A is Not A: The Erasure of American Ethics in “The Scarlet Letter”

Scarlet LetterEither A or ~A

Each word has a definite meaning.

In order to have a definite meaning,

a word must not only mean something,

it must also not mean something.”

John W. Robbinsi

It is only through the differences between signs

that it will be possible to give them a function, a value.”

Ferdinand de Saussereii

At one and the same time, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter seeks to destroy its epistemological and moral heritage (via its mis-characterization of its Puritan predecessors) and yet retain that heritage (via its aesthetic articulation of an ethics of love for one’s neighbor). The novel pulls violently itself in two opposite directions, rendering itself contradictory and incapable of answering the question “How must an American live?” Are Americans to follow Christ’s command to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, as Hawthorne seems to suggest? Or are they to eradicate Christ’s morality altogether and engage in what Nietzsche called “the transvaluation of morals,” as Hawthorne equally seems to suggest?

To quote Nietzsche again: “Christianity is a system…consistently thought out and complete.”iii Any attempt to de-Christianize Christ’s morality, therefore, will result in absurdity. American morality is either based upon the rule of Christ (as expressed in His moral Law) or it is not; there is no third alternative. It is not surprising, then, that moral confusion permeates The Scarlet Letter, the moral pronouncements of which become so vague at certain points that even love and hate (respectively, the highest Christian ideal and the worse sin against one’s neighbor) are said to be the same psychological phenomenon seen from two different perspectives.iv

Without the Scriptural foundation of Puritan morality, moral judgments may be made, but they are not indubitable. Hence the inability to provide an answer to questions of how an American is to conduct himself is not due to the absenceof proposed answers, but to an abundance of them. The scarlet letter on Hester’s dress illustrates this in its ability to simultaneously signify “Angel,”v “Apostle,”vi “Able”vii and “Adulteress.” Similarly, the actions of Arthur Dimmesdale at the close of the book are said to reveal an “A” and to not reveal an “A” which, if actually present, has elicited a myriad of genealogical analyses of its existence – none of which is authoritative (see, 590). Hence, A is not A, for as it signifies everything, it signifies nothing. And as Derrida notes, “…the movement of signification is possible only if each so-called ‘present’ element…is related to some other than itself.”viii

That is to say, in order for any word to mean something it must also not mean something.

Whereas The New England Primer used the letter “A” to teach children the biblical doctrines of the Adam’s (and our) role in the covenant of works and the fall of humanity,ixThe Scarlet Letter uses the letter “A” to call to mind a cacophony of possible significations. Without the authoritative foundation of the Bible, Hawthorne’s novel can only voice hypocritical criticisms of hypocrisy, ignorant criticisms of ignorance, and completely arbitrary criticisms of perceived abuses of authority. The Scarlet Letter demolishes its own foundation for making any intelligible claims about reality, and specifically claims about morality. To the question “How must an American live?” the book gives no answer, leaving the reader to aimlessly roam its labyrinthine conjectures and contradictions.

The Surplus of Meaning

Hawthorne’s novel assumes that language is neutral, whether it takes the form of a single letter pregnant with meanings or the form of a metaphorical rose-bush which “…may serve…to symbolize some sweet moral blossom … or [which may] relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.”x The reader is told that persons have souls which may be “read” (p.483), whose facial “features” could signify “remarkable intelligence” (p.484), and into whose wrinkles experience could write itself (p.486). “The reader may choose among these theories,”xi therefore, is a phrase that applies to the entire narrative, for even the very faces of individuals cannot be be interpreted authoritatively, as the following example from The Market Place demonstrates:

…the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But…an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child…[or] an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist…or an idle and vagrant Indian…[or] a witch…[was guilty of some crime] (p.477-478)

Given his intention to undermine his Puritan predecessors, Hawthorne’s use of the word “sentence” undermines the technical sobriety of civil and religious textual authority in one stroke, as the technical term sentence would also signify a definition of reality that is constructed by the socius (i.e. “A is for Adultery.”), that has no transcendent origin. Likewise, the narrator’s genealogy of morals underscores this point:

Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth…than in their fair descendants…; for…every successive mother has transmitted to her child…a character of less force and solidity than her own. (478)

Moreover, whereas the narrator’s relativization of morality is given its clearest articulation in his closing remarks on love and hate (see above, also cf. 591-592), his comparison of Hester and Pearl to the Virgin Mary and Christ is aggressively tangible.

Had there been a papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman…with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of the Divine Maternity

The line of demarcation drawn by the Protestant Reformers and their Puritan predecessors is here almost entirely done away with, and the identification of morality as a historico-culturally contingent phenomenon takes its place.

Concluding Remarks

It is not without irony, therefore, that Hawthorne’s novel contains the following admonition and rebuke:

Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”xii

The Scarlet Letter destroys the only foundational justification it could have for decrying religious hypocrisy, ignorance, and abuses of authority. On what basis then does such an admonition have any legitimacy?

i Why Study Logic?, The Trinity Review, http://www.trinityfoundation.org/journal.php?id=39

iii Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The case of Wagner. Nietzsche contra Wagner. The twilight of the idols. The

antichrist (Kindle Locations 1897-1898). London: Fisher Unwin.

ivcf. p.538 & 591-592




viiiMargins of Philosophy, The University of Chicago Press, (Chiago:1982), p.13

ixThe New England Primer states that “In Adam’s Fall, We Sinned All.” Implicit to this statement is the doctrine of the federal (i.e. covenantal) headship of Adam.

x p.477 (emphasis added)




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