The Scarlet Letter. New Critical Essays

by Janusz Semrau (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection 122 Pages


This book is a collection of critical essays on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) – one of the most influential American works of fiction. The presented interpretations deal not only with the principal characters of the novel, but also with «The Custom-House», the Spanish sailors, the Book of Revelations, and the artist as adulterer. The critical tools employed include allegory, the Biedermeier, hermeneutical exposition, semiosis of the infans, and triangular desire.
This publication is dedicated to the memory of Andrzej Kopcewicz (1934-2007), the first professor ordinarius of American literature in the history of English studies in Poland, on the tenth anniversary of his death.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • The children of Pearl: The Scarlet Letter in the criticism and fiction of Henry James (Joseph Kuhn)
  • Resettlement, mobility and modernity in The Scarlet Letter (Marek Paryż)
  • From the Spanish Main to the Book of Revelation; or, Another View of Hester (Janusz Semrau)
  • “The Custom-House” as a Biedermeier text (Paweł Stachura)
  • The artist as adulterer in The Scarlet Letter (Jørgen Veisland)
  • Notes on contributors
  • Series index

| 7 →


The letter is alive and well.
(Coale 2011: 19)

Anecdotally, The Scarlet Letter (1850) saw the light of day almost immediately upon completion only because its existence in the author’s private escritoire at 14 Mall Street in Salem was first intuited and then insistently assumed by a keen junior partner of a Boston publisher. However wary Hawthorne may have been to relinquish the original manuscript, soon after it appeared in print he would spare but a single leaf from the flames, the title page with the table of contents on the reverse. Alluding to the cumbersome logistics of an unplanned and in the end rushed publication – specifically to the distance between Salem and Boston – the writer quipped that his tightly contained narrative became gracelessly at least fourteen miles long in the process. Uncertain whether his ripeness and fullness of time as a novelist had already come, he could not be sure whether The Scarlet Letter was any good at all to begin with: “I don’t make any such calculation”, he wrote unenthusiastically to a friend (Nathaniel Hawthorne quoted in James [1879: 38]). Indeed, contrary to the later persistent and still current historiographic legend, the book did not become exactly a proverbial overnight success. It was much rather a succès d’estime. It established the author as a full-fledged professional man of letters, but it sold in his lifetime according to various sources just around ten thousand copies, with total royalties amounting to no more than just over a thousand dollars.1

Given the benefit of hindsight, what is especially striking about the novel’s stretch and range today is not only its array and elasticity of polysemic meanings – and these extend from the historiographic to the theoretical to the philosophical as well as from the allegorical to the ambivalent to the aporetic – but also its ongoing poignant topicality, i.e., its (a)temporal reach, the idealized Poundian condition of news that stays news. The Scarlet Letter is a rare case of a text that has remained in print, cultural circulation, and public awareness for over a century and a half now. It ranks among the top best remembered, most widely discussed, most closely studied, and most profoundly influential American works of fiction ever written. By common consent, it is one of a few select tales that continually ← 7 | 8 → help define as well as refine not only American literature but also American culture at large. In the words of two contemporary commentators of rather different ideological persuasions, Hawthorne’s work is appreciable as “[A] foundation epic of American literacy” (Crain 2000: 209) and “[A] national master text” (Buell 2014: 90). As Paul Auster (quoted in Coale 2011: 16) has pithily identified the standing of The Scarlet Letter: “This is where American literature begins”. As far as structural properties and aesthetic qualities go, the novel in its clarity of conception, exquisiteness of execution and lightness of expression satisfies the definition of a literary tour de force as an inimitable sort of work that both cannot and need not be written again. It is perfectly safe to assume that for all kinds of, more or less, nuanced reasons The Scarlet Letter will continue to be viewed, and actually read, as an indispensable and irreplaceable American classic.

In accordance, as it were, with the well-known Romantic dictum that notwithstanding classics each age must need write its own books, The Scarlet Letter. New Critical Essays finds itself emulating in scope and length Michael Colacurcio’s anthology of 1985 New Essays on the Scarlet Letter, as well as supplementing and opening up a dialogue with that book. In its own right, the present publication may be seen as (un)intentional or serendipitous testimony to Oscar Wilde’s claim that the essence of true art is the capacity to make one pause, look at and ponder over a thing “a second time” (Wilde 2007: 41). Also, the essays collected here validate Nina Baym’s recognition of The Scarlet Letter as a unique kind of tale and a unique kind of narrative that we are not only likely to approach and enter in our own individual way but we are very likely to approach and enter “in different ways at different points in our lives” (Baym 1986: xxix). This kind of second time and these kinds of different ways are demonstrated here by Joseph Kuhn (Poznań), Marek Paryż (Warsaw), Janusz Semrau (Warsaw), Paweł Stachura (Poznań), and Jørgen Veisland (Gdańsk).

In “The children of Pearl: The Scarlet Letter in the criticism and fiction of Henry James”, Joseph Kuhn focuses at first on the study Hawthorne of 1879 to show how the author was keen to present himself as the American inheritor of the French realists. Although this made James portray Hawthorne as a Salem provincial and a somewhat vague romancer The Scarlet Letter had quite clearly a formative influence on some of his own later fiction, especially through the character of Pearl. Kuhn argues that James elaborates on the Hawthornian figure of the child as a paradoxical transmitter of sin and a new-born anima. According to Kuhn, James takes his discourse ultimately in the direction of the modern Blanchotian themes of the death of the infans and the nekyia or return to the dead. While Hawthorne finds a conservative principle redux for the New World in the child, with James it ← 8 | 9 → turns into an intimation of disaster in the British imperial fabric of late Victorian culture.

In “Resettlement, mobility and modernity in The Scarlet Letter”, Marek Paryż pays special attention to how the novel sketches the difficult and awkward emergence of modernizing impulses in Puritan New England. First of all, he points out that the story gets under way with a double movement and a double resettlement, semi-independently that of Roger Chillingworth and that of Hester Prynne. Paryż argues that the two central characters embody two tendencies and challenges Hawthorne’s 19th-century readers could relate to, namely, the professionalization of social life and the emancipation of women. Even if Roger and Hester appear to respect the rules of the social system in which they find themselves embedded, they develop personal systems of values at odds with the official one. In contradistinction, the third central character, Arthur Dimmesdale, comes across as a figure of immobility and indecision, which is a subplot that ends up perpetuating the mid-17th-century Puritan status quo.

In “From the Spanish Main to the Book of Revelation; or, Another View of Hester”, Janusz Semrau approaches Hawthorne’s text as a kind of post-Reformation morality play. The essay takes its initial cue from the hitherto critically neglected brief performative appearance of Spanish sailors, comparable in their general plot function to that of the troupe of travelling actors in Hamlet. Fundamentally, Semrau recognizes Hawthorne as an unchurched Calvinist and promotes a quasi-Calvinist reading into the Book of Revelation as a re-interpretive tool to The Scarlet Letter. The idea is to map out and explore Hester Prynne’s allegorical capacity as a Babylonian meretrix Augusta and throw thereby a new light on the immediate story as well as on the much-discussed ending of the book, where there can be detected a graphic apocalyptic eschaton rather than a proud or sentimental escutcheon.

In “The Custom-House as a Biedermeier text”, Paweł Stachura reviews some of the most representative readings of Hawthorne’s introductory sketch and proposes a radically new one. He structures his interpretation as an original comparative analysis of “The Custom-House” (along with The Scarlet Letter as a whole) and Adalbert Stifter’s programmatic introduction to his Bunte Steine [Colorful Stones] of 1853. Adalbert Stifter was an Austrian novelist and a short story writer who was one of the most energetic and dedicated advocates of the 19th-century Biedermeier aesthetics. This middle-class cultural phenomenon in German-speaking countries is best remembered for its use of plenitude, tropes of collection, moralizing stance, and its generally conservative ideology. The ultimate objective of Stachura’s ← 9 | 10 → reading of Hawthorne is to show the applicability of the Biedermeier aesthetics to the study of American literature at large.

In “The artist as adulterer”, Jørgen Veisland highlights at first the letter on Hester Prynne’s dress. He sees the letter A as writing and knowledge, repressed in the author’s mind and manifesting itself as a renewal of the imaginative and creative potential as such. According to Veisland, it becomes evident that Hester herself serves as a mediator for the elusive heterogeneous object of the author’s desire, one that contains both artistic and erotic impulses. With Pearl as embodiment of the work of Art, Hawthorne’s project becomes a quest for the excavation of knowledge, the liberation of womanhood, and the transformation of the letter into an episteme that ends up signifying the integration of nature, being, and artwork. In contradistinction, Veisland argues that Roger Chillingworth represents the futility of the “chill” intellect, while Arthur Dimmesdale personifies the obfuscations of the “dim” soul.

This book is dedicated to the continued memory of Andrzej Kopcewicz (1934–2007), the first professor ordinarius of American literature in the history of English studies in Poland, on the tenth anniversary of his death.

Janusz Semrau


October 9, 2017


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2018 (September)
The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne Henry James Biedermeier Book of Revelation
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018., 122 pp.

Biographical notes

Janusz Semrau (Volume editor)

Janusz Semrau is Associate Professor of American literature at the University of Social Sciences (SAN) in Warsaw. He has authored several books and numerous papers on 19th- and 20th-century American literature.


Title: The Scarlet Letter. New Critical Essays
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
124 pages