Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 46, Number 2, Summer 1990
pp. 13-32 | 10.1353/arq.1990.0013
GERALD DOHERTY Uncovering Plots: Secret Agents in The Scarlet Letter i>i>r Il "* he custom house" must surely represent one of the most JL devious and circumabulatory prefaces ever written for a novel. Beyond the obvious function of presenting the scene of discovery of the letter which enables the plot, its purpose is far from immediately clear. What have stories of the narrator's own past or of his colleagues at the Custom House or of New England itself to do with the main body of the text to which they proffer an entrée? Their formal connection even with the scene of discovery seems at best tangential, peripheral. As a consequence, commentators have latched on to the larger resonances of this central scene and to the theory of romance that it implies as at least partial justification for the rest of the introduction which, it is generally assumed, has lost much of its interest and relevance. Thus for Feidelson, the reading of the letter inaugurates a mode of symbolic perception that the text will later exploit: the characters attempt to interpret its meaning in the same manner as the narrator himself (66-67). Ziff in turn shows how the ethical dimensions of the theory of romance regulate the moral conclusions towards which the narrative orients the reader (123-25). For Dryden, the letter exemplifies the fact that all of Hawthorne's tales are "twice told": the act of creation involves "the weaving and reweaving of the texts of others" (133). More recently, Bell has noted that a kind of "duplicitous deception " marks both the behavior of the romancer and of Hester and Dimmesdale : both types are "artists, manipulating appearances" (46-47). ' Arizona Quarterly Volume 46 Number 2, Summer 1990 Copyright © 1990 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004- 1610 14Gerald Doherty Clearly, then, commentators still tend to focus on the scene of discovery , and on the theory of romance to which it gives rise, as establishing the crucial link between introduction and text.2 But what of the stories of those ancient figures who inhabit the Custom House— which after all take up by far the greater part of the introduction? Are they mere exhibits of an outdated history that the narrative itself has discarded? Or do they too connect with the text? At one level, a simple connection does exist. These stories epitomize the modes of delay and deferral, the simultaneous withholding and unfolding of personal secrets that the text will later exploit. In this sense, all the decaying characters who work in the Custom House are past masters of the art of delay, whether this involves the retardation of action that their extreme age and decrepitude imposes on them, or their putting off of their final retirement from the posts that they hold, or the postponement of their own ends as they keep "death at bay" (14). At another level, however, a more subtle connection emerges, one which links together these Custom House figures with the main text in terms of a deep structural design, the exploration of which will constitute the central preoccupation of the present essay. Put concisely, this is the link between "knot" and plot, figure and story, trope and narrative. This link is overt—and thus unproblematic—in relation to the main text, the plot of which unfolds, as it were, out of an original "knot," the tightly knit threads of the scarlet letter itself. Thus the novel may be read as an allegory of the intimate co-implication of the "knot" of the letter and the plot of the narrative, one which displays the method by which the original threads of the "knot," now "greatly frayed and defaced" (27), are unravelled and rewoven into the complex plot of the story. Out of a visible "knot," an occulted plot is exhumed. ' But is not a similar complicity at work in the introduction itself? Does it not enact the resuscitation of long-buried plots associated with the decrepit Custom House figures, whose life-histories represent plots which have been almost completly effaced, and are now to be recovered ? Indeed just as in the main text the discovery of the letter (or "knot") will...