Linguistics, Controversy, and the Scarlet Letter

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Linguistics, Controversy, and the Scarlet Letter

Adina Halpern


Literary criticism of Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter often centers on the notion that there is relatively little action that occurs in the text. An event happens, that is, Hester and Dimmesdale have sexual intercourse and Hester becomes pregnant with Pearl, but this action is never described or even blatantly mentioned and has already occurred when the text begins. After this, the characters seem to be resigned to their destiny: Hester to her shame, Dimmesdale to his inner turmoil and eventual death, Chillingworth with his obsession with revenge, Pearl with her wild nature, and the townspeople of Salem with their contempt for Hester and exemption from punishment as long as she is punished. Nevertheless, the novel spans 166 Pages and has been deemed a classic novel of nineteenth century America. One aspect of the text that makes it so outstanding is Hawthorne's use of language to describe such relatively simple actions. To me, Hawthorne's words flow into each other like music. Despite the inaction of the novel, I was captured by it fully and was held in suspense during most of it. Why are Hawthorne's words so intriguing? What is it about his choice of sounds, the meanings of these sounds, and their combination in a particular order that causes the language that Hawthorne uses to be outstanding amongst the novels of nineteenth century literature?

One way to answer these questions is to look to the field that specializes in the technicalities of language: linguistics. In this paper, I look at the Scarlet Letter through the lenses of two different theorists whose epistemologies are at odds with each other: Benjamin Lee Whorf and Ferdinand de Saussure. These theorists do not necessarily oppose each other completely; their theories relate to different aspects of the way language is structured and the ways people speak. Whorf writes about language and cognition, while Saussure writes about the supposed arbitrariness of language, particularly the sounds of words. However, these theories cannot neatly be placed together as one all-encompassing theory because cognition is not an arbitrary process but requires rules and involves a certain language history. Is it possible for the two theories to account for the Scarlet Letter on different levels? Or does a reading and analysis of the Scarlet Letter act as an answer to an on-going debate in linguistics?

Whorf argues that language has a direct influence on thought process; a person only formulates thoughts according to what that person's language allows them to say. He makes his point by contrasting Standard American English (SAE) with the Hopi language:

"But the difficulty of appraising such a far-reaching influence is great because of its background character, because of the difficulty of standing aside from our own language, which is a habit and a cultural non est disputandum, and scrutinizing it objectively. And if we take a very dissimilar language, this language becomes a part of nature, and we even do to it what we have already done to nature. We tend to think in our own language in order to examine the exotic language. Or we find the task of unraveling the purely morphological intricacies so gigantic that it seems to absorb all else...Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own" (137-8.)

One example that he gives is the SAE use of tense. In SAE, past, present and future are three discrete tenses; and tense is essential in most utterances. By contrast, in Hopi, the exact same scene would usually be described in a very different way. The Hopi do not emphasize tense; but rather, the validity of the speaker and the speaker's association with the event – the source of the speaker's knowledge of the meaning behind the utterance.

However, this does not mean that a speaker of Hopi would not be able to express the idea that an event happened in the past, in the present, or in the future. Conversely, a speaker of SAE is capable of acknowledging her or his place in relation to the event. Whorf translates the SAE statement "He is running" to "Running. Statement of fact," the literal SAE translation of a Hopi equivalent. This sentence would be of little relevance to a Standard American English speaker, but a speaker of SAE could still say something like "He is running, and I know this for a fact." This particular sentence situates the speaker in the realm of knowledge that the running occurred (although it does not avoid a use of tense). It would only be used in specific instances when the speaker's source of knowledge is important because an outside factor causes the speaker to point out validity, for example, if someone does not believe the speaker is telling the truth. This contrasts with Hopi, in which the validity of the statement is always in the foreground.

Whorf's theory can be applied to the Scarlet Letter. Close examination of Hawthorne's descriptions reveals that almost every word in almost every sentence of the novel conjures its own image. When Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl leave the forest after Hester and Dimmesdale have their (second) passionate love affair and Pearl behaves in a very peculiar manner, "The dell was to be left a solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal would be the wiser" (136).

Reading the same words, two different images can be formed in my imagination. I can mentally translate the sentence to something like, "nature knew what happened there but people did not," or I could be left with a resonating image of a small and wooded valley or hollow newly vacated and left all alone. With solitude, I could feel lonely and sad, yet pensive. The trees are dark and old. This leaves a color image in the mind as well as a sinister and sad sensation, and a feeling of eternity. The "multitudinous tongues" could be the leaves or branches of the trees, and their whisper could be the noise that the wind that ruffles them causes them to make. Or else the whispering tongues could be something even more metaphorical in that it does not represent a physical entity but a feeling of nature's knowledge and the secret that nature does not keep. Most likely, it is a combination of the two. The whisper is long, and again there is an image of eternity, or near eternity. The forest has always been there and will always be there. Mortals – people – believe that they know all and that they are wise, but in reality they are not wise at all. They do not know the secret of Hester and Dimmesdale – only the forest knows that. The forest, with the same dark qualities exhibited in Hester, Dimmesdale, and especially Pearl, and in Hester and Dimmesdale's passionate yet forbidden act, will keep the secrets of these people and this act that are so similar to its character.

So where does Whorf's theory fit in here? He could have just written "nature knew what happened there but people did not." But the words he chooses form a paragraph worth of images in my mind. He chooses words that could have meant many different yet similar things and leaves it up to the reader to choose their meaning. Moreover, he does not write the paragraph that I wrote above but instead manipulates the Standard American English words available to him to succinctly say what he means. It would seem that the linguistic ability of a speaker of Standard American English would make it extremely difficult to even think of a sentence with such meaning. Yet Hawthorne is able to use the tools at his disposal (words) to create sentences that make me think of images and situations that are not usually constructed in other SAE texts or even conversations.

Although Whorf wrote in 1939, long after the completion Hawthorne's 1850 literary work, fragments of the novel hint that perhaps Hawthorne had similar ideas to Whorf's with regards to language and that he consciously employed descriptive words that allowed multiple images. After a (fairly long) introduction that gives the story its specific time and place in history, Hawthorne writes:

"This rose-bush, by chance, has been kept alive in history; but whether it had merely survived out of the stern old wilderness, so long after the fall of the gigantic pines and oaks that originally overshadowed it,--or whether, as there is fair authority for believing, it had sprung up under the footsteps of the sainted Ann Hutchinson, as she entered the prison-door,--we shall not take upon us to determine. Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow." [Emphasis mine.] (37).

This paragraph furthers Whorf's argument on multiple levels. First, it can be read in a number of alternative ways. It is unclear whether the passage is literally about plucking a rose from a rose-bush or whether the rose-bush and rose are symbolic – the rose-bush, of seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts or the multitude of stories that surround that setting; the rose, of this novel, one episode from this place and time-period. If it is symbolic, there are at least two different things that the rose-bush could represent. Second, the statement that the rose can symbolize either "some sweet moral blossom" or "the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorry" explicitly reveals the dualistic nature of the text and draws attention to the multiple readings of it. From the very beginning of the story, the reader is invited to interpret the novel in more than one way – depending on the meanings that the reader gets from the words, the reader could be left with a variety of different interpretations of what actually happened in the text and therefore pick up different morals, lessons, or meanings from the story itself.

The deliberately ambiguous nature of the novel can also be found at its end, when Hawthorne is least descriptive and the words focus most on storyline. For example, we are explicitly told that anything could have happened to Pearl in the aftermath of the story: "None knew—nor ever learned, with the fullness of perfect certainty—whether the elf-child had gone thus ultimately to a maiden grave; or whether her wild, rich nature had been softened and subdued, and made capable of a woman's gentle happiness" (165).

This technique is especially clear with regards to the Reverend Dimmesdale. During the entire novel, Dimmesdale is continually covering his chest with his hand. The reader finds an increasing connection between Hester and Dimmesdale and has a continually stronger inkling that Dimmesdale is the man with whom Hester had the sexual affair that resulted in Pearl's birth. When I read the novel for the first time, I believed that Dimmesdale was covering up something that resembled Hester's scarlet letter on his chest. Whether this was actually the case is left uncertain, and the reader is left with a number of choices of how the letter would have actually gotten there. Moreover, there is still the possibility that these two people never had an affair at all:

"Most of the spectators testified to having seen, on the breast of the unhappy minister, a SCARLET LETTER—the very semblance of that worn by Hester Prynne—imprinted in the flesh. As regarded its origins, there were various explanations, all of which must necessarily have been conjectural...

It is singular, never the less, that certain persons...denied that there was any mark whatever on his breast, more than on a new-born infant's. Neither, by their report, had his dying words acknowledged, nor even remotely implied, any, the slightest connection, on his part, with the guilt for which Hester Prynne had so long worn the scarlet letter" (163).

The use of the word "words" draws attention to the ambiguous nature of those literary units in which Hawthorne wrote the novel. Never once in the novel is it said explicitly that Hester's sexual affair was indeed with Dimmesdale. This passage leads the reader to this point, emphasizing the infinite number of possible interpretations of the novel from the language in which it was written.

Whorf's ideas were published in The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language in 1939, about three decades after Ferdinand de Saussure formulated his ideas between 1907 and 1911 (Culler, 16). Saussure's theories are more to do with the nature of particular words than with language and cognition; they do not act to completely oppose or reject those of Whorf. Because the ideas differ with regards to their places in the uses and functions of language, it may be argued that evidence of both of these are present in the Scarlet Letter. One could argue that the nature of words is what causes our cognitive abilities to interact with language in certain ways. However, the question at hand is not whether or not the language in the book can be seen to exhibit features of these theories; it is, rather, to examine the language of the novel and determine if either of these theories can account for my particular reaction to the Scarlet Letter.

Ferdinand de Saussure theorizes about signs. Jonathan Culler (1976: 28) explains, "The sign is union of a form which signifies, which Saussure calls the signifiant (signifier), and an idea signified, the signifié (signified)." In other words, a sign is the combination of a concept and a sound image. This relationship is arbitrary in that there is no inherent correlation between the signifier and the signified. There is no reason why a certain item or concept should be represented by any particular word or sound. A four-legged item with a board across the top is a "table" simply because we recognize it to be called that.

Hawthorne uses the signs suggested by Saussure in such a way that they conjure many images in a very succinct way. That is why I finished the text feeling like I had gone through an entire journey when really very little had happened. The sentence previously quoted is an example of this. The signs that Hawthorne employs cause so many mental images to appear in such a short period of time; many different scenes are mentally constructed very quickly.

Furthermore, standard literary tools are used throughout the novel. Specifically, Hawthorne often uses alliteration. The latter part of the sentence that I have deconstructed uses the sound (w) many times. The dell has trees "which, with their multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal would be the wiser." This gives this part of the sentence an eerie feel to it. The first part of that sentence uses an unusually great amount of (d) and (t) sounds, many of which do not start the words but are laced throughout them: "The dell was to be left a solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous tongues." It is peculiar that so many (d)s and (t)s are used in the same sentence, because these are hard and soft consonants that are closely related.

It is not unusual for authors to use literary tools such as alliteration. However, that Hawthorne is able to use them in such a way as to conjure so many images is amazing. Since signifiers are arbitrarily assigned to signifieds, Hawthorne has a limited number of signs from which he can choose to create the appropriate sounds; yet he still manages to create stunning imagery that causes inaction to appear in fast motion. Hawthorne manipulates signs and words to perform many functions at once.

It seems, then, that both theories are of use here: Hawthorne manipulates language in order to create infinite possibilities through the limits of Standard American English. Simultaneously, he fashions Standard American English words – sounds which are arbitrarily assigned to specific meanings – in such a way that words with certain sounds are surrounded with other sounds that compliment them and make them interesting on a superficial (i.e. in sound and not meaning) level.

However, upon closer examination of these techniques, one comes to the realization that even though language may indeed be a combination of arbitrary sounds, it is not the arbitrariness of these sounds that Hawthorne's text so powerful for me. These sounds are part of my cognitive ability, limited to the confines of Standard American English. It is the fact that these sounds evoke so many different images in my mind that makes Hawthorne's words so powerful for me. My experience of reading the text leads me to conclude that there is a fundamental relationship between language and thought; it does not lead to a grand conclusion that words are arbitrary signs.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter reads as evidence for the theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf and not those of Ferdinand de Saussure. This does not, however, mean that Saussure's theories can be disregarded from the field of linguistics; it simply means that one cannot come to the theory that language is made up of arbitrary signs simply be reading and analyzing the Scarlet Letter. It seems impossible to conclude from reading any novel that language is a system of arbitrary signs. However, even if Saussure's theories do not lend themselves to novels at all, this does not necessarily make them less valid, it simply suggests that the arbitrariness of signs in language does not cause texts to be powerful.

The theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf can be used to explain just what it is about the words that Nathaniel Hawthorne uses in the Scarlet Letter in order to make them so enchanting. Conversely, the Scarlet Letter can be used as validation of Whorf's theories. However, one cannot use the Scarlet Letter or any novel to disprove any linguistic theory; the closest one can come is to say that evidence of the theory is not present in a particular text. Even if the arbitrariness of language is not what makes Hawthorne's words what I consider beautiful, this does not mean that language is necessarily not arbitrary and that words and their meanings are logically connected. Moreover, connections between the language one speaks and one's cognitive abilities are certainly not the only reasons why I found Hawthorne's words to sound beautiful. Other linguistic theories could certainly be used, as well as theories in other fields, the most obvious being literary theories. Nevertheless, this is a start. Reading the Scarlet Letter does help to show application of Whorf's theories. Additionally, one can apply Whorf's theories to the Scarlet Letter to show that there really are certain qualities in the writing that causes it to appear magical.

Works Cited:
Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1976.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Sculley Bradley et. al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language." In Carroll, John B. (ed.) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 1956 [1939].


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