Cultural confessions: penance and penitence in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun.
Despite the differences in cultural settings, both novels explore three common themes which Hawthorne sets forth as effects of sin upon the human consciousness. Firstly, the disease of silence dissipates sinners' moral and spiritual health as they strive to protect themselves or others from condemnation. The psychological and physical anguish suffered by the adulterous minister Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter illustrates the progress of this affliction, the result of a "strange sympathy betwixt soul and body" (115). While at first Dimmesdale draws a "long respiration" of relief when Hester refuses to reveal his guilt, his health begins to fail soon afterward (68). Disturbed by visions and tormented by the misplaced esteem of his congregation, Dimmesdale becomes "emaciated" and "white-cheeked" (114). Although his physician, the false and vengeful Chillingworth, encourages him to share his secret, Dimmesdale argues that "the heart, making itself guilty of such secrets, must perforce hold them, until the day when all hidden things shall be revealed" (110). Dimmesdale does long to reveal "the black secret of his soul," but he feels trapped in "the unspeakable misery" of a false life which "steals the pith and substance" out of the "realities" which should instead provide "joy and nutriment" for his spirit (119, 121). Only in conversation with Hester--the sharer of his sinful secret--can Dimmesdale be "true," and to her he describes his state: he wishes for "one friend" who would recognize him as "the vilest of sinners," for even "thus much of truth" would keep his soul alive (152). The Marble Faun confirms these destructive effects of secrecy. Miriam holds a secret in her heart that "burns" and "tortures" her; like Dimmesdale, she too experiences moments of seeming insanity as she labors "under strong excitement with a necessity for concealing it" (128, 157). Like a "mad woman," Miriam gnashes her teeth, "flinging her arms wildly" when she imagines herself unobserved in the Coliseum (157). This moment of release reveals her struggle to contain a "long insanity" caused by her secret guilt (157). Hilda also echoes Dimmesdale's view of secret sins as inescapable and fatal: after being infected with the knowledge of Miriam's guilt, Hilda informs her, "I must keep your secret, and die of it" (212).
As Hawthorne seems to compare a secret sin to a terminal illness, he also investigates the false bond which develops between those stricken with such a disease. For instance, both novels feature a couple whose unity rests upon a shared sense of guilt. Hester believes herself and Dimmesdale to be "connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before that bar of final judgement," securing a "joint futurity of endless retribution" (75). While the idea initially brings her "passionate and desperate joy," she rejects it as a false consolation (75). Similarly, the communion which Hester and Dimmesdale share in the forest--"side by side, and hand clasped in hand"--is quickly dispelled, and the possibility of an "everlasting and pure reunion" for the two sinners remains uncertain (154, 196). A mutual sin also joins Miriam and Donatello and "knots" them "together for time and eternity" (174). At first, their union, "closer than a marriage-bond," grants them a sense of security and fulfillment (174). Yet Miriam's joyful conviction that there "can be no more loneliness" is premature, like the sense of freedom shared by Hester and Dimmesdale as they anticipate their flight (175). Instead, in Hawthorne's moral view, such diseased relationships result in "the ever-increasing loathsomeness of a union that consists in guilt" (175).
The difficulty of holding communion with even a sharer of the secret entraps the sinner in a debilitating solitude, heightened by the acute introspection of the diseased conscience. Hester withdraws to a cottage
on the "outskirts of the town"; even as she resumes a role as seamstress and nurse, she stands "apart," finding "nothing that made her feel as if she belonged" to the community around her (76, 78). Instead, she feels "as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere" (78). Dimmesdale, on the other hand, suffers because he not only appears to be integrated into the community, but is revered as one of its leaders. Thinking that he can redeem his past by "better service," Dimmesdale accepts the "unutterable torment" of a double identity and the "agony" of a "public veneration" which, inspired by his own falsity, mutilates his "genuine impulse to adore the truth" (111, 119). Unable to confide in anyone, Dimmesdale's examination of his own soul reaches a maniacal intensity. Sadly, the visions induced by his fasts and vigils are the "truest and most substantial things" with which he holds communion (120).
In The Marble Faun, Miriam first expresses the "infinite, shivering solitude" which accompanies a sense of guilt (113). For Miriam, other human beings seem to stand on the other side of a "voiceless gulf," as if she were caught in the sort of dream where one's pleas for help "perish inaudibly" (113). Miriam's art also reveals this loneliness: each of her "sketches of common life" features her own likeness, represented by a figure "portrayed apart" (46). Once Hilda has been poisoned by the knowledge of Miriam's secret, she finds herself similarly estranged from the world around her. Likewise, Donatello withdraws to his "very solitary" home, feeling that even Nature itself "shrinks" and "shudders" from him (217, 249). The characters enact this solitude in different ways. Hester and Dimmesdale, while alienated from other individuals, remain part of a community in which they fulfill specific roles. Miriam, Hilda, and Donatello, on the other hand, place themselves in solitary environments. Donatello inhabits his lonely villa with its "owl's nest" tower of introspection (255). Isolated in the tower, Donatello does not even realize that Miriam resides in some of the abandoned rooms of his own villa. Hilda, too, retreats within "the battlements of her tower," finding herself uninspired even by the art which previously enthralled her (343).
This small point of difference--the actual location of the sinful individual with respect to other human beings--hints at the larger differences between the cultural contexts depicted by Hawthorne within these two novels. The Scarlet Letter takes place in a restrictive Puritan community, while The Marble Faun presents Rome as a vast city where sinners can remain anonymous yet find forgiveness through the individualized sacraments of the Catholic Church. Hawthorne himself did not regularly attend religious services nor did he espouse a certain "ironbound dogma," although his acute awareness of the reality of sin has been attributed to his Puritan heritage (Gorman 92, 86). Hawthorne's interest in spiritual matters led him to investigate various religious ideas. According to a list compiled by Marion Kesselring, the books which Hawthorne borrowed from the Salem Athenaeum between 1828 and 1850 included such works as Thomas Fuller's The Holy and Profane States and Francis Blackburne's The Confessional; or, A full and free Inquiry into the Right ... of establishing systematical Confessions and doctrine in Protestant Churches (180, 45). Though these volumes hint at a deep religious curiosity, both, as well as others on Kesselring's list, were written by Protestant theologians. Indeed, the American religious milieu in the mid-nineteenth century was predominantly Protestant, causing the nation's 3,500,000 Catholics to be regarded by some with "intense hatred" (Bochen 42, 44). This antagonistic attitude increased with the arrival of 2,720,000 Catholic immigrants between 1815 and 1866, leading to a sort of religious crusade in which the primary Protestant champions were the producers of anti-Catholic literature (Bochen 46). In such an environment, converts to Catholicism faced the loss of their social identity.
Yet Hawthorne experienced a direct encounter with Roman Catholic culture during his year in Italy (1858-9), an encounter which left him ambivalent about Catholicism. In his investigation of nineteenth-century American tourists' reactions to Italy, Paul Baker notes that typical American visitors "vigorously attacked Catholic usages and blamed on the Church many of the ills of society," asserting that their "own religious practices were distinctly superior" (182). Hawthorne's Italian Notebooks make it clear that he was aware of this norm and struggled to adhere to it. For instance, he observed that, "beneath the colonnade of St. Peter's," he "immediately became sensible of an evil odor,--the bad odor of our fallen nature" (130). Yet he gradually moved toward a deeper appreciation of Catholic practices. In fact, another investigator of American-Italian relations, William Vance, describes Hawthorne's response to Rome as an "appreciation of the psychological value of Catholic worship" and a "regret that it is unavailable to him" (14). After viewing Catholic worshippers in the Pantheon, Hawthorne commented, "Everybody seemed so devout, and in a frame of mind so suited to the day and place, that it really made me feel a little awkward not to be able to kneel down along with them" (NB 95). In particular, as his son and biographer Julian notes, Hawthorne was fascinated by "confessionals and their significance," exploring that topic with more "elaboration" and "persistence" than any other in his Italian Notebooks (Hawthorne, Circle 305). For example, on February 29th, 1858, Hawthorne describes his encounter with St. Peter's, a "great church" that "continues to grow upon me both in magnitude and beauty ... I am surprised into admiration" (88). He continues, "Passing near the confessionals for foreigners to-day, I saw a Spaniard, who had just come out of the one devoted to his native tongue, taking leave of his confessor, with an affectionate reverence, which--as well as the benign dignity of the good father--it was good to behold" (88). Hawthorne's compelling interest in the nature of guilt and redemption made the act of confession a source of interest; he conjectures, "It must be very tedious to listen, day after day, to the minute and common-place iniquities of the multitude of penitents, and it cannot be often that these are redeemed by the treasure-trove of a great sin" (451). In fact, it seems that Hawthorne had contemplated the Catholic practice of confession even before his trip to Italy. James Russell Lowell, who corresponded with Hawthorne, revealed that Hawthorne had once entertained the possibility of having Dimmesdale "confess to a Catholic priest" (Lowell 48). This deep-rooted interest in confession, therefore, had already prompted Hawthorne to consider exploring Catholic practices, even in The Scarlet Letter's Puritan context.
This historical background increases the significance of Hawthorne's cultural settings, settings which in turn allow him to voice his observations about the different methods of dealing with sin espoused by Puritan and Catholic traditions. The very first words of each of the novels illustrate this cultural contrast. While The Scarlet Letter introduces its readers immediately to "a throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women," The Marble Faun begins with the introduction of "four individuals, in whose fortunes we should be glad to interest the reader" (SL 53, MF 5). Thus, Hawthorne identifies Puritanism with a community gathered around the prison door. Hawthorne's version of Rome, on the other hand, stresses individuality. As Kenyon observes, "Rome is not like one of our New England villages, where we need the permission of each individual neighbor for every act that we do, every word that we utter, and every friend that we make or keep" (109). The juxtaposition of provincial New England and cosmopolitan Rome presents an interesting challenge to the traditional association of freedom and individualism with Protestant culture and of mass movements with Roman Catholicism. For instance, Miriam's "ambiguity," the narrator reveals, "would have operated unfavourably as regarded her reception in society, anywhere but in Rome" (MF 20). Later, the narrator describes Hilda as "all alone" and "perfectly independent," partaking in an extreme freedom which "seems to work unexceptionably in Rome" while it is "unknown in the society of other cities" (MF 54-55). These references suggest that the emphasis on individual freedom arises not from the urban setting, nor from the expatriate status of the artists, but from the very city of Rome itself.
Hawthorne describes both cultural settings in dismal tones, however. The Puritan setting begins at the "ugly edifice" of the prison and centers around the pillory or scaffold, an emblem of humiliation and spiritual--if not physical--death, while the Catholic environment is fraught with references to the deathlike and decaying conditions of the city of Rome itself (SL 53). The difference between the two descriptions of cultural context may again be distinguished by a closer consideration of the sources of the morbidity and guilt that haunt the central characters of each novel. For Hester and Dimmesdale, despite their differing situations, the claustrophobic conditions of community life give rise to constant suffering. When Hester is set upon the pillory before the gathered Puritans, she feels stifled by the "leaden infliction" of their somber gazes and desires to "shriek out," perhaps in order to gasp the air of freedom which is being denied to her (SL 60). The "inquisitorial watch" of the Puritan magistrates follows Hester even into her cottage (76). Only two individual voices temper this communal condemnation: that of the "young wife" who advocates mercy during Hester's exposure, and, significantly, that of the imaginary "Papist" who compares Hester to the "Divine Maternity" (56, 190, 59). As Sacvan Bercovitch notes, "the papist perspective ... clearly parallels the compassionate view of Hester expressed by the young mother at the prison door" (27). While these scenes may seem to foreground the Puritan notion of individual interpretation, these individuals who defy the community's reading are both eliminated so that consensus may be preserved. The narrator informs us unambiguously that the Papist's comparison is flawed: Hester "should remind" him of the Virgin "only by contrast," for she has, in fact, made the world "darker" and "more lost" (SL 59). The young mother--the "only compassionate" presence for Hester--is silenced by death, and when Hester faces the "self-same ... group of matrons, who had awaited her forthcoming from the prison-door, seven years ago," she finds that their "cool" gaze sears "her breast more painfully" than ever (190). While Dimmesdale receives the esteem of his congregation, he too feels suffocated by their gaze. He "longs to speak out," sending forth his "black secret" along with his "tremulous breath," but he seems to be trapped by his position of leadership within the community (119). The "many eyes turned upward" to him aggravate his sense of guilt (152).
In contrast, The Marble Faun presents sin and guilt as the concerns of the individual as he or she faces other individuals. Miriam remains strikingly free from societal connections; her origin is the subject of conjecture, but she has been "plucked up out" of her native community (23). She does not feel troubled by the gaze of society, but instead by the intimate gaze of the Model. She answers to him primarily, able to keep her struggles from otherwise mingling with the "flood of human life" around her (98). Perhaps most frightening for Miriam is Hilda's judgment and the loss of her friendship; Hilda also moves away from Kenyon after she observes the sin shared by Miriam and Donatello. The sinners in The Marble Faun, therefore, are motivated--even tortured--by their desires to preserve individual relationships, rather than by their need to conform to societal norms imposed by a communal code.
Yet within these two novels and their different cultural contexts, Hawthorne establishes a linguistic commonality, adopting terminology which allows him to draw distinctions between valid and invalid means of seeking deliverance in either setting. Through his careful use of the terms "penance" and "penitence," Hawthorne defines the first as an empty act and the second as an attitude necessary for redemption. By developing this notion, Hawthorne enters into a longstanding theological discourse with deep implications. An investigation of the historical use of the terms will provide a better understanding of the significance of their use by Hawthorne. The Latin word paenitentia is the common root of both words. Although pagans would interpret it solely as a "feeling of regret," for the early Christian community, the word encompassed "everything which at any time and in any way is required of the sinner who seeks the forgiveness of God"; in fact, some scholars maintain that there is "no one word in any modern language" which offers the same unifying signification (Le Saint 132). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term "penitence," derived through Old French, was first used circa 1200 to mean the imposing of a painful action to expiate one's guilt; by the sixteenth century, however, "penitence" had come to signify the sense of sorrow for one's sins. Interestingly, the word "penance," also from Old French, initially meant repentance, but gradually came to denote self-mortification, sufferings in purgatory, and any sort of pain or punishment. Thus, the original, all-encompassing word was divided into two words, "penance" and "penitence," words which literally exchanged meanings over the course of three hundred years. This division and subsequent shifting of meanings are not merely the eccentricity of an evolving language, but serve instead as an indirect illustration of the theological turmoil surrounding the notions of repentance and redemption. Although the sacrament of penance was not formally codified until the Lateran Council in 1215, a significant seminal figure in the debate over its earliest formulation was the Christian apologist, Tertullian, who--as a convert from Catholicism to the Puritanical sect of Montanism--served as a doctrinal source for both Catholic and Puritan understandings of sin and its proper treatment. In his treatise, "De paenitentia," written sometime between 198 and 202 A.D., Tertullian presents a more Catholic view, defining what is now the sacrament of confession as paenitentia secunda, a second chance for repentance (paenitentia prima took place at baptism, and ideally would prevent commission of more serious sins): by confession of sins and public acts of penance, the sinner can be reconciled to the Church and to God (Tertullian 28-32).
Yet in his later treatise, "De pudicitia," Tertullian offers a Puritanical understanding of redemption. In it, he argues that the sacrament of penance serves to induce further sin; instead of receiving a second chance from the Church, the sinner should seek salvation through the "second Baptism" of "martyrdom" (Tertullian 124). Thus, Tertullian helped to develop the Puritan notion of the church as a community of the holy which would be polluted if it readmitted sinners, for he maintained that sinners should "suffer shame before the Church" instead of being "in communion with it" (61). Tertullian's severity demanded that sinners do "penance," not hoping for forgiveness, but "warning others by [their] exemplary shame" (61). These strict tenets influenced later Puritan communities; in The Scarlet Letter, for instance, sinners serve as a "living sermon against sin" for the community, while receiving no assurance of forgiveness (64). Finally, Tertullian promulgated the doctrine of "irremissible sins" which result in the spiritual death of their perpetrators; his list included both adultery and murder, the two sins central to Hawthorne's novels (Tertullian 59, 63). In contrast, Tertullian's contemporary, St. Cyprian, championed a more moderate Catholic understanding, in which such grave sins were pardonable through works of penance combined with "sincere sorrow" (Daly 145, 171). Thus, "penitential reconciliation" could "completely" cleanse the soul and purify the conscience (182).
Hawthorne's awareness of the controversies surrounding the theological technicalities of redemption has been supported by Marion Kesselring and Eileen Dreyer, who have researched Hawthorne's use of historical sources. For instance, Kesselring establishes with certainty that Hawthorne consulted Thomas Broughton's An Historical Dictionary of All Religions from the Creation of the World to the Present Time (1749) before writing The Scarlet Letter (34). In the margins of his dictionary, Broughton frequently cites Tertullian as a source of information and ideas. While Broughton's entries on "Absolution" and "Confession" do not directly cite the works of Tertullian, they present many of his ideas as Broughton investigates the changing rules and rituals of both public and private confession over time. For instance, Broughton describes the initial confession or absolution of baptism--Tertullian's paenitentia prima (7). Broughton also lists the three irremissible sins enumerated by Tertullian: idolatry, adultery, and murder (7). In his entry on "Penitents," Broughton notes that, at one time, sinners who had committed one of these three sins performed a life-long, martyr-like penance, but were still denied readmission into the Church community--a direct link to Tertullian's Montanist doctrine (235). Broughton directly cites Tertullian's "De paenitentia" to describe candidates for penance who wept prostrate before the Church, begging to be admitted to public penance; Broughton proceeds to describe the acts of mortification required for public penance (234-235). Broughton's dictionary also reprints the historical William Chillingworth's refutation of the Catholic understanding of "contrition" and "attrition," terms which refer to degrees of repentance, the former motivated by sorrow and the latter by fear (281, 100). Dreyer believes that Hawthorne's clear differentiation between "penance" and "penitence" in his novels "bears a striking resemblance" to the distinction between "attrition" and "contrition" discussed by Chillingworth (80). Most importantly, however, Broughton's entry on "Absolution" highlights Archbishop Tillotson's assertion that true forgiveness can only be bestowed upon "the truly penitent"; thus, a sinner could perform penance without actually repenting, and therefore not be forgiven (8).
In both novels, Hawthorne demonstrates and develops the tenet that sacrificial actions without sorrow are valueless: the sinner's unwillingness to actually forego his or her attachment to the sin committed prevents reconciliation and healing. Interestingly, Hester espouses a version of the Puritan code reminiscent of Tertullian's: she commits herself to the second penance of "martyrdom," placing a qualified hope in the efficacy of her "daily shame" as a means of purifying her soul (SL 76). Yet although she undergoes a severe form of public penance on the pillory, a penance repeated each day through her donning of the "A," Hawthorne's narrator emphasizes its ineffectuality. Although Hester is a self-appointed "martyr," the narrator notes that her "idea of penance" does not reflect "genuine and steadfast penitence" (78-9). Indeed, her resistance to a feeling of penitence turns the "A" into a "fitting decoration" (57). In other words, Hester attempts to follow the Puritan guideline of working out her peace with God, yet she remains unwilling to separate herself from her sin by recognizing it as a sin. As a result, her sacrificial actions become a form of self-validation instead of a form of self-abnegation. Hester's continued devotion to her sin becomes most evident when she reminds Dimmesdale that their union "had a consecration of its own" (154). In her mind, therefore, the sin was, in fact, holy. Hester defies her need to repent even in the last lines of the novel, where the narrator notes that her "penitence" had "yet to be" (200).
Dimmesdale, too, turns to penance as his hope, placing his trust in the "one Physician of the soul" (114). Yet as he subjects himself to extreme physical penance, Dimmesdale realizes the incompleteness of his search for redemption. As he observes, "Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence there has been none!" (152). Until the moment when he confesses his sins to the community, Dimmesdale's apparent "penitence ... sealed and witnessed with good works" is but the "mockery of penitence" (152, 122). Interestingly, Hawthorne compares both Hester and Dimmesdale's acts of penance to Catholic practices: Hester appoints herself a "Sister of Mercy," while Dimmesdale turns to the self-mortifying practices of the "old, corrupted faith of Rome" (131, 120). Instead of merely critiquing Catholicism, however, these references may serve to illustrate the universality of the problem which Hawthorne is investigating. Clearly, the novel's depiction of the "dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law" tempers the narrator's reference to the "better light" of the Puritan religion (56, 120). Thus, these references to Catholicism may underscore the fact that no creed can offer effective means of redemption until the individual involved chooses sincerely to release his or her sin, instead of harboring it.
An analysis of Hawthorne's use of the terms "penance" and "penitence" in The Marble Faun supports such a reading. The words first enter the text when Miriam, distancing herself from Catholicism, reminds the Model, "Your faith allows you the consolations of penance and absolution" (96). While she omits the essential element of penitence, thereby failing to give an accurate description of the faith she attempts to define, Hawthorne's narrator reveals that her omission does, in fact, make her statement a true account of the Model's personal notions of redemption. He merely performs "an enjoined penance," without the disposition of "penitence that ought to have given it effectual life" (159). Indeed, the Model refuses to let go of his sin, retaining his power over Miriam and, as Miriam observes, converting his "own will" into an "iron necessity" (96). After participating in the Model's murder, Miriam follows his example at first, "feeling neither regret nor penitence" (280). Similarly, Donatello retreats into his tower where he contemplates various odd forms of penance (including turning his banquet hall into a chapel), but fails to express a sense of true penitence.
Interestingly, the Protestant Kenyon finally calls Miriam and Donatello to penitence and leads them to a sort of absolution. Kenyon initiates the journey to Perugia which becomes a "penitential pilgrimage" for Donatello; as they travel, the shrines to the Virgin and the Crosses they encounter inspire Donatello with a "higher penitence" (296, 299). When Miriam and Donatello are reunited in the piazza of Perugia, Kenyon urges them to turn to "prayer, penitence, and earnest effort towards right things" (322). Unlike Hester and Dimmesdale, whose lack of penitence prevented the development of a true union, Miriam and Donatello are re-transformed into "the beautiful man" and "the beautiful woman"; they feel that the statue of Pope Julius, honored as a confessor, blesses them as they acknowledge and relinquish their sin (324-5). This scene in the piazza resembles a re-staged confession: Kenyon listens to the sinners' confession of mutual guilt and doubt, giving them a penance to complete. Importantly, that penance is to embrace penitence. Immediately afterward, the statue of Julius III seems to grant them absolution. As in The Scarlet Letter, this bridging of a religious divide--the Protestant Kenyon serving as a sort of confessor--broadens the applicability of Hawthorne's call for true penitence to precede and validate attempts at penance in either cultural context.
While Hawthorne presents an almost ecumenical appeal for an attitude of repentance and a willingness to confess sin in order to reject it and find forgiveness, his presentation of Hilda's encounter with the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation reveals his growing attraction to the Church's methods of dealing with sin. In The Scarlet Letter and The Marble Faun, Hawthorne investigates the implications inherent in the contrasting cultural forums that Puritanism and Catholicism offer for confession: confessions made to the community may transform the sinner into an object--a scapegoat or a saint--thereby sacrificing individual well-being in order to strengthen community coherence. In contrast to this Puritan system, explored in The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne seems to favor the traditionally Catholic approach depicted in The Marble Faun, one which centers on the vocalization or "exhalation" of sins in secret. Such a ritual ideally allows the sinner to maintain his or her individuality. Through the anonymity of the confessional, the sinner avoids being continually identified in terms of his or her transgression. Thus, these two novels demonstrate Hawthorne's profound understanding of both religions, even though Franchot characterizes The Marble Faun as a "painstaking, ultimately failed, Protestant effort to comprehend Catholicism" (350). Furthermore, despite Franchot's assertion that The Marble Faun is an abortive work devoid of "original literary creations," the novel in fact alters the conventional setting of the confessional in order to create an environment where individual morality maintains its sovereignty apart from the compulsion of community norms or the dictates of a moral power outside of the self.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne's religious insights allow him to depict the dynamics of communal confession with a perceptive accuracy which has been validated by the conclusions of both sociological and theoretical studies. For example, Kai T. Erikson's investigation of the sociology of deviance within Puritan communities affirms that an individual's deviant--or sinful--behavior may actually impart a sense of unity to the rest of society, as the deviant person helps to define and re-enforce boundaries instituted by the community. According to Erikson, the deviant individual serves as a necessary element in the formation of a community's "collective conscience" (4). Hester seems to fulfill this very role within Hawthorne's text: the women of the community join in consensus about the punishments she should suffer, claiming that her treatment will determine the conduct of the community's "own wives and daughters" (SL 56). Like Erikson, Hawthorne describes a society where "religion and law were almost identical," converting public penance into a method of dealing with those who did not follow societal norms (SL 55). At the pillory, Hester undergoes the "rite of transition" which Erikson describes in his study, attaining a new and irreversible position on the margins of the community (16). Even so, Hester's very dwelling--on the "outskirts of the town"--is regarded with a "mystic shadow of suspicion" (76). Interestingly, Erikson observes that communities do not attempt to eradicate deviance, but to keep it "within bounds"; for this reason, the rates of deviancy remain relatively stable in a given society as certain offenders are singled out to fulfill the deviant role, while others practicing the same behaviors remain undisturbed (24). Likewise, Hester perceives the "hidden sin in other hearts" around her and recognizes that even the "venerable minister or magistrate" who serves as the community's "model" is, in fact, as deviant as she (SL 80). Yet she alone bears the penalty for deviancy.
The consequences of viewing confession as a communal activity are not limited to the sociological realm; they have similar theoretical and linguistic implications, which have been explored by Kenneth Burke and Rene Girard. While Burke uses the term "scapegoat" instead of "deviant," he asserts the inevitable need for such a role within a "logological" or linguistic network based upon commandments which are impossible to keep ("On Theology" 6). In this system, "Order leads to Guilt" and "Guilt needs Redemption" (Burke, "On Theology" 5). Finally, Burke concludes, "Redemption needs Redeemer (which is to say a Victim!)" ("On Theology" 5). The establishment of order results in the reality of disorder; such a statement seems to hold true particularly in a society as driven by ethical negatives as that of the Puritans. Even as Erikson places the deviant in a position of distance, Burke asserts that the scapegoat is first "profoundly consubstantial" with the community, but is subsequently "alienated" through a redefinition of terms which Burke calls the "dialectic of the scapegoat" (Burke, Grammar 406). Indeed, this process seems similar to Erikson's rite of transition and to Hester's exposure upon the pillory. For Burke, the scapegoat becomes the "symbolic vessel of certain burdens, which are ritualistically delegated to it" (Philosophy 27). In other words, the community is redeemed by the individual's sacrifice, but the selected substitute becomes a sacrificial victim, unable to regain a neutral role within the community.
While these insights apply primarily to Hester, Girard's understanding of the scapegoat highlights the complexity of Dimmesdale's situation. Dimmesdale repeatedly attempts to take on the role of scapegoat through public confession of his nature as the "worst of sinners," yet the community reveres him instead as a "saint on earth" (SL 119). Even his final, more complete public confession does not remove him from the ranks of "saints and angels" (198). Through his references to his own sinfulness, however, Dimmesdale seems to offer an example of one of Girard's observations: the scapegoat who becomes a victim is often elevated to hero status, since he is the one "held responsible for the renewed calm in the community" (Things Hidden 27). In this way, the sinner "is believed to be sacred," or "even believed to have brought about [his] own death" (Girard, Things Hidden 27). Similarly, Dimmesdale's parishioners interpret his confessions as voluntary and self-sacrificial "efforts for mankind's spiritual good" (SL 198). Thus, Dimmesdale's position of distance from the community allows him to play the role appointed to the scapegoat by Burke: "the scapegoat is 'charismatic,' a vicar" (A Grammar 406). Dimmesdale occupies a position as marginal as Hester's; his individuality has been absorbed by the outsider role of saint granted to him by the community. Interestingly, Burke's investigation of the word "sacer" draws a linguistic connection between the "sacred" and the "criminal": both the "extremely good" and the "extremely bad" become "untouchable," placed on the outskirts of society (Philosophy 55). While Dimmesdale remains "extremely good" in the eyes of the community, Hester moves along the margins, perceived initially as "extremely bad" and later as "extremely good." Girard's description of the scapegoat's maturation into sainthood helps to elucidate this transformation of Hester's "A": instead of symbolizing her sin, the "A" gains a "sacredness" (132). Girard observes that the scapegoat "is made sacred by the community's reconciliation" (The Scapegoat 50). Hester reconciles herself to the community through her self-sacrificing service to others, a self-imposed penance, and thus becomes "the town's own Hester" (132). In either case, whether confession to the community results in a position as scapegoat or as saint, it replaces the sinner's humanity with an identity profoundly Other as an object of the community's hatred or homage.
As Hawthorne presents these difficulties with public confession in The Scarlet Letter, he expresses an incipient attraction to the idea of private confession. Dimmesdale observes the "relief" felt by those "brethren" who, while remaining "fair in reputation," have revealed their guilt in "confidence" to him (111). In The Marble Faun, however, Hawthorne expresses his attraction to the idea of individualized confession more fully. During the year that he spent in Italy, Hawthorne found himself fascinated by the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation. Despite his initial aversion to the Roman atmosphere, Hawthorne's attitude toward two aspects of Catholic culture--art and religion--seemed to soften over the course of his visit. Those elements formed an interrelated pair, for Hawthorne's attraction to the Church came in part from his appreciation of its aesthetic qualities, although he attempted to resist even its artistic appeal. For instance, he praises the glory of stained glass windows in Florence's Duomo, declaring that "God himself was shining through them," but immediately censures himself, writing "I hate what I have said" (NB 278-9). Yet the many hours which Hawthorne passed in various cathedrals were not all spent admiring religious art. Hawthorne's assessment of confession was much less tempered than his artistic praise; in fact, his almost indiscrete attentiveness to the confessions taking place around him suggests that his interest may have included a sense of vicarious relief as well as a desire to experience the sacrament himself. The most intriguing encounters between Hawthorne and the sacrament took place in the cathedral of Siena. There he "watched a woman at confession, being curious to see how long it would take her to tell all her sins" (451). He continues, "I know not how long she had been confessing when I first observed her, but nearly an hour passed before the priest came suddenly from the confessional, looking weary and moist with perspiration" (451). The next day he "watched another woman" confess, and "she too was very long about it" (451). Hawthorne concludes, "When her confession was over the woman came and sat down on the same bench with me," her face "solemnized and softened with the comfort she had obtained by disburdening herself of the soil of worldly frailties and receiving absolution" (451). As Hawthorne witnessed and contemplated Catholic practices, he consciously compared them to a Puritan-based religious atmosphere, concluding that, "unlike the worshipers in our own churches, each individual here seems to do his own individual acts of devotion, and I cannot but think it better so" (95).
Although Hawthorne valued the "infinite convenience" and the "miracle of fitness" which he found in the structures of the Catholic Church, he remained troubled by the authority held by priests who frequently appeared to be unworthy of their office (MF 355, 345). In his Dictionary, Broughton, too, expressed concern about "the power" that confession gave "the clergy of that Church over the laity" (272). The danger that Hawthorne perceived with confessing to another individual lay in the dynamic between the confessor and the penitent. Hilda's confessor carefully treads the boundary between assistance and influence, hinting at the possibility for misuse of the confessional: his voice "encouraged her" and "led her on by apposite questions," creating a sort of "magnetism" that gained her "confidence" (357). Hawthorne's understanding of the complexity of private confession finds indirect support in the writings of Michel Foucault, even as Girard and Burke confirm the complications of public confession. Like Hawthorne, Foucault associates confession with individualization. But Foucault argues that confession is a "ritual of discourse" which "unfolds within a power relationship," granting one partner the "authority" to require the confession, to appreciate it, and to punish or reconcile (61). Because of this, individuals who confess are deceived when they think that they can achieve a form of freedom by speaking the "truth" of their "most secret nature" (59). Instead, Foucault asserts, confession is created and manipulated by power, which defines truth; in this way, confession becomes a discourse in which truth is constructed for the individual, not revealed by him or her.
Hawthorne's innovative alteration of the sacrament of confession allows him to envision an instance of private confession which avoids both constrictive community norms and the imposition of a moral power outside the self, allowing individual morality to preserve its central role. Hilda is motivated not by a desire to discover truth, but by an unthinking feeling in need of expression. Within the confessional, she releases the secret and literally exhales, in a "turbulent overflow," the sense of guilt which had been stifling her (MF 357). Hilda offers a description of the true purpose of private confession: there, secrets may be revealed and "dreadful solitude" may be relieved by the sympathy of another human being (359). As a "daughter of the Puritans," Hilda does not seek absolution, thereby limiting the power that her confessor can wield over her (362). In fact, when the priest threatens to reveal what she has confessed, Hilda asserts her own moral authority, declaring, "That is not right, Father," as she meets the priest's gaze (360). Rather than submitting to his position of power, she appeals to his individual sense of morality, informing him of what "is right" and instructing him not to "perpetrate a great wrong, both as a priest and a man" (361). Hilda clearly sets forth the distinction between penitence and penance as she asserts, "It is only by sincere repentance of whatever wrong I may have done, and by my own best efforts towards a higher life, that I can hope for ... forgiveness" (359). Thus, Hilda's confession combines the best elements of the two religious traditions, freeing the individual from the secrecy or segregation imposed by a community of confessors and avoiding the abuses that could result from misplaced confidence in another human being.
Yet Hawthorne does not present confession as a mere instrument of psychological self-liberation. After her self-styled confession, Hilda feels reconciled "with God, with the self, with the brethren, and with the whole of creation" (John Paul II 99): she radiates with "peaceful beatitude"; she regains her full capacity for "intellectual activity"; she is restored to fellowship with Kenyon; and once again her doves share a "real sympathy" with her "state of mind" (MF 370-1). Though Hilda chooses not to convert to Catholicism, she reflects, "Why should not I be a Catholic, if I find there what I need, and what I cannot find elsewhere? The more I see of this worship, the more I wonder at the exuberance with which it adapts itself to all the demands of human infirmity" (368). As Julian Hawthorne observes, Hawthorne gave "expression to his thoughts on the matter" of confession "in the description of Hilda's experience with the confessional; but it may be worthwhile to repeat his own words, untinged by the imaginative element" (Hawthorne and His Wife 178). Julian proceeds to quote his father Nathaniel directly:</p> <pre>
Saint Peter's ... offers itself as a place of worship and religious
comfort for the whole human race; and in one of the transepts I
found a range of confessionals, where the penitent might tell his
sins in the tongue of his own country, whether French, German,
Polish, English, or what not. If I had had a murder on my conscience, or any other great sin, I think I should have been inclined to kneel down there, and pour it into the safe secrecy of the confessional. What an institution that is! man needs it so, that it seems as if God must have ordained it. (178) </pre> <p>According to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, The Marble Faun was her father's "best book," for it "inculcates the most sterling hope of any of his works" (357). (1) This hope arose, perhaps, from the fact that Hawthorne--an author deeply intrigued by guilt and a man personally affected by a sense of solitude--had envisioned a system in which reconciliation could be achieved through a validation of individuality, instead of through its enslavement. After her experience of this hybrid form of confession, Hilda pledges to hold "in loving remembrance" the place where she found "infinite peace after infinite trouble" (365). Hawthorne, too, confessed his attachment to the place where he had imagined this source of peace, noting that "Rome certainly does draw itself into my heart, as I think even ... old sleepy Salem never did and never will" (NB 17).
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(1) Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (1851-1926) converted to Catholicism in 1891 and founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, a nursing order. She was officially proposed as a candidate for sainthood in February of 2003 (Stern).
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|Author:||Taylor, Olivia Gatti|
|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2005|
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