“An Earthly Story with a Hellish Meaning” — D.H. Lawrence on The Scarlet Letter

From D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, Chapter VII, “Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter

NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE writes romance.

And what’s romance? Usually, a nice little tale where you have everything As You Like It, where rain never wets your jacket and gnats never bite your nose and it’s always daisy- time. As You Like It and Forest Lovers, etc. Morte D’Arthur.

Hawthorne obviously isn’t this kind of romanticist: though nobody has muddy boots in The Scarlet Letter, either.

But there is more to it. The Scarlet Letter isn’t a pleasant, pretty romance. It is a sort of parable, an earthly story with a hellish meaning.

All the time there is this split in the American art and art- consciousness. On the top it is as nice as pie, goody-goody and lovey-dovey. Like Hawthorne being such a blue-eyed darling, in life, and Longfellow and the rest such sucking- doves. Hawthorne’s wife said she ‘never saw him in time’, which doesn’t mean she saw him too late. But always in the ‘frail effulgence of eternity’.

Serpents they were. Look at the inner meaning of their art and see what demons they were.

You must look through the surface of American art, and see the inner diabolism of the symbolic meaning. Otherwise it is all mere childishness.

That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel knew disagreeable things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise.

Always the same. The deliberate consciousness of Americans so fair and smooth-spoken, and the under-consciousness so devilish. Destroy! destroy! destroy! hums the under-consciousness. Love and produce! Love and produce! cackles the upper consciousness. And the world hears only the Love-and- produce cackle. Refuses to hear the hum of destruction under- neath. Until such time as it will have to hear.

The American has got to destroy. It is his destiny. It is his destiny to destroy the whole corpus of the white psyche, the white consciousness. And he’s got to do it secretly. As the growing of a dragon-fly inside a chrysalis or cocoon destroys the larva grub, secretly.

Though many a dragon-fly never gets out of the chrysalis case: dies inside. As America might.

So the secret chrysalis of The Scarlet Letter, diabolically destroying the old psyche inside.

Be good! Be good! warbles Nathaniel. Be good, and never sin! Be sure your sins will find you out..

So convincingly that his wife never saw him ‘as in time’.

Then listen to the diabolic undertone of The Scarlet Letter.

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