The Scarlet Letter
Melville’s The Confidence Man and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter are very different in terms of theme and structure. The Confidence Man is a novel that greatly transcends the limits of a traditional, nineteenth century work. It is an allegory filled with puzzles and mazes of meaning. Defying the plot-centered structure of the traditional novel, the work is formed mostly of dialogues between the characters boarded on the ship symbolically named Fidele. Each of the brief scenes that make up a chapter in the book is another variation on the broad question of confidence.
The “confidence man” is a con-man, a swindler who wears different masks and examines the charity and the trust of the others. The labyrinthine work investigates thus the relationships between the self and the other, with an emphasis on the question of identity and the ability to know the truth. The Scarlet Letter, on the other hand, is a novel with a definite plot and explicit historical references to the Puritanical society in America. While the action seems to be concentrated specifically on the two protagonists, Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, it also investigates the relationships between human beings in general.
Hawthorne chooses the context of a strict and hypocritical society to show the way in which suspicion and lack of understanding dominate the relationships between humans. Both of the works therefore illuminate the theme of confidence, as a fundamental part of the human relationships. The novels emphasize the theme of misinterpretation and lack of charity, both of which structure the pattern of relationships among individuals. In both The Confidence Man and The Scarlet Letter, religion and the nature of faith in general are fundamental themes.
The confidence in other men and the charity for the one in need that the confidence – man examines in his fellow travelers define both the problematic relationships among human beings and those between man and the divinity. In his different guises, the confidence-man asks the other travelers for a pecuniary contribution to a noble cause, thus testing their ability to believe in him despite the fact that he is stranger. Both charity and faith become therefore elementary issues in the novel.
The man who takes many guises represents therefore the incertitude of human identity when confronted with the other. The narrative unfolds as a series of games where the face of identity is always masked. Melville meditates thus on doubt or suspicion, which almost always appear to be much more prevalent than confidence: “Ah, shallow as it is, yet, how subtle a thing is suspicion, which at times can invade the humanest of hearts and wisest of heads” (Melville, 1999, p. 36). The novel is therefore an ironical, complex commentary on the nature of humanity and identity.
Significantly, Melville does not play only with ideas but with the structure of the novel as well. As noted in the novel, a fictional characters as well as a man completely lacks consistency: “And is it not a fact, that, in real life, a consistent character is a rara avis? Which being so, the distaste of readers to the contrary sort in books, can hardly arise from any sense of their untrueness. It may rather be from perplexity as to understanding them” (Melville, 1999, p. 104-105).
Melville’s remark on consistency is extremely representative for the message that the novel conveys: distrust in the other human beings comes from a lack of understanding rather than from actual disbelief. Melville emphasizes therefore that human knowledge is either unavailable or unreliable. As Van Cromphout (1993) points out, Melvilles reveals the inaccessibility of the characters both to the public and to himself as a narrator: “Melville repeatedly, on the level of characterization, draws his readers’ attention to the utter inaccessibility of the characters to each other and to the narrator.
Melville’s perceivers cannot interpret the facts because they cannot get hold of the facts in the first place” (Van Cromphout p. 42). To emphasize his idea of doubt and uncertainty, Melville poses as an unreliable narrator, who is not able to elucidate the identity of some of his characters. The Confidence Man is a parable, but one that offers no definite answers to the question of confidence or doubt. The masquerade continues undisturbed throughout the novel, with no resolution.
Martinich (2003) argues that the various impersonations that the confidence man does throughout the novel and his attempt at corrupting everyone that begins to trust him, show that Melville implies that all people are to be distrusted since they cannot be properly known: “Time and again he bilks people after gaining their trust; these are often people who are initially very suspicious, not just of the Confidence Man, but of all people.
That is, the behavior of the Confidence Man is empirical proof that all people are to be distrusted. ”(Martinich, p. 37). Melville emphasizes therefore the implicit tensions in any human society, which also generate abuse and evil actions. In The Scarlet Letter the righteous and Puritanical society of the colony infringes a harsh punishment on Hester Prynne, the young woman who commits adultery. Their condemnation however is hardly a token of righteousness and high morality but rather the syndrome of bewildered society.
The mob is anxious to see Hester suffering for her sin while remaining blind to the impropriety of passing judgment on a fellow being. The villagers have their own sins to account for, yet they are unable to understand the culprit. In the name of religion, they condemn adultery as a crime, without any pity for Hester. While they respect the sacred commandment that forbids adultery, they fail in their capacity to understand and tolerate the other.
The voice of the narrator which intervenes in the narrative at times, emphasizes the injustice of the people’s judgment of the human heart: “[He] had no more right than one of those portraits would have to step forth, as he now did, and meddle with a question of human guilt, passion, and anguish” (Hawthorne, 2008, p. 96). The oppressiveness and sobriety that surrounds Hester during her judgment is unjustified since her crime is simply one of passion. While Hester bears her shame publicly however, Dimmesdale is left to the torments of his inner conscience.
Although the young minister obviously repents for his sin because of his faith, what actually makes him agonize is the voice of society. From a religious point of view, he should confess and thus be absolved. However, Dimmesdale knows that his confession would cost him his social standing. Kenneth D. Pimple (1993) contends that it is this inner split that eventually consumes the spirit of the minister: “Dimmesdale is caught in a dilemma: he values both his social face and his immortal soul, but he cannot save one without losing the other.
His inner torment springs from this dilemma, and his effort to serve two masters leads him into continual doubletalk and makes his life an ongoing deception. His dual values split his speaking in twain and slowly tear him asunder” (Pimple, p. 44). Therefore, both of the protagonists are tormented by the harsh impositions posed by society on them. In a different way, the themes of confidence and charity are also explored in Hawthorne’s novel. For Melville, confidence is the other is as sacred as faith in the divinity.
In The Scarlet Letter, both confidence and charity are devalued. Hiding behind an appearance of perfection and high ethical standards, the Puritanical society accuses and judges without mercy or remorse. In their blindness, they use faith as a screen for their own sinfulness. It can be said that confidence in the other and charity are the two things that the Puritanical society lacks. Instead of offering trust and charity to their fellow beings, they would persecute anyone on the mere suspicion of sin.
Therefore, the themes found in Melville’s Confidence-Man in a dialogic and philosophical form are applied to the realities of the Puritan society. While Hester is forced to stand at the pillory and face the searching and cruel eyes of the crowd, she does not look like the image of shame and sin, but rather like the image of Divine Maternity: “Had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans, he might have seen in this beautiful woman, so picturesque in her attire and mien, and with the infant at her bosom, an object to remind him of the image of Divine Maternity…”(Hawthorne, 2008, p. 85).
The narrator’s commentary here is extremely significant, as it alludes to the cruelty of the Puritan society. Hawthorne implies that Hester resembles here the Virgin, who conceived by divine intervention, while remaining pure. This is in fact the real purity that Puritan society is trying to achieve forcefully and mistaken means. Under the appearance of sinfulness and impurity there lies the true human and divine spirit.
In its attempt to become purified and come closer to the divinity, the Puritan world became a closed circle, from which human passion and imagination were excluded. This is also obvious in the society’s rejection of adornment: Hester and Pearl’s clothes are extravagant and imaginative and disturb the people’s thoughts. The symbolic letter “A” that Hester wears on her bosom is itself a gaudy and intricate embroidery, that is in stark contrast with the strict and minimalist habits of the Puritan society.
By breaking the flight of imagination, the Puritan world actually separated itself completely from the divinity. Thus, both Meliville’s The Confidence Man and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter are extended commentaries on the uncertainty of identity and on the dependence of the individual on the social world he or she belongs to. Confidence and charity, as the two main ideals that human relationships should aspire to, are betrayed both in the masquerade that the confidence man stages on the ship and in the Puritan world of the Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel (2008). The scarlet letter. New York: Forgotten Books. Martinich, A. P (2003). “Two uses of Thomas Hobbes’s philosophy in Melville’s The confidence man. (Essays). ” ANQ. 16. 3: 37-42. Melville, Herman (1999). The confidence man. New York: Oxford World’s Classics Pimple, Kenneth D. (1993)”’Subtle, but remorseful hypocrite’: Dimmesdale’s moral character. ” Studies in the Novel. 25. 3. 57-271. Van Cromphout, Gustaaf (1993). “The confidence-man’: Melville and the problem of others. ” Studies in American Fiction. 21. 1. 37-55.Sample Essay of PapersOwl.com