The Scarlet Letter


Nathaniel Hawthorne

The philosophical heart of The Scarlet Letter appears in its very first lines. Hawthorne’s narrator writes,


The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.


Practical necessities. Burying the dead, punishing criminals. I spend a day on this statement with my students. In the narrator’s formulation, it appears that punishment precedes crime. It appears that however hopeful a new colony may be for its people, it still must, as a “practical” matter, prepare for “human nature” to creep back in. Or, does the presence of punishment in fact precipitate crime? Do we become the criminals that the authorities presume, expect us to be? For more discussion on this question, I turn you over to Michel Foucault, whose Madness and Civilization and Discipline and Punish lay out the history and the present situation of any “civilization’s” need to surveil, control, and punish its people.


The need to punish. Another French philosopher, Rene Girard, places the need to punish at the heart of every civilization that has ever existed. Punishment, or, to use his terminology, scapegoating and sacrifice, unite a divided people against a common enemy in a war of all against one. The sacrifice temporarily purges the group of its intensifying conflicts, restoring peace in order. This sacrifice is so striking in its effectiveness that the perpetrators ritualize it, turn it into religion. See especially Girard’s Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat for further reading.


Punishment and sacrifice become religion. Consider the final passage of the Mouse edition of The Scarlet Letter:


The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.

The punishment - a piece of cloth worn outside your clothes - becomes more than punishment. It becomes a supernatural force, a legend to be passed down the generations. Stigmatization, isolation, becomes myth, becomes religion.

Ochlocracy. This is the word the Greeks coined to describe mob rule, rule by intimidation. Here we are, now. We witness the deification of punishment, the creation of criminals, all around us, all the time. We have handed our civilization over, for now, to the mob. And they will do their utmost. Can we stand apart, and bear witness?

Brian Chappell, Mouse Editor
September 2018