Facing into the wind: The Kierkegaardian turn in Hester's return to Boston at the end of "The Scarlet Letter"
AuthorO'Key, Jeffrey Lee
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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AbstractHester returns to Boston at the end of The Scarlet Letter out of love for Dimmesdale--a love transformed by the very "Thou shalt not" she transgresses at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter. This transformation hinges on her transformed relationship to God ("Heaven's will"). Her love, transformed into a duty (through a mechanism explained by Soren Kierkegaard in Works of Love catapults her out of history (spiritually speaking) into a parallel existence, paralleling the two-fold structure of The Scarlet Letter . Deploying itself between two acts of hesitation, The Scarlet Letter is, ironically, not about hesitancy, but about an end to hesitancy in the leap (what I call "the turn," "willing the eternal" and "recollecting the future"). In returning to Boston, Hester turns the clock back to when Dimmesdale still lived, and as the Christian, by faith, looks forward to the imminent return of Jesus Christ, so Hester, at the end of The Scarlet Letter looks forward to the return of Dimmesdale to her side. Hawthorne indicates this fidelity and this expectation indirectly, by reflecting Kierkegaardian repetition in grammatical and rhetorical repetition--and in the manner in which he misappropriates the last line of Marvell's "The Unfortunate Lover." The gap that exists between the narrative level of The Scarlet Letter and its ironic level (in which the humorist in Hawthorne operates) is but one of numerous gaps in the text, recreating the precondition of the turn, as well as reflecting the founding moment in American history: the Pilgrims' fiducial crossing of the Atlantic to begin a new nation. In this sense, The Scarlet Letter is quintessentially American, since its essential, like Huckleberry Finn is quintessentially American, since its essential theme is the flight to the frontier (in this case, from history to eternity). Hester's return is not so much an "exemplum of historical continuity" (Bercovitch's position in The Office of The Scarlet Letter) as an example of the radical discontinuity that installs itself in a believer's heart when he or she embraces eternity in the face of logic and history's resistance to the miraculous. This embracing is rather like a dance. At the end of The Scarlet Letter Hester (all unseen and unguessed) dances her faith, and faithfully dances, her love for Arthur Dimmesdale, repudiating logic, repudiating history, repudiating her former inconstancy.
Degree ProgramGraduate College