Date of Award
Russell Sbriglia, PhD
Mary Balkun, PhD
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, Utopia, Jacques Lacan, Fredric Jameson
Much of the recent scholarly criticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter aims to demonstrate the novel’s function as an allegory for Hawthorne’s anti-reformist (and especially anti-abolitionist) views at the height of the antebellum crisis. This commitment to revealing Hawthorne’s conservatism tends to cast the novel’s major figures as pieces within a self-balancing paradigm of good (intentions) and evil (acts) that ultimately symbolizes the author’s preference for inaction on the major political and humanitarian issue of his time—slavery. Curiously, however, the character of Pearl, Hester Prynne’s “wild,” “bird-like” child who dominates nearly every scene in which she appears, is almost universally passed over by the critics. Where she is discussed in the critical literature, she is usually reduced to a narrative device, a mere referent of her mother’s moral agony and eventual redemption. This paper argues that Pearl’s inability to be assimilated into most critical paradigms, rather than proving some sort of characterological limit, is evidence that she subverts Hawthorne’s conservative framework. The paper goes on to employ Marxist political philosopher Fredric Jameson’s theory of the “political unconscious” to demonstrate how the novel’s conservative themes actually function as a “strategy of containment” for a totally contradictory—and deeply repressed—utopian impulse within Hawthorne, one that is evinced by Pearl’s antagonism towards the underlying philosophical terms, or “ideologeme,” of the narrative. Understood as the “langue” common to all sides in a given class conflict, the ideologeme undergirding the struggle over slavery in antebellum America is identified as the binary opposition of “self and other,” often expressed by the ethical categories of “good and evil.” This paper contends that Pearl projects a radical vision of utopia, or what Jameson describes as “a transindividual perspective of collective life,” by refusing categorization within this binary. The final few sections of the paper engage with one of Jameson’s primary interlocutors, French psychoanalytic thinker Jacques Lacan, whose theory of the Symbolic Order maintains that “language acquisition,” symbolized by the introduction of the father figure and the resulting destruction of the child’s “dyadic unity” with the mother, leads to the catastrophic “self”/ “other” divide and initiates the newly formed subject’s elusive desire for “wholeness.” With Lacan in mind, the paper concludes by arguing that Pearl’s radical transcendence of the ideologeme of good (self) and evil (other) is shown by her destabilization, and in some instances her outright rejection, of the Symbolic father figure, Reverend Dimmesdale.
Weiss, Evan, "Recovering Pearl: Utopian Projections in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"" (2023). Seton Hall University Dissertations and Theses (ETDs). 3097.