"Hawthorne and 'the sphere of ordinary womanhood'"[BR-CE 3:190)
Hawthorne and "the sphere of ordinary womanhood"(BR-CE
by Melinda M. Ponder
Assoc. Prof of English
Pine Manor College
Dr. Melinda Ponder, Department of English, Pine Manor College, Chestnut Hill, MA
for inviting me here to speak today about my two favorite scholarly
subjects, Nathaniel Hawthorne's literary career and women. I am
especially happy to be here in Salem where Hawthorne first was
surrounded by girls and women in his childhood homes a few block from
where we are today--first in the Union Street Hathorne home of his
widowed mother and two sisters and then in the large and lively
Herbert Street Manning household with additional women--Hawthorne's
aunts and grandmother.
Salem was where he came to know a wide variety of interesting,
intelligent and creative women including his eventual wife, Sophia
Peabody. And it was in Salem, as he observed his daughter Una playing
in the garden below the room where he sat with his dying mother, that
he conceived The Scarlet
Letter, the novel centered around a woman (herself a
mother) and her quest for how to establish "the whole relation
between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness"
(SL, 240). Salem was also the place where his wife's reaction to the
novel, a "grievous" headache, told Hawthorne that he
written a winner sure to appeal to the all-important literary market
of women readers. In all these Salem sites there is rich material for
our topic today and our website images: as Hester would say, "'Look
thou to it!'" (SL 101).
hope that the more you know about women in Hawthorne's fiction and
times, the more you will think it one of the most compelling and
effective pathways into Hawthorne's work for today's students and
readers, a wonderful use for our website. As Nina Baym so aptly put
it in her essay, "Thwarted Nature: Nathaniel Hawthorne as
Feminist": " the question of woman is the
determining motive in Hawthorne's works "(62). Today we
will consider some of the reasons why this is so by looking at the
constant role that women played throughout Hawthorne's life in his
career as well as at his literary portrayals of women they evolved
over his life and career. Using a chronological paradigm to map his
fictional female characters, we can see how they reflect two
developments: the changing roles and lives of the women he saw around
him and his own evolving understanding of women and their changing
urge you, therefore, in your work with the website to anchor your
ideas in the chronology of Hawthorne's life and publication dates of
his fiction. Your images could include the following:
material objects, paintings and illustrations (even advertisements)
which represent women's lives in Salem (their houses, clothes, hats,
and activities) from 1804-1842 and then from 1842 to 1864;
and writings, both archival diaries, letters and published work of
key women in Hawthorne's life in these two periods (1804-1842 and
1842-1864)--those of his mother, sisters, aunts, other women of
Salem, including the Peabody women, especially his wife Sophia, and
of Margaret Fuller;
and 3) the
literary and later illustrated images of women in Hawthorne's fiction
from these two time periods.
is, students need to be aware that a story like "Young Goodman
Brown" was written early in Hawthorne's career while The
Blithedale Romance is a late work. In Hawthorne's case,
they each reflect Hawthorne's thinking about women at two different
times--something that we need to convey on the website to students
entering by means of whatever clicks of the mouse.
I will discuss today, Hawthorne's fiction offers rich images of
women--their changing lives, frustrations and dreams--that still
resonate for today's readers. And no wonder揺e probably got
much of his early story material from women, he knew about and
respected the complexity of women's lives, he had been writing for
women readers all his life (very successfully), shaping his work for
their eyes, and he had been surrounded by unusually gifted literate
women whose creative talents had helped him shape his own work. It
would have been surprising if Hawthorne hadn't understood and
portrayed the wide variety of women around him who inspired and
challenged him to make their concerns a visible reality to his
various circumstances in his childhood, Hawthorne grew up amidst the
"infinite variety" of talented and supportive females of
his childhood family (Moore 233). They set the pattern for the women
who followed them; with their quick minds, love of reading and
writing and responsive minds and hearts, they were Hawthorne's first
collaborators, ideal readers, editors, marketing agents, and
emotional and financial supporters.
also probably Hawthorne's first source of good literary material.
With the oral tradition of local tales and legends alive and well in
Salem's "chimney corners", Hawthorne probably heard the
kind of "old woman's stories [with]
ten times the life in them" (quoted in Moore, 26, from
"Etheridge": CE 12:150) from his grandmothers, aunts,
cousins and hired women.
his father had died when Hawthorne was four years old, he grew up
living with a wide variety of womanhood: His aunt Mary Manning, a
practical if unlettered woman, started him on his career as a writer
by suggesting that all his aunts and uncles pool their resources to
help pay for his college education at Bowdoin College. With her as
his backer and defender he became the first college graduate in the
family. Hawthorne never forgot the constant backing of these
women--when his first major work Twice-Told
Tales got a favorable review from his Bowdoin classmate
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, he thought immediately of their
unwavering support over his slow-to-bloom career. In June of l837, he
acknowledged the essential psychological support he had received all
along from the women in his family, his mother, two sisters and aunt
MaryManning, who would think Longfellow".
.. the most sagacious critic on earth..
. ."for his praise of Hawthorne's Twice-told
Tales (CE XV: 255).
he was separated from his mother during most of his adolescent and
college years, Hawthorne had an intense tender and loving
relationship with her all his life. With a "poetical
temperament," Elizabeth Hathorne was "highly cultivated by
reading," "intelligent and lively ."
(Moore quoting Elizabeth Palmer Peabody 68-70)--the perfect mother to
foster and share his son's creative imagination and love of language.
fortunately for Hawthorne's development as writer, his mother's
extended Manning family, with whom she lived, had homes in both Salem
and Raymond, Maine. They were the owners of the stagecoach line
between Salem and Raymond and anxious to develop the considerable
land acreage given as land grants to their ancestors as payment for
their military service in the French and Indian War. Just he had
listened to stories told by women in Salem, in Raymond he could also
hear the stories told by women, particularly his Aunt Susan Manning,
by the geographical distance between Salem and Raymond, Maine, where
his mother lived for much of his boyhood, Hawthorne learned early to
communicate with paper and pen, usually weekly with his mother and,
often, with his imaginative and literate sisters. In these two
places, he was surrounded by a large family (seven mostly unmarried
aunts and uncles) interested in reading and writing. The
personalities of his intelligent mother and her sisters Maria and
Priscilla come across in their lively and entertaining letters,
again--excellent web-site archival material.
began his lifelong pattern of writing for women as his first and most
important readers when he was thirteen years old. While being
prepared for college by a tutor in here in Salem, Hawthorne wrote to
his mother in Maine, asking her for her response to his real
do you think of my becoming an Author, and relying for support upon
my pen. Indeed I think the illegibility of my handwriting is very
authorlike. How proud you would feel to see my works praised by the
reviewers, as equal to proudest productions of the scribbling sons of
John Bull [England]. (March 13, l821--CE XV: 139)
became even prouder of his narrative skills, later writing to his
sister Louisa, that though his letter was only for her,
". . . it is truly a pity that the public should lose
it" (CE XV: 214). Soon he went beyond epistolary creations
to a journalistic work. With Louisa in Salem, he turned out a
handwritten miniature newspaper, The Spectator, a
facsimile imitation of the Salem Gazette full of timely family
news and original poetry and essayswhich he sent to his
mother and other relatives in Maine. (See handout.)
also included his sisters in his early literary interests and
activities. He shared his reading excitement over the novels of
Scott, Radcliffe, and Smollett with Louisa (CE XV: 114), and noted
that he had read ". . . all most all the Books which have
been published for the last hundred Years" (CE XV: 134).
sisters became Hawthorne's colleagues and collaborators in his early
efforts to develop his voice and become a writer. He requests that
his uncle Robert bring Ebe home to Salem with him because he wants
her to talk to (CE XV: 112). On his sixteenth birthday in l820,
Louisa wrote to her mother that "Nathaniel delivered a most
excellent Oration this morning to no other hearers but me"
(CE XV: 125-MSS, Bowdoin).
he got older, his older sister Ebe became his peer and colleague as a
writer. She was also his competitor, no doubt spurring him on to his
early publishing attempts. He wrote to Louisa, "Tell Ebe
she's not the only one of the family whose works have appeared in the
papers" (CE XV: 115), apparently written after Ebe had sent
poems to a".
. . Boston Newspaper" (Julian Hawthorne, NHHHW
I, 102 quoted in CE XV: 116). He and Ebe evidently traded their
writing samples, and when he was angry at Ebe for not sending him
some of her poetry, he promised to withold his from her (CE XV:
wrote Ebe about making "progress" on a novel (NHHW I, 124),
and after his graduation, in the summer of l825, he showed some of
his "Seven Tales of my Native Land" to Ebe who ".
. . read them and liked them"
(NHHW I: 124). Turning to his sister for mutually satisfying
intellectual companionship and stimulation, he discussed with her his
plans to write Fanshawe.
She recalled that after reading novels, Hawthorne made an
artistic study of them (NHHW I: 125), a study which Ebe must have
seen as well.
his first paid job as an editor, from January to August of 1836, he
again turned to a sister as collaborator, this time to Ebe. For his
American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge he
requested that she copy for him by extracting ". . . whatever
she [thought] suitable" from her reading (CE XV: 228-9). He
urged her to adopt his methods: "I make nothing of writing a
history or biography before dinner. Do you the same. . . .
Concoct--concoct--concoct" (CE XV: 230). He exhorted her to
abstract ". . . you can't think how easy it is" (CE XV:
235) and to concoct by putting ".
. . other people's thoughts into your own words, and
amalgamate the whole into a mass" (CE XV: 243). To Louisa he
gave the job of critic, asking her to read ". . . this
infernal Magazine and send me your criticisms" (CE XV: 240),
wanting her feedback to his opinion that it appeared ". . . very
dull and respectable. . . . " (CE XV: 240).
his next job, writingPeterParley's Universal History on the
Basis of Geography, for the Use of Families, again Ebe was his
collaborator, probably doing the bulk of the work since he gave her
his pay for the job. That he thought of her as his co-author is clear
from his letter to her on May 12, l836:
"Our pay, as Historians of the Universe, will be 100
dollars the whole of which you may have. It is poor compensation; yet
better than the Token; because the kind of writing is so much
less difficult" (CE XV: 247). He thus considered her his
business partner as well.
excitedly wrote to her of his fame in London after the Nov. 7, l835
BritishAthenaeum periodical ". . . noticed all
my articles in the last Token, with long extracts"
(CE XV: 230-1). With her formidable intellect and acerbic wit, Ebe
provided Hawthorne with an ideal female reader whose real life
consisted of ideas, good literature, and deep thinking, however
cloaked in domesticity she might appear.
Hawthorne's days before his marriage were spent in writing, walking
and chatting with Elizabeth, she played a central role in his
development as a writer, with her own interest in the imagination,
psychology and aesthetics expanding his. She was an intelligent and
sophisticated reader, educated by wide and challenging reading, as
attested to by the books she chose for herself and Hawthorne from the
Salem Atheaneaum (Kesselring). She said later that she would have
liked to have been a librarian. Hawthorne later described Ebe as his
superior in ". . . general talent and. . . fine cultivation.
. . . She has both a physical and intellectual love of books, a born
book worm" (CE XVIII: 456). (See Margaret Moore's book and
her article on Ebe.)
years later, Hawthorne again envisioned his writing as a joint
venture with Elizabeth. On Aug. 3, l841, he wrote to Louisa from
Brook Farm that he had contracted to write and edit ".
. . a series of juvenile books. . . to be adapted to our
market....I wish Elizabeth [Ebe] would write a book for the series.
She surely knows as much about children as I do, and ought to succeed
as well. I do hope she will think of a subject--whether historical,
scientific, moral, religious, or fanciful--and set to work. It will a
good amusement to her, and profitable to us all." He even
adds in a postscript, "Cannot your mother write a book?"
(CE XV: 555). !!!!
although he consulted Ebe for her opinion of his writing (See CE XVI:
403, n. 5) after his marriage to Sophia, perhaps not surprisingly,
she thought he never wrote as well after his marriage when she was no
longer his first reader and critic.
Hawthorne lived in Salem after his graduation from Bowdoin College in
l825 and before his marriage in l842, he expanded his circle of
lively, capable and intelligent women beyond his family circle. Susan
Ingersoll, his friend and possible social activist hiding runaway
slaves, Susan Burley with her literary salons in Salem, her excellent
education and knowledge of German, and Mary Crowninshield Silsbee,
with her poetry, "great intelligence and love of reading"
(Moore 241)--all gave Hawthorne more appealing women to know and to
course the Peabody women in Salem--Mrs. Elizabeth Peabody and
her daughters, Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia-- were just as interested
in Hawthorne's literary career as the women in his own family, and
they were also active in the intellectual community of Boston,
introducing the more aristocratically reserved Hawthorne into
important publishing networks and the artistic and philosophical
communities in which Hawthorne needed to become known if he were to
succeed as a writer.
Peabody set the tone for her daughters, reading Herodotus for
recreation (MEM, 7). As Hawthorne's daughter Rose later wrote,
"Literature, art, and intercourse were the three gracious
deities of the Peabody home. . . ." (MEM,
3). An educator, Mrs. Peabody had published a catechism and
children's version in prose of the first book of Spenser's Faerie
Queene. (CE XV: 24-25).
daughter Elizabeth first became interested in Hawthorne--probably
both the man and his work. She tireless promoted his career, wrote
reviews of his books, published his first group of children's
stories, and helped get him his appointment at the Boston Custom
House (See Moore 234-5
and my book).
Peabody daughter, Mary, was also an intellectual woman interested in
education and abolition who early encouraged Hawthorne to base a
novel about slavery in Cuba on her experiences there and who
requested that he keep a journal of his experiences in western
Massachusetts in the summer of l838 (CE XV: 25-26).
of course it was the third Peabody daughter, Sophia, whom Hawthorne
courted, and her creative talents as an artist, a writer and a
linguist in French, Italian, Greek, Hebrew and Latin, were no doubt
part of her great appeal for him. As he had done in his boyhood, he
once more shaped his writing for his female reader, using the
epistolary talents he had honed for the many years of his letters
back and forth to his mother to woo Sophia during his long courtship,
persuading her of his devotion and creating the "married"
personae they would come to live out (See Herbert). After their
marriage, he stopped keeping private notebooks strictly for his own
use and shaped his entries as responses and missives to Sophia.
the collaborative pattern he had established with his sisters,
Hawthorne continued to see the talented woman who loved him as a
potential literary colleague and collaborator. He first learned of
Sophia's talents as a writer when he read her "Cuba Journal"
(MEM, 20), which had been circulated among Boston literati and was
impressed enough with her writing to transcribe several passages into
his notebook (CE XV: 30).1
As Thomas Woodson notes, Hawthorne "intended, or at least
promised, to use her letters as sources for his fiction, "telling
Sophia 'that he could
make a great many stories from my works' . . ." (CE XV: 28
quoting from MS. Berg--Sophia to EPP, May 14, l838).
appreciated her power of description, both in language and visual
art, one which he thought would be useful to him, just as Ebe's
writing had been. He wrote to Sophia on May 29, 1840, that he wished
she could be with him on board the ships he inspected in Boston
. .. because there are many things of which thou
mightst make such pretty descriptions; and in future years, when thy
husband is again busy at the loom of fiction, he would weave in these
little pictures. My fancy is rendered so torpid by my ungenial way of
life, that I cannot sketch off the scenes and portraits that interest
me. . . . CE XV:
month later, he again praised her writing talent, asking her how she
could say that he had ever written anything beautiful, ". . .
being thyself so potent to reproduce whatever is loveliest?"
(CE XV: 475). Unfortunately, since Hawthorne burned Sophia's letters
to him in l853 before their move to England, it is difficult to
accurately judge her talent. Throughout his life, Hawthorne would
continue to praise her visual and verbal skills, writing to Ticknor
that she excelled him as a writer of travels and to her sister, EPP,
of Sophia's superiority in "fullness and accuracy of
description," (MEM, 336) and to Fields of her "narrative
and descriptive epistles" (CE XV: 31 n. 54).
reading her beautiful prose letters for another year, Hawthorne came
to see her role in his work a little differently, envisioning her in
Ebe's former role of assistant, albeit in a more romantic setting:
When we dwell together, I intend that my Dove shall do all
the reading that may be necessary, in the concoction of my various
histories; and she shall repeat the substance of her researches to
me, when our heads are on the pillow. Thus will knowledge fall upon
me like heavenly dew (CE XV: 566).
been consigned to the role of a research assistant, Sophia instead
took on the role of critic, and must have been a little harsh in her
comments about tales Hawthorne gave her to read before revising them
for a publisher, as Hawthorne's apologies suggest:
thou dost please me much by criticizing thy husband's stories, and
finding fault with them. I do not very well recollect Monsieur do
Miroir; but as to Mrs. Bullfrog [the story of a newly-wed husband who
is horrified to discover his wife's true appearance after their
wedding], I give her up to they severest reprehension. The story was
written as a mere experiment in that style; it did not come from any
depth within me--neither my heart nor mind had anything to do with
it. (CE XV: 572)
Hawthorne did change his tales as Sophia had suggested (CE XV: 574,
his marriage, he continued to seek Sophia's help with his writing and
editing, and asking for her opinions on titles forMosses from an Old Manse
(CE XVI:146), and The Scarlet
Letter(CE XVI: 306). He read her his manuscripts before
he sent them off to be published. He wrote his publisher, James T.
Fields, that he even needed to hear Sophia's response to
The House of the Seven Gables before he could
judge his own work ( "Then I must read it to my wife;--and
after going over it in that way, I shall know better what to think of
it" (CE XVI: 382). Later Sophia helped him revise The
Marble Faun (CE IV: lxx), and as Herbert notes, Hawthorne
explained that only Sophia is best able to comprehend The Marble
Faun "precisely as I meant it," because she
"speaks so near me that I cannot tell her voice from my own"
(CE XVIII: 256).
steadfast support, like that of his mother and sisters previously,
encouraged and enabled Hawthorne to confidently pursue his writing
career. He wrote to Evert A. Duyckinck, on hearing of Melville's
praise of his books, of Sophia's important role: ". . . I
have all along had one staunch admirer; and with her to back me, I
really believe I should do very well without any other" (CE
apparently felt quite positively about women, writing his old college
friend Horatio Bridge about the birth of his first child, his
daughter Una: "I
think I prefer a daughter to a son; there is something so especially
piquant in having helped to create a future woman" (CE 16:
25). And to E. A. Duyckinck he wrote, ". . .there is a
delightful awe in being the father of a future woman; it is more of a
miracle than the other [fathering a boy]"
Hawthorne wrote for all these women as his first and most valued
readers, he portrayed their lives first sympathetically, if
two-dimensionally, approximately until the time of his 1842 marriage.
One thinks of his early tales and sketches such as "Young
Goodman Brown," "The Minister's Black Veil" or "The
Hollow of Three Hills." The female characters represent
important values in the stories, but they are seen from the outside;
their inner lives are not of concern to the narrator. Faith is
figured by Pink Ribbons and not much else.
once Hawthorne had married Sophia Peabody and became even closer to
her sister Elizabeth and to their friend, Margaret Fuller, he came to
know firsthand the women of Salem and Boston who were becoming the
active and articulate agents of change in women's lives for the
generations to come. His portrayal of women became increasingly
complex as he knew women better and became aware of the questions
this generation of women were asking about their roles as women. The
combination of his perspectives as a husband of a creative artist,
the son who had lost his mother, and father of a daughter, culminated
in his most powerful female characters, Hester Prynne in The
Scarlet Letter and Zenobia in The
himself perceived this change taking place in women's lives so that a
woman of an older generation could hardly grasp the new identity,
outlook, and freedom of a younger woman. He shows this contrast
between Hepzibah and Phoebe throughout The
House of the Seven Gables, particularly in the chapter,
"May and November." Hepzibah muses, "with a grim
smile, and a half-natural sigh, and a sentiment of mixed wonder,
pity, and growing affection,--
a nice little body she is! If she could only be a lady, too!--but
that's impossible! Phoebe is no Pyncheon. She takes everything from
to Phoebe's not being a lady, or whether she were a lady or no, it
was a point, perhaps, difficult to decide . Instead of
discussing her claim to rank among ladies, it would be preferable to
regard Phoebe as the example of feminine grace and availability
combined, in a state of society, if there were any such, where ladies
did not exist. There is should be woman's office to move in the midst
of practical affairs, and to gild them all with an atmosphere of
loveliness and joy.
comparison between Phoebe and Hepzibah] "was a fair parallel
between new Plebianism and old Gentility.." (103-4).
As we can
see from the number of the narrator's qualifying phrases and apparent
conundrums, he is groping towards a solution to the vexing question
himself of categories for defining women that seem to have vanished
with the arrival of confident Phoebe's self-definition of new
womanhood oblivious to "lady-hood."
this example speaks to the issues of class, the problem for society
is clear: women's lives are changing and the old ways of
understanding them have become obsolete. I agree with Margaret Moore
that "Hawthorne was certainly aware of and sympathetic to the
restrictions on women" (250). At the same time, as Baym notes,
"Cautiously, Hawthorne advances the notion that if society is to
be changed for the better, such change will be initiated by women. .
. ." (Women's Fiction
is the tension between society's restrictions on women and women's
own unlimited potential for growth clearer than in the figure of
Hawthorne's close friend Margaret Fuller. In his provocative and
compelling must-read book Hawthorne's
Fuller Mystery, Thomas R. Mitchell persuasively portrays
the central role Margaret Fuller played in Hawthorne's thinking about
women and in his literary portrayal of women confronting American men
brilliant and intensely charismatic woman, Margaret Fuller, whom
Hawthorne and Sophia had met in l839, at the the time of 1842
Hawthorne's marriage, was both an intriguing creative woman and a
professional peer and colleague for Hawthorne. She was hitting her
stride in her career as "one of the leading intellectuals and
certainly the most provocative woman in America" (Mitchell 55).
She had edited the Transcendentalist journal the Dialduring its first two years, and written essay reviews of
Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales
and Grandfather's Chair
for it. She then tried creative non-fiction writing with Summer
on the Lakes, 1843. Next she published her essay on
feminism, "The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men. Woman versus
Women" and then in 1844 expanded.it into Woman
in the Nineteenth Century, the text so central to
Hester's evolving philosophy in The
Scarlet Letter. As Mitchell notes, during Fuller's
five-year friendship with Hawthorne, both were struggling to become
well-known professional writers able to attract readers in the
booming American literary marketplace (55-56).
Mitchell rightly observes, Fuller probably replaced Hawthorne's
sister Elizabeth (forever at odds with Sophia) after his marriage as
his "ideal reader," a role which, as we have seen, was of
extreme importance to Hawthorne. While Sophia was also his listener
and reader, she was too close to him to offer the kind of more
objective and critical help that Margaret Fuller could and did give
him. According to Mitchell, Fuller admired him, sympathized with his
art, insisted he could do better, identified "exactly in which
direction Hawthorne must move artistically,"@and the "direction
that his work takes once they become friends will be the direction
she encouraged and, in fact, enabled him to take" (60).
friendship with Fuller deepened, according to Mitchell, Hawthorne's
"troubled fascination" grew with her --"the woman who
insists on defining herself and who challenges his power to contain
her in the scripts that he writes her life to be. In his intimate
friendship with Fuller, Hawthorne will encounter a woman who not only
resists such male "magnetism" as Hawthorne will exert on
Sophia but who exerts a power over Hawthorne's imagination that he
will struggle with much of his life" (47).
was able to grasp Fuller's full dilemma as a woman, writing in "The
Old Manse," that she was a woman "'on whose feminine nature
had been imposed the heavy gift of intellectual power, such a strong
man might have staggered under, and with it the necessity to act upon
the world" (CE 10: 29 quoted in Mitchell, 85-86). Furthermore,
their conversations about his marriage with Sophia helped Fuller "to
conceptualize alternative forms of marriage that allowed for greater
equality and individual development for women" (82)--just the
ideas that she presented in Woman
in the Nineteenth Century and that Hawthorne examined with
increasing complexity and impossibility in his short fiction such as
"The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter."
of the powerful intensity of The
Scarlet Letter comes from Hawthorne's almost uncanny
portrayal of the strength and waste of Hester's deep love for a man
and for her child, a portrayal that no doubt draws on his
relationships with two women-his mother and Margaret Fuller. Gripped
by powerful emotions at the time of his mother's death, he dramatized
a life in some ways like hers. Her first child, Ebe, had been
conceived when she was unmarried, several months before her marriage
to Hawthorne's father. Like Hester, she had observed society, Salem,
from the outside; impoverished by widowhood, she was unable to
participate in the social life around her, withdrawing to Maine where
she had more control over her daily life in a house built for her and
her children. It was there that Hawthorne had played as a boy by a
brook, Dingley Brook, and sadly observed to his sister in a letter
that his mother had begun to wear a "cap" just as Hester
hides her beauty until the Brook scene. As Nina Baym suggests, "What
one senses here--though how opaquely!--is Hawthorne's tentative
engagement with the subject of men and their mothers, his suggestion
that the relation between men and their mothers was the deepest and
most central core of their lives. The great liberation of The
Scarlet Letter comes not only from its celebration of a
woman, but of a woman who is centrally a mother" (75).
perhaps with Margaret Fuller's example and language Hawthorne could
present a figure whose story shows the need for a "new truth"
about the "whole relation between man and woman." Women had
written their own Declaration of Independence at the Seneca Falls in
1848, and as Mitchell points out, "by 1849 Hawthorne could join
Fuller in condemning cultural constructions of gender that provide
women, according to Fuller, 'a place so narrow, that, in breaking
bonds, they become outlaws'" (155).
The Blithedale Romance,
Hawthorne's view of contemporary lives of women is indeed bleak--no
prophet has come, and there seems little hope for developing a surer
ground of "mutual happiness" for relations between men and
women. The streets, hotels, rooming houses, and town houses of Boston
present an urban nightmare and its rural counterpart--sterile houses,
tenements, poverty, the underside of shabby gentility, and artificial
society--where women cannot find happiness with or without men in the
ultimate "bond-slavery" of women to men. Hawthorne shows us
too well the tragedy "that a woman of Zenobia's diversified
capacity should have fancied herself irretrievably defeated on the
broad battle-field of life, and with no refuge, save to fall on her
own sword ." (CE 3: 241).
is Hawthorne who portrays so well this tragedy of women in all their
potential, limited by their men, their society and perhaps by
themselves. But it is Hawthorne as well who has understood in his
life with women and conveyed in his fiction an alternative. In
Hester, as Baym reminds us, Hawthorne created a female character
whose "goodness and essential nature are not defined by her
relation to a man .Hester is a self in her own right ."
(74). With his depictions of such a woman as well as his grasp of the
challenges to her at the center of most of his fiction, Hawthorne
still has much to say to all his readers both female and male-- on
1See Herbert 37-58 for his analysis of Sophia's talents and
aspirations before her marriage.