Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is, at times, a piece that seems intended to drive one beyond any hope of reasoning. Its occasionally overpowering allegorical symbolism or its seemingly eclectic mythology can certainly seem like a purist allegory designed to imbue in one the fear of eternal sin. However, when one takes the time to read beyond the simple story and to realize the true nature of Hawthorne's verbal artistry, it becomes clear that the piece is, as stated by Richard Chase, “a novel with beautifully assimilated allegorical elements” (149). With regards to Hawthorne's mythology, Chase's assertion is, perhaps, less accurate but no less reasonable. Throughout the novel one finds a rich mythology supplemented with allegorical aspects of both characters and settings that indeed encompasses all that Chase presents even as it extends beyond his ideas into a deeper, more meaningful work of art.
Beginning at the heart of Hawthorne's novel, one might first notice the complex mythology about which Hawthorne has draped his tale of adultery, vengeance and redemption. In Chase's essay, he first quotes one Mrs. Leavis saying that Hawthorne's mythology is “'based on the ritual celebration... of the English folk with its Catholic and ultimately pagan roots'” (149). He then goes on to refute this idea, as he suggests that Mrs. Leavis “might have seen that there is no central unifying cultural 'myth' in Hawthorne – only a clear perception of historical facts and an ability to endow these with beauty and significance” (149). While both of these views are, to a point, correct, neither one entirely manages to encompass Hawthorne's foundation. Chase states that Hawthorne's “myth” is nothing more than beautified history. While this is true for a while, (After all, what is myth but embellished history?) Chase fails to understand Hawthorne's depth. When he asserts that Hawthorne's writing is “only” history, he misses entirely the “canvas” of Hawthorne's work dismissing it as a statement of several facts.
Mrs. Leavis is closer in her argument that Hawthorne's myth is that of English folklore usurped by Puritanism, but she fails to note a distinctly “New England” culture that is central to The Scarlet Letter. She describes a “historic transition,” implying that Hawthorne's myth is a transition rather than the brilliantly complex, though decidedly gray, tapestry of New England culture. It seems that while her description is partially accurate, she robs the mythology of the attention it deserves, while glorifying the old English and the new Puritanism. Hawthorne's myth is, in fact, transcendent of either culture.
Hawthorne does indeed nod to both English and Puritan mythoi. He first mention witches in chapter two as he writes that perhaps a “witch, like old Mistress Hibbins... was to die upon the gallows” (57). The idea of a witch is centuries old. Sorcerers and soothsayers are found in the pages of the Bible and almost every culture of the world...