The Scarlet Letter

by

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter: Style 1 key example

The Custom House
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel's style is characterized by figurative language and long, meandering sentences. One example of a long, descriptive sentence that trips through shifting similes and metaphors occurs in "The Custom House":

My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance.

This passage draws attention to the fact that the entire novel is an exercise in imagination. Not only is the narrator explicitly describing his imagination, but he also uses his imagination to describe it. First he compares his imagination to a "tarnished mirror" that does a poor job of reflecting (or describing in writing) what he wants it to reflect. He goes on to call it an "intellectual forge" that does not get hot enough to manipulate fictional characters. Finally, he stops describing his imagination and simply demonstrates it at its best by describing the characters as eerily judgmental corpses. It seems a bit ironic that the narrator is concerned about his imagination's weakness, since it seems quite strong and active in this passage. On closer examination, his frustration likely seems related to his imagination's overactivity. He jumps from metaphor to metaphor rather than staying with one and developing it fully, so that the idea he is trying to describe can come vividly into the reader's view. This is a narrator who thinks on the page about how he wants to describe history, historical figures, and their meaning.

Throughout the main action of the novel, the narrator keeps up with these winding descriptions. He also pulls back the curtain from time to time, drawing attention to the fact that he is making everything up. For example, in Chapter 8, the narrator comments on the scene where Mistress Hibbins invites Hester into the forest to do witchcraft:

But here—if we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress Hibbins and Hester Prynne to be authentic, and not a parable—was already an illustration of the young minister's argument against sundering the relation of a fallen mother to the offspring of her frailty. Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan's snare.

It may seem at first that the narrator damages the effectiveness of the scene by reminding the reader that it might be a "parable" or even a complete fabrication. But the comment leaves the reader with the understanding that the important thing about the scene is not its verifiability, but rather the moral conclusions that can be drawn from it. Engaging with history, in this narrator's view, involves imagining and "supposing," or conducting thought experiments that allow some deeper truth to emerge.

Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel's style is characterized by figurative language and long, meandering sentences. One example of a long, descriptive sentence that trips through shifting similes and metaphors occurs in "The Custom House":

My imagination was a tarnished mirror. It would not reflect, or only with miserable dimness, the figures with which I did my best to people it. The characters of the narrative would not be warmed and rendered malleable by any heat that I could kindle at my intellectual forge. They would take neither the glow of passion nor the tenderness of sentiment, but retained all the rigidity of dead corpses, and stared me in the face with a fixed and ghastly grin of contemptuous defiance.

This passage draws attention to the fact that the entire novel is an exercise in imagination. Not only is the narrator explicitly describing his imagination, but he also uses his imagination to describe it. First he compares his imagination to a "tarnished mirror" that does a poor job of reflecting (or describing in writing) what he wants it to reflect. He goes on to call it an "intellectual forge" that does not get hot enough to manipulate fictional characters. Finally, he stops describing his imagination and simply demonstrates it at its best by describing the characters as eerily judgmental corpses. It seems a bit ironic that the narrator is concerned about his imagination's weakness, since it seems quite strong and active in this passage. On closer examination, his frustration likely seems related to his imagination's overactivity. He jumps from metaphor to metaphor rather than staying with one and developing it fully, so that the idea he is trying to describe can come vividly into the reader's view. This is a narrator who thinks on the page about how he wants to describe history, historical figures, and their meaning.

Throughout the main action of the novel, the narrator keeps up with these winding descriptions. He also pulls back the curtain from time to time, drawing attention to the fact that he is making everything up. For example, in Chapter 8, the narrator comments on the scene where Mistress Hibbins invites Hester into the forest to do witchcraft:

But here—if we suppose this interview betwixt Mistress Hibbins and Hester Prynne to be authentic, and not a parable—was already an illustration of the young minister's argument against sundering the relation of a fallen mother to the offspring of her frailty. Even thus early had the child saved her from Satan's snare.

It may seem at first that the narrator damages the effectiveness of the scene by reminding the reader that it might be a "parable" or even a complete fabrication. But the comment leaves the reader with the understanding that the important thing about the scene is not its verifiability, but rather the moral conclusions that can be drawn from it. Engaging with history, in this narrator's view, involves imagining and "supposing," or conducting thought experiments that allow some deeper truth to emerge.

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