Stupefying Language in the Scarlet Letter

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Stupefying Language in the Scarlet Letter

Adina Halpern

The storyline in Nathaniel Hawthorne's the Scarlet Letter is symbolic of many different situations. I appreciate the characters in the text and relate to them. I am interested in the idea of inaction that seems to run throughout the novel. But there is one aspect of the text that I cannot quite grasp: the language used in the text. To me, the text reads beautifully, like music. But what is it about the Hawthorne's words that captures me so fully? It is certainly not flowery or overdramatic. To help me to grasp the power of these words, I look to the theories of two linguists: Benjamin Lee Whorf and Ferdinand de Saussure.

Whorf writes about language and cognition. He argues that language has a direct influence on thought process. A person only formulates thoughts according to what that person's language allows them to say. Whorf makes his point by contrasting Standard American English (SAE) with the Hopi language:

"But the difficulty of appraising such a far-reaching influence is great because of its background character, because of the difficulty of standing aside from our own language, which is a habit and a cultural non est disputandum, and scrutinizing it objectively. And if we take a very dissimilar language, this language becomes a part of nature, and we even do to it what we have already done to nature. We tend to think in our own language in order to examine the exotic language. Or we find the task of unraveling the purely morphological intricacies so gigantic that it seems to absorb all else...Then we find that the exotic language is a mirror held up to our own" (1956: 137-8.)

One example that he uses is the SAE use of tense. In SAE, past present and future are three discrete tenses; and tense is essential in most utterances. By contrast, in Hopi, the exact same scene would usually be described in a very different way. The Hopi do not emphasize tense; but rather, the validity of the speaker and the speaker's association with the event.

However, this does not mean that a speaker of Hopi would not be able to express the idea that an event happened in the past, in the present, or in the future. Conversely, a speaker of SAE is capable of acknowledging her or his place in relation to the event. Whorf translates the SAE statement "He is running" to "Running. Statement of fact," the literal translation of a Hopi equivalent. But a speaker of SAE could still say something like "He is running, and I know this for a fact." It situates the speaker in the realm of knowledge that the running occurred (although it does not avoid a use of tense.) However, the point is that when a speaker of SAE describes a scene, that speaker's source of knowledge is not important unless an outside factor causes the speaker to point out validity, for example, if someone does not believe the speaker is telling the truth.

Whorf's theory can be applied to the Scarlet Letter. Close examination of Hawthorne's descriptions lead me to theorize that his language is so captivating because almost every word in almost every sentence conjures its own image. When Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl leave the forest after Hester and Dimmesdale have their (second) passionate love affair and Pearl behaves in a very peculiar manner, "The dell was to be left a solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal would be the wiser" (Hawthorne 2005: 136).

Reading the same words, two different images can be formed in my imagination. I can mentally translate the sentence to something like, "nature knew what happened there but people did not," or I could be left with a resonating image of a small and wooded valley or hollow newly vacated and left all alone. With solitude, I could feel lonely and sad, yet pensive. The trees are dark and old. This leaves a color image in the mind as well as a sinister and sad sensation, and a feeling of eternity. The "multitudinous tongues" could be the leaves or branches of the trees, and their whisper could be the noise that the wind that ruffles them causes them to make. Or else the whispering tongues could be something even more metaphorical in that it does not represent a physical entity but a feeling of nature's knowledge and the secret that nature does not keep. Most likely, it is a combination of the two. The whisper is long, and again there is an image of eternity, or near eternity. The forest has always been there and will always be there. Mortals – people – believe that they know all and that they are wise, but they are not wise. They do not know the secret of Hester and Dimmesdale – only the forest knows that. The forest, with the same dark qualities exhibited in Hester, Dimmesdale, and especially Pearl, and in Hester and Dimmesdale's passionate yet forbidden act, will keep the secret of these people and this act that are so similar to its character.

So where does Whorf's theory fit in here? He could have just written "nature knew what happened there but people did not." But the words he chooses forme a paragraph worth of images in my mind. He chooses words that could have meant many different yet similar things and left it up to the reader to choose their meaning. Moreover, he does not write the paragraph that I wrote above but instead manipulates the Standard American English words available to him to succinctly say what he means. It would seem that the linguistic ability of a speaker of Standard American English would make it extremely difficult to even think of a sentence with such meaning. Yet Hawthorne is able to use the tools at his disposal (words) to create sentences that make me think of images and situations that are not usually constructed in other SAE texts or even conversations.

Ferdinand de Saussure theorizes about signs. Jonathan Culler (1976: 28) explains, "The sign is union of a form which signifies, which Saussure calls the signifiant (signifier), and an idea signified, the signifié (signified)." In other words, a sign is the combination of a concept and a sound image. This relationship is arbitrary in that there is no inherent correlation between the signifier and the signified. There is no reason why a certain item or concept should be represented by any particular word or sound. A four-legged item with a board across the top is a "table" simply because we recognize it to be called that.

Very little action occurs in the Scarlet Letter. As was discussed in class, an event happens, that is, Hester and Dimmesdale have sexual intercourse and Hester becomes pregnant with Pearl, but this event is not described in the text and has already occurred when the text begins. After this, the characters seem to be resigned to their destiny: Hester to her shame, Dimmesdale to his inner turmoil and eventual death, Chillingworth with his obsession with revenge, Pearl with her wild nature, and the townspeople of Salem with their contempt for Hester and exemption from punishment as long as she is punished. But Hawthorne uses the signs suggested by Saussure in such a way that they conjure many images in a very succinct way. That is why I finished the text feeling like I had gone through an entire journey when really very little had happened. The sentence previously quoted is an example of this. The signs that Hawthorne employs cause so many mental images to appear in such a short period of time; many different scenes are mentally constructed very quickly.

Furthermore, standard literary tools are used throughout the novel. Specifically, Hawthorne often uses alliteration. The latter part of the sentence that I have deconstructed uses the sound (w) many times. The dell has trees "which, with their multitudinous tongues, would whisper long of what had passed there, and no mortal would be the wiser." This gives this part of the sentence an eerie feel to it. The first part of that sentence uses an unusually great amount of (d) and (t) sounds, many of which do not start the words but are laced throughout them: "The dell was to be left a solitude among its dark, old trees, which, with their multitudinous tongues." It is peculiar that so many (d)s and (t)s are used in the same sentence, because these are hard and soft consonants that are closely related.

It is not unusual for authors to use literary tools such as alliteration. However, that Hawthorne is able to use them in such a way as to conjure such images is amazing. Since signifiers are arbitrarily assigned to signifieds, Hawthorne has a limited number of signs from which he can choose to create the appropriate sounds; yet he still manages to create stunning imagery that causes inaction to appear in fast motion. Hawthorne manipulates signs and words to perform many functions at once.

The theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf and Ferdinand de Saussure can be used to try to explain just what it is about the words that Nathaniel Hawthorne uses in the Scarlet Letter in order to make them so enchanting. However, these are certainly not the only reasons why I found Hawthorne's words to sound beautiful. Other linguistic theories could certainly be used, as well as theories in other fields, the most obvious being literature. But this is a start, and it shows that there really are certain qualities in the writing that causes it to appear magical.

Works Cited:
Culler, Jonathan. Ferdinand de Saussure. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 1976.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850; rpt. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Sculley Bradley et. al. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978.
Whorf, Benjamin Lee. "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language." In Carroll, John B. (ed.) Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 1956.

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