Multiplicity, Myths, and Dimmesdale, Pharaoh?

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Multiplicity, Myths, and Dimmesdale, Pharaoh?

Alice Bryson

First, a myth:

In a distant land, in the days of its first rulers, there lived a wise man most concerned with the relation of his people to the gods, who had come from across the sea. He was called the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale.

(In the days of the distant past, the great god Osiris, son of Nut, reigned as Pharaoh over Egypt. A wise king, he sought to bring enlightenment and knowledge to his people (Osiris 8).)

There was also, in those days, a woman called Hester Prynne, who was married to another man of great wisdom, who remained still in his native land. She was alone in the new country, and while waiting for her husband to come to her, she had an affair with Dimmesdale. She bore a daughter, who she named Pearl. (Hawthorne 45)

(Isis, the wife of Osiris, was the greatest sorceress and wisest of goddesses; she ruled alongside Osiris and in time they had a son together, and he was called Horus (Osiris 8). )

Hester's adultery was discovered by the other denizens of her city. But unknown to them, her husband, bearing a false name, had come to the new land. He watched in secret her humiliation, and vowed vengeance on the father of her child. (Hawthorne 45-54)

(Set was jealous of his brother Osiris's achievements and power, and sought his downfall; he began to conspire against Osiris (Osiris 10).)

Hester's husband, who practiced the arts of medicine under the name Chillingworth, made himself and his purpose known to Hester; he asked that she reveal to him the secret of her lover. She refused, but knowing the secret of his true name as well, she agreed to reveal neither secret. (Hawthorne 54)

(Isis, in her past more distant, gained much of her power from the old god Ra, by means of a trick; she poisoned him and then offered to cure him for the price of his secret name (Isis 5-8).)

Dimmesdale languished in his own hidden guilt, and grew sick; Chillingworth approached him and offered to treat his illness, although he quickly discovered that Dimmesdale was the man he sought vengeance on. Offering him a cure, Chillingworth began to live with his patient, and began planting the seeds of his revenge. (Hawthorne 78-84)

(Set's plot came to fruition at a banquet; he had made a beautiful casket exactly to Osiris's size, and Osiris lay down in it to see if it would fit. Set immediately sealed him inside and threw him into the Nile, killing his brother (Osiris 17).)

After her confinement was over, Hester left the center of her city with her babe, Pearl; they made their home in an isolated cabin, away from the judgment of the people and away from the evil of her husband (Hawthorne 56).

(Isis fled to a secret isle in the Nile Delta with her child Horus, to protect him from his uncle's machinations (Osiris 18).)

Under Chillingworth's treatment and the weight of his own guilt, Dimmesdale's torments only grew worse. While not properly punished for his crime, Dimmesdale could not move on and could not forgive himself. And Chillingworth only made matters worse, tormenting his so-called patient, and taking him to pieces over time.

(Without the proper funeral rites, Osiris's spirit could not enter the land of the dead (19). And after Isis reclaimed her husband's body, Set, in a rage, tore him into fourteen pieces and scattered his body across the land of Egypt (31).)

Hester worked for the good of the city, doing beautiful embroidery work and attending at sickbeds.

(Isis labored twice to find her husband; once, in his casket, which had floated to the land of Byblos (Osiris 18), and once to find the fourteen pieces that she needed to reassemble him and finally perform the funeral rites (35). On Byblos, she taught serving girls how to braid their hair; she blessed children and tended to the infant Prince of Byblos (22-23).)

After seven years of separation, Hester finally resolved to speak to Dimmesdale and attempt to convince him to run away with her and begin a new life, away from Chillingworth and away from the shame of the scarlet letter. They met in the forest, by an old fallen tree (Hawthorne 126).

(Isis reclaimed her husband's body on the island of Byblos, where it had drifted after being cast into the Nile. It had landed in the roots of a tree, and grown into part of the tree, which was then cut down and made into a pillar in the palace of Byblos. Isis returned the casket, and body within, to Egypt (Osiris 25-26).)

Before they could escape to Europe, Chillingworth thwarted their plans. Without any other options, Dimmesdale mounted the scaffold where Hester had stood seven years prior, and revealed his identity as the other adulterer, before dying absolved (Hawthorne 162).

(When Isis finally gathered all the pieces of her husband's body, save one which she replaced, she performed the correct funeral rights and buried him according to custom, so that Osiris could enter into the land of the dead at last. He became the god of the dead. (Osiris 37).)

Chillingworth, left without purpose, died soon afterwards, and left all his substantial property to Pearl, who became the richest heiress in the land (Hawthorne 164).

(When Horus was grown, he challenged Set in order to avenge his father. After a bloody war, Horus slew Set and became the new ruler of Egypt (Osiris 56).)

So what is this? Why am I bothering to match the Scarlet Letter up against the story of Osiris, Isis, and Horus? On one level, it's a reaction to the strong trend towards Christian allegory and Christianity as a moral background in the nineteenth century Big Books we've been reading. Ever since we launched into Moby Dick and its ocean of Biblical allusion, the class has been complaining of the heavy Christianity in the works we've read. Either the books are difficult to understand if you don't come from a Christian (or even Abrahamic) background, or they're impossible to understand fully if you're not Christian, or they're just plain annoying to someone who doesn't want to be preached to. Why not try a different angle, a different basis of mythology? I'm interested in seeing whether a story like The Scarlet Letter, based in a Christian moral landscape, can be translated to a different religion and a different moral viewpoint. In this case, it's managed to cross the gap fairly complete, (although certain moral points were dropped in my telling, and the conditions for entrance into a good afterlife are completely different). The emphasis, when it is laid beside the Egyptian myth, moves from Hester and Dimmesdale's crime onto Chillingworth's revenge; it becomes the central action. Although, in the book, Chillingworth's revenge is a central action--it's just not the central moral transgression. The book isn't about the shameful scarlet letter R, for revenge. But through this myth, I'm able to look at Chillingworth's actions as the central crime; it's one way of achieving a multiplicity of interpretations, by placing the story in a different allegorical context.

Hawthorne holds up to his readers the multiple-choice interpretations of his books--the rose, the scarlet letter on Dimmesdale's chest, and so on. This is, in a way, the multiple-choice allegory; if Scarlet Letter can be translated into Egyptian myth, it holds out hope that other nineteenth century books that our class has been struggling with on the basis of their overwhelming Christianity can be read either without reliance on a religious tradition (an atheist mythology, if that isn't a contradiction in terms. But that's neither here nor there) or with the canon and background of a different tradition entirely. And not just a switch between the Abrahamic faiths, or the "Big Five", but between an entire canon of mythologies that are often just alluded to (most often Greek). For instance, it would have been interesting to compare The Scarlet Letter to the story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; it seems like a reverse of the outcome of that adultery, with the wronged husband seeking to destroy the adulterers, and not the other way around. Of course, it's also an example of the fact that, given enough time and desire, you can squish any two things together until they fit. But I wonder, if the story can be bent to fit any mythology or moral system, does that mean that the story was bent to fit Christianity as well? If the Scarlet Letter, or any other story, exists first as a story; it's set in front of a background of a certain moral/religious tradition. And just as it's set into and taken in context of a morality (often that of the writer, although readers can bring their own morality to a story as well), it can be consciously separated from its context and put into a different moral context, or even none at all. That's something to search for; the way to strip a story down to the actual bare bones of "what happened", without moral judgment or allegory.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. ed. Leland S. Person. WW Norton and Company: New York, 2005.
Isis, Egyptian Goddess. 2002-2005.

OSIRIS Online Documentation. "The Tale Of Isis and Osiris". Updated Feb. 16, 1999.

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