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“ C I R C L E O F A C Q U A I N T A N C E ” : M I S T R E S S H I B B I N S A N D T H E H E R M E T I C D E S I G N O F T H E S C A R L E T L E T T E R DAVID KETTERER Concordia University I H a v e you stopped beating your wife? Answer yes or no. This question is frequently used to illustrate the psychological impasse known as “double bind.” As far as we know Nathaniel Hawthorne never did beat his wife but in at least two other respects he found himself in what might appropriately be described as double bind situations. First of all, as a writer he necessarily adopted the role of the outsider, the isolated observer, a role he apparently condemns in so much of his fiction. The consequent sense of guilt about the writer’s occupation surfaces in “The Custom-House — Introductory to The Scarlet Letter” when he pauses to consider the undoubtedly negative re­ sponse of his practically-minded ancestors to such an idle life. But as the murderer — at one remove — of witches, one of these same ancestors pro­ vokes a rather different kind of guilt. Amongst the many ghosts which haunt Hawthorne in “The Custom-House” sketch is that of the magistrate John Hathome, “a bitter persecutor” ( 1 1 )1 like his father William, the first of the Hathomes to settle in Boston. Unlike William who acted against the Quakers, John Hathome acted against witches. He was one of the more vehement judges during the Salem witchcraft trails of 1692 “and made himself so conspicuous in the martyrdom of the witches, that their blood may fairly be said to have left a stain upon him.” Hawthorne continues: I know not whether these ancestors of mine bethought themselves to repent, and ask pardon of Heaven for their cruelties; or whether they are now groaning under the heavy consequences of them, in another state of being. At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes, and pray that any curse incurred by them — as I have heard, and as the dreary and unprosperous condition of the race, for many a long year back, would argue to exist — may be now and henceforth removed. (11) English Studies in Canada, ix, 3, September 1983 The question arises: How was Hawthorne (who is at pains to emphasize that destiny ties him to Salem) to expiate this guilt in his fictional presen­ tation of witches as an historical aspect of the early American scene? To picture them simply as witches, as human beings literally in league with Satan, would be to endorse the judgements of John Hathome and his ilk. Tom between admiration for his ancestors and a respect for historical accur­ acy, together with the knowledge that many if not all witches were hanged or burned unjustly, Hawthorne found himself in a second state of double bind. Put another way, as an artist and as the inheritor of what he viewed as a family curse, Hawthorne found himself permanently poised on the horns of two separate but curiously interdependent dilemmas. The consequent compounded sense of guilt and hypocrisy finds expression in Hawthorne’s characteristic thematic and stylistic ambiguities: the constant non-committal equivocation and qualification, the alternative explanations, and what ap­ pears to be a strategy of submitting moral questions to aesthetic criteria, particularly the criteria of “balance” and “unity.” 2 The foregoing generalizations provide the broad context for the subject of this article — Hawthorne’s treatment of one alleged witch, Mistress Hibbins in The Scarlet Letter. A secondary somewhat narrower context is provided by the other Hawthorne texts in which witchcraft or wizardry plays a signifi­ cant role. Of these the most important are “Alice Downe’s Appeal” (written in 1835), “Young Goodman Brown” (1846), and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). The incidental references to the witchcraft trials in The Whole History of Grandfather’s Chair (1841) and “ Main Street” (1851...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1913-4835
Print ISSN
0317-0802
Pages
pp. 294-311
Launched on MUSE
2019-04-03
Open Access
No
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