A bond Between Mothers: The Scarlet Letter and As I lay Dying

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Debbi Huh

Professor Hays

English 109

A Bond Between Mothers: The Scarlet Letter and As I Lay Dying

In literature, many novels can be influenced by stories or characters from other works of literature and authors. For instance, many scholars claim that Nathaniel Hawthorne influences many authors after his time. "Richard Brodhead, in The School of Hawthorne, and many others have argued that Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter launched a tradition in American Literature" (Wolter 24). Some of these so called "traditions" varied from the influence of Hawthorne's romanticism in his literature and others "sketched the transhistorical and transgeneric omnipresence of Hester in American culture" (Wolter 24). Hester Prynne's story from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was a story of finding redemption as a cause of her sin; her strength through various situations shows how she was able to support both herself and Pearl in the wilderness while working as a seamstress. I will be comparing the mother figure from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Although their circumstances differ, both of the mother figures in these two novels have many similarities such as having a lack of love, conceiving an illegitimate child through an affair, and living lonely lives.

Hester Prynne and Addie Bundren were both married to "deformed husbands they do not love" (Wolter 32). Hester Prynne most likely became married to Roger Chillingworth by arrangement. Probably due to the arranged marriage, Hester had no feelings for Chillingworth. She even says to Chillingworth, "thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any" (Hawthorne 71); this admittance of her lack of love for Chillingworth is similar to Addie's lack of love for her husband, Anse. Addie portrays a kind of bitterness towards Anse. When they first meet, it takes her about four times for Anse to pass by the school house before she realizes he was going out of his way to see Addie (Faulkner 170). Addie does not have much of a loving personality because her attitude on marrying Anse seems like she was pressured and in some way coerced to marry him. This lack of love for Anse is seen when she talks about Anse and says:

He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn't need a word for that anymore than for pride of fear. Cash did not need to say it to me nor I to him, and I would say, Let Anse use it, if he wants to. So that it was Anse or love; love or Anse: it didn't matter. (Faulkner 172)

This shows how Addie only thinks of love as an empty concept, as something that fills a void that is not there. Her love for Anse is almost nonexistent because it did not matter to her. Addie's reason for living was to prepare herself to "stay dead", as her father would always say (Faulkner 175). She never really understood it at first, but she realized what her father meant after getting married and having children (Faulkner 175).

In addition to not loving their husbands, both Hester and Addie have affairs with ministers of the congregation. And through the affairs, they conceive illegitimate children "who are the gems of their passion as well as the tormenting reminders of their sin" (Wolter 32). Both Hawthorne and Faulkner play with the meaning of the "gems" of the mothers as the children also have names that are paralleled. During the time that Chillingworth was away from Hester, Hester had an affair with Minister Dimmesdale. I think because Hester did not love Chillingworth to begin with, she eased herself into a romance while her husband was not present. Through the adultery that Hester committed, she conceived a daughter. Hester's daughter's name is Pearl, and Addie's illegitimate child's name is Jewel. Pearl is described as "a lovely and immortal flower..[whose innocent life had sprung]..out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion" and is named "'Pearl,' as being of great price--purchased with all [Hester] had--her mother's only treasure!" (Hawthorne 84). Similar to Hester, Addie also had an affair with a minister, Whitfield. I think for the same reasons of having a lack of love, Addie also found a time when she found meaning in life and had an affair with Whitfield. Although this short time of finding meaning lasted very shortly, Addie, too, conceived a child. Addie's third child was her illegitimate child, after Cash and Darl. After having an affair with Whitfield, Addie realizes that she is two months pregnant with Jewel (Faulkner 175), and "[gives] Anse Dewey Dell to negative Jewel. Then [Addie gives] him Vardaman to replace the child [she] had robbed him of" (Faulkner 176). Addie's method of asking for "forgiveness" is to give Anse more children to cancel out the one she did not conceive with him. This also shows her lack of warmth and love for her family.

The last comparison shows how both Hester and Addie lived a lonely life. Hester was condemned an outcast as a result of adultery and lived in the wilderness away from the town (Hawthorne 190). Addie was only thoroughly cared for and missed after she passed away, in which Jewel began to finally express his love for his mother by trying to "save" his mother in the river and in the fire. It is also interesting to see that both mothers were more importantly symbolized as objects rather than showing a strong mother figure to their children (Wolter 32). To Pearl, Hester is the physical representation of the scarlet letter A that is embroidered on Hester's clothes. Towards the end of the novel, Hester and Minister Dimmesdale are talking in the forest and when Pearl is called to them, she does not listen. This is because Hester had taken off the scarlet letter from her chest as she "frees" herself in the wilderness. Pearl refuses to go to her mother until Hester pins back on the scarlet letter because "Pearl misses something which she has always seen [Hester] wear" (Hawthorne 201). As soon as Hester pins the letter onto her chest, Pearl becomes herself again and is obedient to her mother. While Hester has just one physical object that represents her, Addie is represented by different objects for each child. Cash, Addie's first child, symbolizes Addie into his set of tools and the coffin he is making for her. He works like a machine, precisely and planned out, as he wants to create a perfect coffin for his deceased mother. Cash reiterates that he "made it on the bevel" when he talks about the coffin, but the chapter for Cash is listed out like a list to emphasize his work ethic and machine like qualities as he copes with his mother's death (Faulkner 82-83). Jewel, the bastard child, symbolizes his mother as a horse. Although Jewel sometimes hits and yells at his horse, we can see how Jewel really feels internally about his mother by the way he cares for his horse. Vardaman, the youngest child, constantly says "my mother is a fish" (Faulkner 84) after catching a fish. This is symbolic for Vardaman because the coffin that Addie is in almost goes down the river while trying to cross on the way to Jefferson. Vardaman's mother is a fish figuratively, but Addie was in the water physically as the wagon and coffin become flooded.

Although Faulkner denies having any connection to parallels between his novel and The Scarlet Letter (Wolter 32), we can see that there is correlation between many of the situations that Hester and Addie go through throughout the novel. The similar relationships between both mothers and the paralleled events that happen to both of them are an interesting observation.

Works Cited

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Pleasantville, NY: Reader's Digest Association, 1984. Print.

Wolter, Jürgen C. "Southern Hesters: Hawthorne's Influence On Kate Chopin, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, And Tennessee Williams." Southern Quarterly: A Journal Of The Arts In The South 50.1 (2012): 24-41. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
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