Agreg Externe 2007 Commentaire littéraire: copie 1

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Commentaire littéraire : The Scarlet Letter, fin Ch. V, Hester at her Needle
Copie de lorrainetwingles, note 15.5 / 20


Her imagination was somewhat affected, and, had she been of a softer moral and intellectual fibre, would have been still more so, by the strange and solitary anguish of her life. Walking to and fro, with those lonely footsteps, in the little world with which she was outwardly connected, it now and then appeared to Hester, -- if altogether fancy, it was nevertheless too potent to be resisted,-- she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. She was terror-stricken by the revelations that were thus made. What were they? Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as yet only half his victim, that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne's? Or, must she receive those informations -- so obscure, yet so distinct -- as truth? In all her miserable experience, there was nothing else so awful and so loathsome as this sense. It perplexed, as well as shocked her, by the irreverent inopportuneness of the occasions that brought it into vivid action. Sometimes the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, the model of piety and justice, to whom that age of antique reverence looked up, as to a mortal man in fellowship with angels. "What evil thing is at hand?" would Hester say to herself. Lifting her reluctant eyes, there would be nothing human within the scope of view, save the form of this earthly saint! Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself, as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life. That unsunned snow in the matron's bosom, and the burning shame on Hester Prynne's, -- what had the two in common? Or, once more, the electric thrill would give her warning, -- "Behold, Hester, here is a ompanion!"-- and, looking up, she would detect the eyes of a young maiden glancing at the scarlet letter, shyly and aside, and quickly averted, with a faint, chill crimson in her cheeks; as if her purity were somewhat sullied by that momentary glance. O Fiend, whose talisman was that fatal symbol, wouldst thou leave nothing, whether in youth or age, for this poor sinner to revere?-- such loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin. Be it accepted as a proof that all was not corrupt in this poor victim of her own frailty, and man's hard law, that Hester Prynne yet struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself.

The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred, that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynnes walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say, it seared Hester's bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (1850)
A Norton Critical Edition, 2005, pp. 60-61.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ambiguous claim that “there [is] more truth in the rumor than our modern incredulity may be inclinded to admit” (l.33-34) could stand as his literary legacy to his young nation. In The Scarlet Letter, accompanied by its autobiographical preface, The Custom-House (1850), Hawthorne explores the limits of “the Actual and the Imaginary,” their overlap, and the reader’s reception of them, through the historically evocative yet disturbingly contradictory period of, very literally, his ancestors, set in Salem, Massachusetts Bay Colony, between 1642 and 1649.

The extract we shall examine is taken from early on in the text and constitutes our first glimpse of the “Actual” of Hester Prynne’s life, combined with the “Imaginary” effect (on herself, other townsfolk and the reader) of the symbol on her breast, the mark of her shame, the eponymous “scarlet letter,” A for Adulteress. In our treatment of the extract, we shall endeavour to investigate the reliability of the narrator’s often explicit intervention in the construction of meaning for the reader.

In order to achieve this, we shall begin by an analysis of the scarlet letter itself, through its origins, the interpretations to which it is liable within the text itself, and the gradual swelling sense of disproportion ascribed to its “reading” by the common townsfolk of the tale. This will lead us to an examination of the rôle of the scarlet letter, through the opposition it sets up between Hester’s inner and outer life, its ability to reveal others’ hidden secrets as experienced by Hester, and the sense of “fellowship” asserted yet subverted by the text. This practise of subversion, just one of Hawthorne’s narratorial strategies, lies at the heart of our third section. We shall assess the extent of narratorial presence in the text, implicitly (particularly through intertextuality) and explicitly, culminating in the effect of these strategies on the reader’s search for truth. We shall conclude that the ‘moral of the story’ is not so much to be found on the level of content than on the level of the implicit, a coded encouragement for the reader to construct his own meaning through the text’s myriad interpretations.

The scarlet letter A on Hester’s breast is the result of two factors, the extract teaches us: “her own frailty” and “man’s hard law”. This binary opposition is rich in nuance, conflicting yet conflating the feminine and the masculine, the character and the written code of law, even, implicitly, “man’s law” and divine law, one might argue. Thus Hawthorne successfully brings to the fore of this chapter our doubts on Hester’s deserving of so harsh a punishment (“hard law” / “frailty”) through an instillation of distrust of Puritan over-zealousness. Indeed, from the first, the Puritan townsfolk, women and men, are shown as rigidly judgmental, inflexible in their scorn and pious to the exclusion of human compassion (but for one young “goodwife” who cannot survive in this world and for whom Hester will later make a shroud).

In apparent contradiction to Hester’s “frailty”, however, in fact a reference to the moral weakness which allowed her to commit adultery, we are told that she does not suffer from an excessive “soft […] moral and intellectual fibre”. From first page to last, in spite of her suffering, Hester is depicted as strong, almost masculine in her fierce independence, and willing to undergo the most painful torture in penance for her crime, although it is questionable whether her repentance is sincere.

The scarlet letter itself, then, is a symbol fo “ignominy”, a mark of “burning shame” (l. 20). It is visible to all who see her, as the magistrates have condemned her to wear the letter until her dying day. Exposed as she is to the contempt of the Puritan townsfolk, she becomes the embodiment of evil in their eyes, the object of many a “sanctified frown”. Its effect may even reach out, we are told, to those who see it; a young girl’s hurried glance of self-conscious and ashamed fascination, may sully her purity (l. 23-24).

Yet it is Hester herself who is most affected. She feels the shame as a physical sensation, the “burning shame” (l. 20) “sear[s] Hester’s bosom” with the “red infamy” it represents (l. 33, l. 13). The pain of the illicit love brands her heart through the affixation of so permanent a reminder on the outside of Hester’s person. The heat generated by the symbol becomes metaphorical of the Hellish claim staked for her soul, the means whereby her soul remains in mortal danger of perdition: it is seen as the Devil’s mouthpiece, the “Fiend”’s instrument, the “insidious whispers of the bad angel” attempting to break through the barrier of her sober dress and conquer her heart.

Under such an interpretation from the characters in the romance, little wonder that the symbolism of evil takes on such sensationalism as the narrator recounts it in the final paragraph of this extract. The “terrific legend” they construct would have the scarlet letter so impregnated with Satanic evil that it “could be seen glowing all alight, whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time” (l. 32-33). The use of the passive construction would seem to point to a lack of narratorial commitment, and even character commitment, to the truth of the assertion, yet the predicate “see” implies that the ghostly vision (“walked abroad”) with its sinister badge of infamy glowing red in the dark, has been witnessed. Here indeed is a visual representation, if one were needed, of the ambiguity surrounding Hester in the text, victim of contradictory tales within the tale, whose shining red letter burns brightly against the sombre Puritan backdrop, an expression of individuality which is not unambiguous in the narrator’s evocations.

Not least among the extract’s oppositions is the contrast between Hester’s outer life, almost mechanical (“walking to and fro […] in the little world with which she was outwardly connected,” l. 2-3), with her soul’s “anguish” at the letter’s effect (l. 2). The terrifying suspicion that she has been “endowed” with a “new sense” fills her with a mixture of revulsion (“she shuddered to believe”) and the puzzling doubt that it can actually warn her of a fellow-sinner’s presence. Hester is portrayed in this extract as, as yet, only “outwardly connected” with her Puritan world. Although she is a new immigrant, relatively speaking (she is said to have been in the colony for two years), she is equally unconnected with the mentality and intellectual processes at work in the people. We only hear of her through the narrator’s third person, which also keeps her at a distance from the reader, reliant on authorial permission to access her more private motivations. The narrow minds implied by the reference to her “little world,” outside, contrasts starkly with the “moral and intellectual fibre” attributed to Hester’s inner world (albeit couched in negative terms: “had she been of a softer moral and intellectual fibre, …” l. 1-2). Yet in spite of the few ties to this world, she does not leave it, and even after Dimmesdale’s death when she does go “abroad” (in a different sense than in the extract under examination !) with Pearl, she returns to the scene of her shame and willingly takes up the mark of her infamy once more. It seems that in spite of an explicit mention of her only tenuous connection to this world, “her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil.”

Roots are a recurrent image throughout the text, and Hawthorne’s narrator entertains an ambiguous relationship with the notion of “home”. In The Custom-House, he refers to his need, like Hester’s, to return periodically to the town of Salem as “not love, but instinct,” attributable to “the deep and aged roots which [his] family had struck into the soil.” However, he infers that such a stifling dependence on an origin and overwhelming family heritage can be stultifying, suffocating, almost incestuous, leading to a weakening of the “moral and intellectual fibre,” and therefore intends as far as possible that “[his] children shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.”

The scarlet letter is, therefore, a means of separating Hester from her world just as it affects her inner soul, but it has another alleged property, of which the extract under analysis is the means of our induction into its “mystic” quality (l. 18). Hester believes it capable of affording her a “new sense” whereby she perceives others’ guilt through a real and physical rush of sensation originating in the scarlet symbol. It seems to recognise people who carry evil, its brotherhood. Thus the serene outer deportment of Hester Prynne, concealing furious “anguish” and self-doubt, is mirrored in the stern, saintly or curious outward appearances of those she passes and for whom the letter establishes the possibility of a less-than-snowy-white truth of existence. It is not unlikely, indeed, that others may have sinned in varying degrees; would her own sin have been discovered but for Pearl’s birth? Yet Hester “struggled to believe that no fellow-mortal was guilty like herself” (l. 27-28).

The symbol’s “sympathetic throb” appears to be a physical manifestation, therefore, of a one-sided recognition of a fellow-sinner within the class of fellow-mortals evoked above. It succeeds in constructing a class of evil-doers, a ‘brotherhood of man’ linked by sin and evil rather than pioius good. Nobody, however respectable, seems safe from this “awful and loathsome” sense, a connection on the most intimate yet repulsive level. A “venerable minister or magistrate” (l. 14), apparently, in the public eye at least, “in fellowship with angels”, may be closer to the “mortal man” than they suspect, the earthly saint retaining its “human” dimension (l. 15-17). Similarly, an aged matron, who is believed never to have experienced love, may provoke a “sympathetic throb” (l. 14) in the symbol of illicit love, however incredible any connection between the “unsunned snow” and “burning shame” (l. 20) may appear in the outward (hypocritical?) frown of disapproval she wears. The “young maiden” already discussed may also show the promise of sensual fascination and a potential, already realised or not, to become a “companion” for Hester (l. 22). The “mystic sisterhood” (l. 18), with its strong pagan and witchcraft overtones, is experienced by Hester as a reluctant “knowledge” (l. 6), irresistible yet unbelievable. Mrs. Hibbins may be a single acknowledged manifestation of yet more widespread signataries of the Devil’s book.

This indirect reference to Mrs. Hibbins is one example of intertextuality, the most subtle of narratorial interventions, which pervades the text. Through Hester’s suffering, we are constantly offered analeptic or proleptic glimpses of other episodes of the romance, and these affect the reading experience retrospectively, forcing us to re-evaluate our conclusions. Thus the frequent evocative mentions of the scarlet letter’s “burning” quality, most specifically the verb “seared” (l. 33), recall both the episode of The Custom-House where the narrator finds “the second stor(e)y” in “the second storey”, a parchment enveloping a scrap of scarlet, embroidered cloth, that gives him a physical burning sensation powerful enough to make him drop it; and the episodes to come where Dimmesdale’s need to lay his hand on his heart leads to the dramatic final scaffold scene. This too is announced thus early in the text by the noun “revelations”, as well as the adjective “irreverent”: when Dimmesdale finally reveals what is on his bosom, the narrator refuses to divulge its identity: “it were irreverent to describe” what the townspeople witness and what is withheld from the reader, in spite of our growing curiosity after the heart-touching and Chillingworth’s discovery of the secret. However, one of the possibilities offered us is a “brand”, either burnt into his heart or growing out of it, a “vivid” echo of the verb “seared” in this extract.

Another very stark intertextual reference in this extract is the structure and content of the three types of person Hester encounters, whom the scarlet symbol recognises as fellow-sinners. This directly foreshadows one of the final scenes, where Dimmesdale, having come out of the “wilderness” that is the forest, is faced three times with temptation in a parody of Christ in the Desert of Temptation. Thus he, too, encounters first “a venerable minister” (and we know already that “venerable magistrate[s]” are no safer from subversion, as Governor Richard Bellingham was accused of illicit love in 1642, at the time in which in the romance he is judging Hester). The minister is not directly accused of anything less than goodness, but Dimmesdale is irrationally tempted to speak evil to him. Nevertheless, this earlier encounter of Hester’s should give the reader a sense of reluctance to believe in the minister’s purity. The same goes for the next two of Dimmesdale’s encounters, respectively an aged pious parishioner, and then a young maiden who seems perilously close to temptation herself in her reverence for Dimmesdale.

The narrator’s voice is often explicit in The Scarlet Letter (and even more so in The Custom-House), which forces the reader very consciously, even as he is being addressed, to re-evaluate his acceptance of the events he is related. Anachronism is another strategy which jars our imaginative “suspension of disbelief” (Coleridge), by imposing narratorial presence from without. For instance, Hawthorne refers to the letter’s “electric thrill” (l. 21), and later makes explicit mention of his readership, encompassing himself as a man living in their time, by evoking the conflict between “rumor” and “modern incredulity”. This last example doubles as another intertextual, although somewhat oblique, reference, as it evokes Hawthorne’s most characteristic strategy: ambiguity.

We know of one more occasion in the romance, at the very least, where the characters’ assumptions are directly pitted against our “modern” superior knowledge. There, as here, the truth remains elusive. In the central scaffold scene, when Dimmesdale sees a portent in the night sky, we are led initially to believe in the narrator’s description of his experience, before the narrator steps back and ridicules us, with Dimmesdale, for seeing, in all selfishness, signs related to an individual’s preoccupation in the great natural world. He then proposes more scientifically-sound explanations for the light in the sky. The narrator’s skilful manipulation of reader interpretation is not yet complete, however; the next day, a minister tells Dimmesdale that a great letter A has been seen in the night sky, which they interpret to stand for Angel (just as Hester’s A will shift in its metonymy from Adulteress to Angel), in symbolism of the soul of John Wilson, deceased at that moment.

This problematic interpretation of signals lies at the crux of Hawthorne’s work. Thus, in form as well as content, the extract under analysis presents the reader with a series of choices and no clear answers. There are six question marks in this short passage, all related to how Hester (and we) should attribute meaning to the letter’s manifestation of “sympathy”, whether Hester’s suspicions represent the “truth” or whether the “bad angel” is tempting her. The multiplication of modals evoking possibility (“must”, “would”, “could”, “may”), added to the adverb “perhaps”, the use of the subjunctive introducing what looks at first glance like a long-awaited narratorial assertion (“Be it accepted…” l. 26), all combine to fill this passage with shades of truths, multiple interpretations, almost-assertions, reinforced by binary parallels and oppositions (“she shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing,” l. 5-6) as well as alliteration (“felt or fancied”, l. 4-5). The result is, for the reader, a disorientation akin to Flaubert’s ambition, “dérouter le lecteur”, and a profound sense of mistrust of the narrator’s intervention. The result of that is what Hawthorne no doubt intended: the obligation for the reader to construct his own meaning from the myriad possibilities. From the punctuation (dashes, question marks) to the lexis (“rumor” is associated both with Hester and the “vulgar”, the same is true of “imagination”) and the syntax (hypothetical “if” clauses, indirect reported speech or thoughts, conditional and simple-past constructions which distance the narrator from his text), this extract, as the romance as a whole, is a mass of contradictory interpretations. “Truth” and “rumor”, in the long run, act each upon the other, in a vicious circle of impossibility to determine meaning in any simplified sense.

We have argued that the symbolism of the scarlet letter gives rise to several levels of interpretation in the text, from the surface “storyline” to its most meaningful profundity, the lack of meaning. In the new, young literature of his new, young nation, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter contributes to a kind of didactisation: he is teaching Americans how to read, and thereby empowers them to decipher the text and accept instability in exchange for their investment. The new American literature, along with contemporaries such as Melville, is creating its own literary consciousness. We may say that the ‘moral of the story’, therefore, lies beyond sin and redemption, humanity and sanctity, and touches in addition on the reading process. As when Dimmesdale reveals the secret on his breast, “the reader may choose between these theories.” And as the (possibly) glowing letter on the background of the night suggests, there is on the consciousness of every one of us, “On a field, sable, the letter A, gules.”

That’s it, folks. Mistakes and all, much as it hurts to type them out! Now out of interest I’m going to paste here my comments after coming out of this exam, so you can compare end results with “how it felt at the time”. I should say I felt really good initially, finished an hour early, felt it was flowing etc – it was reading everyone else’s plans on agreg-ink that finished me off and made me certain that I’d been too basic in my approach.

Ca y est, je suis sortie moi aussi ! Ouf, beaucoup mieux qu'hier, mais finalement vu vos plans geniaux, tous (y compris magnouloux !) je suis vraiment pas allee bien loin. Ma problematique etait axee autour de la construction du sens vis a vis des interventions du narrateur. Je sais plus comment j'ai fait, mais sur le coup ca semblait assez bien bati... Bon, j'essaie:

1. La lettre ecarlate : ses origines (dues a la fois a son 'frailty' et 'man's hard laws') ; son effet sur elle et au regard des autres ; le 'disproportionate proportions' (je paraphrase, je sais plus parler) des dimensions que prend le symbole, attardement sur le sensationnalisme. Donc la je reste (un peu expres vu le developpement) sur le premier niveau du sens.

2. 2eme niveau, la relation exterieur / interieur : le manque de connexion de Hester a son environnement et aux gens et son interieur ; la capacite que lui donne la lettre de voir les secrets des gens ; les paralleles, le 'fellowship' qui se cree entre eux ne serait-ce que dans un sens.

3. Maintenant comment la voix du narrateur subvertit (?) tout ca : l'intertextualite (references aux autres moments-cles par prolepse / analepse, ex. 'revelations' (Dim's chest), les 3 rencontres qui rappelleront les 3 rencontres de Dim pendant sa 'tentation' plus tard (le ministre, la vieille, la jeune) et qui jettent respectivement une lumiere louche sur l'interpretation de qui est vraiment 'evil' ; puis les interventions implicites et explicites du narrateur (anachronisme de 'electric', 'modern incredulity' mis en parallele avec l'histoire de Dim et le portent in the sky, et l'explication scientifique aussitot remise en question, etc) ; enfin l'acces a la verite rendue problematique, les points d'interrogation, les modaux, les 'perhaps', le subjonctif qui precede ce qu'on allait enfin prendre pour une assertion - tout ca pour expliquer que le narrateur reste unreliable.

Concl : le mec represente une litte toute jeune dans son pays tout jeune, il apprend aux americains a lire en fait... ("The reader may choose between these theories" re. tous les choix quant a ce qui est sur le chest de Dim.) J'ai tordu un peu mes dernieres phrases pour terminer par 'on a field, sable, the letter A, gules' - je sais, c'est nuuuuul !!

Seulement 13 pages et 5 heures aujourd'hui. PARAPH, mais COMMENT tu fais pour ecrire tant si vite deux epreuves de suite ?! Je suis videe, j'ai mal a la main, et pourtant j'ecris vite... !

PS - Ca parait desequilibre mais c'est parce que j'ai mis les exemples de la 3e partie !

PPS - Je ne m'attendais pas du tout a Hawthorne, j'ai revise tout sauf lui !! Aie aie aie. Heureusement que je l'avais bien bosse en debut d'annee, et encore en parlant avec ma soeur avant l'interne.

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