not cumber your steps […] ; neither shalt thou freight the ship with it, if you prefer to  

      cross the sea. Leave this wreck and ruin[…] » Yes, beyond the seas…like his father !  




To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert Silhol "The Letter or Its Traces in Discourse". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: July 14, 2010, Published: October 25, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Robert Silhol