Identity and Suppression in in The Scarlet Letter and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
Despite differences in genre and content, both The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Douglass himself present a dehumanization of the seemingly weak protagonist. This occurs through stripping each character of their true identity and reducing them to a label such as ‘object’ or ‘slave’; neither Hester nor Douglass are seen as people, but instead are viewed through what they have done. There is, therefore, a huge emphasis on identity in both novels, as the protagonists struggle to maintain their own sense of identity whilst society forces a new one upon them. Despite their struggles, each protagonist is able to construct their identity away from society’s judgments. For Douglass, this freedom is through constructing a new literary identity; in recording his experiences, he manages to break away from this label of ‘slave’, an identity that suggests illiteracy. Hester also constructs her identity based on whom she chooses to love, Dimmesdale, instead of submitting to the shame of her label as ‘adulterer’. Therefore, there is a constant struggle throughout both these novels between a self-constructed identity and the identity given to each character by society.
In Frederick Douglass’ narrative, the slaves’ identities are stripped through a suppression of their native language. As slaves in a foreign wilderness, a common language presents a sense of community and a collective background. Without their common tongue, they are reduced to the nameless identities society imposes upon them: as workers that cannot use their voices to be heard. Despite this community through voice, Douglass presents a new truth: ‘the maxim, that a still tongue makes a wise head’. The very definition of ‘maxim’ as a ‘general truth’ is redundant and almost ironic in this instance. The saying may exist as a ‘general truth’ in a society where each individual has the choice whether to remain quiet or not. However, in this scenario, the maxim has developed in to a threat; the slaves must keep their tongue ‘still’ else they may risk their own death. This ‘general truth’ has therefore developed to a ‘manipulated truth’. This highlights a suppression of identity as their owners can control not only their bodies, but their language also. However, the slaves do claim a freedom through song, perhaps suggesting that their owners cannot fully suppress a language they do not understand. The owners only hear the ‘tones’ of their singing, whilst the slaves hear them as ‘a prayer of God for deliverance from chains’ (Douglass, p.20). This mocks the slave owners who seek to control them so; their ignorance to the melodic ‘tones’ means they do not see the song as a threat, despite it giving the slaves hope. Additionally, the verb ‘makes’ assumes falsely that a ‘still tongue’ is the only feature that will directly produce a ‘wise head’. The two are only co-dependent in the slave trade, presenting an ignorance that was encouraged to keep slaves in mental as well as material chains.
Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter presents a suppression of Hester’s true identity through this consistent symbol of the infamous red ‘A’, which stands for adulterer. Chillingworth suggests there is an element of fate in Hester’s status as an adulterer, perhaps implying that any resistance to this imposed identity is futile. He proclaims: ‘I might have beheld the bale-fire of that scarlet letter blazing at the end of our path!’ It is extremely ironic that Chillingworth suggests that Hester was fated to sin, yet he uses the verb ‘might’, which suggests an element of uncertainty. Despite these consequences for Hester’s identity, he does seemingly take some responsibility for her downfall with the personal pronoun ‘our path’. This implies that her identity as an adulterer is a shared responsibility, yet ultimately Hester wears the ‘blazing’ letter alone. As Hester’s sin is materialized in the ‘scarlet letter’, Chillingworth then enlarges this symbol to a ‘bale-fire’. This presents connotations of desire, passion and hell, an overtly obvious metaphor. Yet despite this, Chillingworth still suppresses both the symbol and Hester’s sin for over seven years, which consequently rejects any responsibility he claims he has taken for where their ‘path’ has led. Perhaps the most important element to this symbolic fire is its instability; Chillingworth can only suppress his feelings, and his wife’s actions, for so long before they set their entire lives alight.
As previously mentioned, the protagonists in both these novels lose their identity through being judged by their actions, and not their character. In Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, this action is Hester’s sin. A. N. Kaul proposes that ‘any sin was evidence of damnation; or in other words, any sin represented all sin.’ Sin is therefore not only dependent on the act of wrongdoing, but the perspective from which it is viewed. This is extremely important throughout this novel. Hester is judged by others who construct her identity solely through her sin. As the novel is set in a nineteenth century Puritan society, it suggests that their approach to sin is blinkered. Hester is condemned to a point where the sin does not even seem relevant anymore: I ask not wherefore, now how thou hast fallen into the pit, or say, rather, thou hast ascended to the pedestal of infamy on which I found you. (Hawthorne, p.68) The focus is not ‘how’ Hester’s damnation occurred but instead the mere fact that she committed the sin. This idea of having ‘fallen into the pit’ is key. It not only presents the traditional view of physically descending to hell but also suggests a lack of intent in the sin; Hester’s fall was almost accidental through pursuing her actions not for sin, but for love. However, Kaul’s statement suggests intent remains irrelevant, as ‘any sin was evidence of damnation’. This suggests that all acts were of God and were judged by a religious faith, therefore the sin is deemed more important that the motive that inspired the action. This idea is ironically juxtaposed by Hester’s ascension. She is raised up, as if to heaven, yet it is only to a ‘pedestal of infamy’, designed to act as a platform of ridicule before she inevitably descends to hell. The label of the ‘pedestal of infamy’ acts as a judicial platform to display her sin, representing the scaffolding that is a constant symbol throughout the novel. Therefore, as Hester’s Puritan community views her one act as representing ‘all sin’, Hawthorne suggests that further context is needed to judge.
In comparison, Douglass’ narrative presents differing levels of sin and wrongdoing; its severity is constructed and dictated by humans, rather than religion. The narrative presents a set level of morality within the slave trade, which is most likely different to the wider world: ‘I always measured the kindness of my master by the standard of kindness set up among slaveholders around us’ (Douglass, p23.). This idea of measured levels of kindness separates the world of slavery from civilized society; through a helplessness in their life-long conditions, their own suffering can only be observed and not altered. Additionally, the labeling of cruelty as ‘kindness’ questions the truth in language; using a different word to describe the same experience does not change the reality of how the slaves were treated. Sin within this narrative is presented as an antithesis from The Scarlet Letter, as it is not set up as black and white binaries. Instead, hues of grey are established in relation to other sins committed and accepted as necessity. Yet, this establishment of sin and kindness may be fundamental to the slaves; they are in foreign territory with little knowledge of their moral order. Perhaps, this is the only truth of America’s morality that they are going to ever know. Thereby, sin and its implications on one’s identity is dictated not only by the action, but the society in which it is committed. For Douglass, slaveholders who are slightly less cruel may seem kind in identity.
The construction of identity not only depends on the individual, but who they are in relation to others. This is particularly important in Douglass’s narrative as he claims a freedom through narrative perspective, allowing a separation of his past existence and his present constructed self, groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’. He rejects the label of slave through placing it in the past tense: ‘when a slave’, suggesting that a transition of identity has occurred and the label can no longer be imposed upon his identity. The use of ‘a’, instead of ‘the’, implies he was not an individual but a member of a group; this lack of identity is juxtaposed against the new one he constructs for himself. The use of the past tense for ‘slave’ is also interesting to consider. A slave is seen as forever the legal property of another, and very few lived beyond their role as a slave. However, Douglass challenges this through the past tense, presenting the idea of slavery as a ‘career’ (Douglass, p.70) choice and not an enforced state of being, rejecting once again this claim to victimisation.
This theme of constructing one’s identity based on classification continues in The Scarlet Letter. Neither Hester nor Chillingworth consciously construct groups of ‘us’ and ‘them’, yet their lack of suitability and constraints of gender naturally separate them. Chillingworth laments: how could I delude myself with the idea that intellectual gifts might veil physical deformity in a young girl’s fantasy! (Hawthorne, p.68) This idea of ‘delusion’ presents Chillingworth’s incapability as an old man; he may be intelligent yet this is not enough to fulfill Hester’s ‘fantasy’. This concept is continued in the physical ‘[veiling]’ of Chillingworth’s face that not only alludes to matrimonial imagery but also suggests an imposed superficiality in Hester, that her love will be given based on appearance. The two are separated by the opposition between the mental, ‘intellectual gifts’, and the physical, ‘youth and beauty’, and the assumption that you can only bear one depending on your gender. The connotations of ‘gift’ however suggest an attempt to bridge this gap in eligibility, and an eagerness to compensate academically with what Chillingworth cannot provide materially. Yet, this remains merely a delusion throughout the novel, and the only product of his intellect was grief and paranoia. Hester’s gender places her instead with concerns of physical appearance. The idea of a non-tangible ‘fantasy’ suggests an ideal almost impossible for men to reach. The difference between both texts thus lies in the construction of identity. Douglass claims a liberty through using writing to construct a new identity, whereas Hawthorne’s characters are restricted by gender stereotyping that means their identities are constructed by society, and not by their own will.
Both Hawthorne and Douglass’ texts are inextricably linked through the ideals of a New World freedom that would allow the protagonists to construct an identity and live as they please. Both novels present the possibility of living differently and being accepted in to a new ‘human family’ (Douglass, p.23). This presents a corruption in a supposedly free America, and reinforces this idea that the protagonist may have sinned, but the real cruelty is the world they live in. Therefore, each protagonist holds an identity that society forces them to suppress; they are only able to gain a freedom through the realization that, despite being a newly established society, it is still tainted. Therefore, a rejection from social expectation allows each protagonist to construct their identity as human again, becoming people that are neither claimed nor constructed by others.
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