Babe: Nathaniel Hawthorne and Hawthorne Imbues Hester Essay

Submitted By davidbecker13
Words: 1459
Pages: 6

Nominally, American equality is an anti-hierarchical ideal, one that assumes the self-determination of the individual, and opposes the societal institutions that might limit his capacity. According to the nation’s first document, this “truth” is “self evident.” In the exceptionalist imaginary, equality is a self-perfecting ideal, the guiding criterion for a society moving ever closer to the “right side of history.” Yet this narrative belies the immense struggle to create norms of equality. Indeed, equality as a public virtue has not evolved to its modern state; rather, it has undergone a punctuated equilibrium in addressing the exigencies of various socio-political tensions. The voices of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain and Chopin are all contributories to the intellectual delineation of these conflicts. They challenge the outward-looking American exceptionalist fantasy to introspect. Their work variously evokes the tropes of benevolent paternalism to ask, as Jacqueline Rose does, if the state is being propagated by the same forces that “threaten and exceed it” (Pease 2009, 2). In portraying the complicated, often self-contradicting social institutions that popularly become “American,” The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Awakening ask to what end citizenship in the U.S. must be hampered by the imperial machismo it had once declared its independence from. In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne recasts the American aspiration of being a “City on a Hill” as a hollow exercise in authority dynamics. Most viscerally, the novel conveys how sovereignty can exist in the soul of the individual and simultaneously suppress him. Hawthorne imbues Hester Prynne with an innate goodness, at once sympathetic and self-sufficient. This is known, however, to only the narrator and reader. Regarding the novel’s titular ignominy Hester concedes, “it lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off this badge… Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature” (155). Her indoctrination reflects a darker form of the unease the narrator experiences in his listless duties in the Custom House: “government” per se does not control the soul of “governance.” Regardless of her separation from the community, Hester is a citizen of the state whose capital is the public scaffold. No matter how nature conspires to reveal this state as hollow or self-contradictory (such as the semiotic reattribution of the red meteoric “A” as “Angel” from its prior ascription of adultery), this revelation only exists behind the fourth wall. These early Americans were the heroes of the first exceptionalist fantasy: the “fulfillment of European dreams for a fresh start” in North America. Yet Hawthorne complicates the Puritans not only as subjects not only of the British empire but also of the hegemony. Thus, in the absence of [self-empowerment], there can be no self-sovereignty. Herman Melville expounds on this understanding of imperial aspiration as a threat to self-sovereignty in Moby-Dick. He depicts the reality of Madison’s provision wherein “ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” by demonstrating the perversion of influences that ultimately condemns the Pequod. The Pequod itself is a tribute to conquest, “apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies” (70). In this respect, the ship represents a reimagining of America as a garish collection of the scalps that repulsed Fenimore Cooper’s hero, moving coast to coast with territorial thirst on the backs of its dark labor. Thus Melville subverts the blind preoccupation of Manifest Destiny that had embodied America as it looked to further expand in the mid-19th century. Unlike the fata referenced in Vergil’s Aeneid, Melville explicitly condemns the “inevitability” of empire. Whereas Aeneas’ initial…