References to mythological characters that people recognize consciously or unconsciously offer a writer good examples of allusion for use in all genres, but the metaphorical quality of the archetypes in Greek mythology engenders powerful plots and characters in fiction. How many stories have we all read-or perhaps films we have watched-in which a woman saves the man she loves through her own ingenuity? The Greeks perfected this tale, the one, for example, in which Theseus volunteers to enter the labyrinth with the intention of slaying the Minotaur but is successful only because of the woman who loves him. Ariadne gives him the blueprint of Daedalus’s labyrinth as well as a ball of twine to find his way back out of this deathtrap.
Or how about Medea, whose rage leads her to destroy the ones she loves the most, her own children, to spite the man who has betrayed her? We all know real life stories of women possessed with mental illness who tragically choose this path. Even Medea’s lover Jason reminds us of the heartbreaking consequences when, despite the woman who sacrifices all for him, he shuns her and chooses another who is wealthier and more politically connected. Sound familiar? They should. These examples from ancient mythology are the sometimes dark archetypal patterns of our own lives, and subsequently the lives of literary figures whose consequences evolve from this tension. One such character is Hester Prynne, the well-known heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne and Greek Mythology
Hawthorne, the most celebrated writer of fiction during the nineteenth century American Renaissance, drew ideas for a number of his characters and plots from his knowledge of Greek mythology, the stories which he admired and ultimately retold for children in The Wonder Book and The Tanglewood Tales. While the structure of fiction often parallels the motifs of mythology, the three Fates, or Moirae, lend the imagery of thread and weaving destiny especially well to Hester.
Parallels between Hawthorne and Hester
Life is the stuff of literature, and Hawthorne chose to create a character whose situation, at least the emotional grief he felt, mirrored his own. He had lost his job at the Custom House, money was scarcer than ever, and he had not yet earned the distinction of an established writer that he believed he had earned. Pouring his sense of loss and injustice into Hester’s troubles, he handed his publisher Ticknor and Fields a partial manuscript of The Scarlet Letter, and the book was published on March 16, 1850, resulting in good reviews. Today scholars consider the seventeenth century protagonist of the novel, Hester Prynne-a moral and practical exemplar of the nineteenth century-a literary exemplar of modern day. The book established Hawthorne as a literary exemplar in his own time as well.
Thread and the Three Fates
In the seventeenth century patriarchal setting of the book, the Puritans consider women to be the weaker sex, an attitude that actually saves Hester from hanging, the usual punishment for the crime of adultery. Her new husband, having two years earlier sent her to Boston without him and later having been lost at sea, returns unexpectedly to find her standing in public humiliation on the scaffold with a child who isn’t his, but the name of the father of this child will be carefully and painfully withheld by the mother until the end of his life. Before the story opens, Hester has already fallen in love with her minister, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale. Although the minister is supposed to protect this defenseless woman alone in the New England wilderness, he becomes the father of her child, yet she is steadfast in her decision not to reveal his identify and ruin his esteemed position in the Puritan community. At this point she must, if she is to remain near him in Boston, provide for the welfare of herself and her child Pearl, and she does this through her skillful sewing and embroidery.
Thread and needlework in any context seem to suggest connections or ties that bind people, places, actions, and ideas together. The Greeks personified this thread imagery in the form of the three Fates, or Moirae: Clotho the Spinner, who spun the thread of life; Lachesis the Disposer of Lots, who assigned a length of thread to each man or woman; and Atropos, who cut the thread at the end of that life. Hester Prynne embodies all three Fates as she literally uses her needle and thread to weave her own destiny, to thrive in a hostile environment and alter an entire community’s perception of her-from adulterer to angel and able-and at the end of her life to return to the place of her sin and her loving commitment in order to live out her life and be buried next to her partner Arthur Dimmesdale.
Thread as the Axis Mundi
In ancient mythology the thread passing through the sphere of the pearl is the axis mundi, and Hester’s beloved daughter Pearl, the union of fire and water, is the center of her world, a constant reminder of the mother’s sin. It is only when mother and father stand together on the scaffold in the final revelation of the truth that the demon-child Pearl will acknowledge her dying father, an act that calms her spirit and enables Pearl to move on, grow into a woman who will have her own family, which she does.
After Dimmesdale, the man who cuckolds Hester’s husband, dies, the wicked husband in disguise who calls himself Roger Chillingworth, has no will to live now that Dimmesdale is gone, and he dies as well, leaving Hester’s daughter Pearl with his wealth. Mother and daughter disappear to Europe, but Hester, an elderly woman now, returns to Boston to minister to women in need of the kind of comfort and solace that Hester desired long ago. She wears the finely embroidered A once more, though faded, and when she dies, she is buried side by side with her beloved Dimmesdale. They are separated in life but also separated in death, with a space between them, and there is just one grave marker which reads, “On a field sable, the letter gules.”
If the thread of life weaves and binds together the universe of Hester Prynne, it is also a primary motif of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s personal journey as well as the microcosm of our own lives.
For more information about Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter, see the following sources:
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. New York: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 1969.
O’Connor, Susan. Dance of Language. Bloomington, IL: AuthorHouse, 2008.
Reynolds, David. Beneath the American Renaissance. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988.
Wineapple, Brenda. Hawthorne, A Life. New York: Random
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