Unbeknownst to all but his closest friends and fellow pagans, American author Nathaniel Hawthorne was a closet mystic and spiritualist. Because of the intolerance of the age and culture in which he lived and wrote (1805 – 1864), he lived his life and wrote many of his books in metaphor so as to cloud his true Transcendental beliefs.
Case in point, his perhaps most famous novel, “The Scarlet Letter.” The story is well known by most. A young woman becomes pregnant and gives birth out-of-wedlock in Puritan New England and is forever ostracized by having to wear a large red “A” sewn to her clothing, marking her forever as an adulteress.
What readers could not know was that for the real character of Hester Prynne, the scarlet “A” had two meanings. It stood not just for “A”dultery but also for “A”lways. Forever sentenced to an eternal life of branded shame. This only became clear with the unearthing of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s private diaries which also contained information about the whereabouts of the eternally shamed and undead Hester Prynne.
Compass and notes in hand, I flew into Boston, rented a car and headed west on Rte. 9 until I reached the outskirts of the town I had spent the two least pleasant years of my adolescent life in. It was, ironically, there that I would find Hester.
Stumbling through suburban developments, malls and small forested areas with compass and a copy of Mr. Hawthorne’s directions in hand, I came to what was once the root cellar of a rural house that, when standing, is reported by the locals to have been quite substantial and graced by seven gables, some thirty miles due west of Boston (in a town now known as Framingham). I was greeted by Hester Prynne and became the first person to speak with her since the day her child was born.
Me: Hello, Ms. Prynne. I hope I am not intruding, but I only recently discovered that you are still alive and were in this place. Like many others of my generation, your story as told by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter was a seminal part of my education. Can we talk, please?
Hester: Certainly. I have never had any visitors since guided to this place by spirits many, many years ago. But, why would you be interested in speaking with me?
Me: Well, I am sure that the book is only a part of a bigger story and, so far as I know, you have never really told anyone your own version of what happened then – or about how you happen to be here now! I’d like to learn something about each.
Hester: Of course. Curiosity has always been a very curious thing. Don’t you think so?
Me: Why yes. I hadn’t really thought about it, but I’m sure you are right about that. So many curious things are certainly….well, curious. (I am aware that I am beginning to stammer and stumble a little. This seems just TOO easy as though there were nothing at all odd (or curious) about speaking with a woman who probably never was really a living person at all and if she had been, would likely have been dead for a couple of hundred years now.)
I guess I have to admit to being more than a little curious about why you would be so receptive and cordial about talking with me. After all … It has been so long.
Hester: Why talk with you (or anyone else) now? Well, there are few things. Firstly, no one else has ever gone to the trouble to seek me out and ask since the days when I was imagined, created, described and then – quite literally – written off. Secondly, I was astounded that someone had finally figured out what the father of my very being, Mr. Hawthorne, had really done. He was a closeted mystic. Had that been known, his work would never have been published and his life would have ended much sooner than it did.
Though it may seem somehow sinful to say this, I also have some hope that having been found and getting to talk with a human about it may allow me a route to death, a mortal and kind inevitability I have dreamed about for centuries.
Me: But I thought, or at least was taught in history, that the Puritan period ended well before the beginning of the 19th Century.
Hester: Although Mr. Hawthorne, as you probably know, was not born until 1804 (in Salem, MA no less!), he wrote me into the Scarlet Letter when he was 50 years old. The age of Colonial Puritanism had passed, but there was still an awful lot of pompous religiosity among the literate classes in the America of that time. I know that this may sound surprising, but ordinarily, what is called ‘history’ is pretty much the story from the point of view of whoever wrote the particular history book.
The Scarlet Letter branded me not simply as an adulteress, but as someone sentenced to an eternal life of shame, loneliness and suffering. Now that I have been discovered, I expect to quickly be allowed, by the powers that my creator believed so strongly in, to die – finally, once and forever.
I have lived all the years since as I entered the world … alone.
(I feel stunned… but, being the professional journalist that I am, I continue on with the interview.)
Me: Would it be OK to ask you to comment about the two men we know about in your life… the man called Roger Chillingsworth and the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale?
Hester: I guess you have just done so. Roger had a different name when we first met and were married when I was a girl in England. He sent me on ahead while he got his affairs in order. Then he never showed up. Young, vital and married to a shadowy old memory.
The Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale spoke well and movingly from the pulpit, in the dry and understated grandiose Puritanical manner expected of the clergy back then. On the other hand, at a personal level, he was quite tongue-tied and shy. To describe him honestly, I would say that he had great capacity for righteousness, spontaneous eroticism and guilt but an exceedingly limited capacity for either honor or courage.
For my first and last, I don’t know whether our intimacy could be described as ‘good’ or not since I have had nothing else to compare it to and now, at nearly 250 years of age, I have not felt any such stirrings within myself for well over two centuries.
As you know having read the book, ‘Roger’ took a certain pleasure in first suspecting and then finding what he felt was convincing evidence that Mr. Dimmesdale was the father of my child…. Yet another ‘A’; that one, burned into his chest. Both men dishonored me, yet both were blessed with the ultimate relief from their rather twisted sufferings.
Of the three of us, I felt I was the real loser.
Me: And how about your baby? What became of her?
Hester: The child was not sentenced, so far as I know, to the same eternal damnation. Mr. Hawthorne named her Pearl. I think Janis Joplin (whose music I really related to) got the idea for her own nickname from my baby.
When the child was 13, she went to sea, disguised as a cabin boy named “Pip” in a book about a white whale written by one of Mr. Hawthorne’s contemporaries, a Mr. Melville, and was never seen or heard from again… either in that book or in any other type of existence that I know of.
(I become quite suddenly aware that Hester appears less well defined than she had just minutes before. It is still daylight and my vision is OK. It looked as if she were simply beginning to fade away. The once bright scarlet “A” so carefully described by Hawthorne, became a dreary faded mist of pale pink.)
Me: Hester?! (The fading is near complete and only a dream-like montage of pastel colors remains … Then, she is gone. I am sobered, tearful but not surprised and, somehow, relieved and happy for her.)
I read in my local paper, only a few days later, that there had been a sudden and unexpected earthquake in that part of Framingham. The earth had simply swallowed back unto itself every last piece of evidence that anyone had ever existed there. A Wal-Mart was built on the site.
The story was over … 250 years later… at least for Hester.