Scars of Shame: Marked Bodies in Beloved and The Scarlet Letter

This paper was written for Professor Hall’s American Novel class at Sam Houston State University on November 30, 2013.

Scars of Shame: Marked Bodies in Beloved and The Scarlet Letter

           In both The Scarlet Letter and Beloved, several of the characters are presented to the reader as “marked,” meaning that their bodies bear some sort of recognized mark, whether it is an actual scar or a representational marking. For Hawthorne, those characters are Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. For Morrison, that would be one of the main characters, Sethe. These marks are not only physical scars, but mental and emotional ones as well. Hence, Hester, Dimmesdale, and Sethe all have scars that represent the past and the shame that came from it. However, through this process, these scars are also transformed into stories.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved details the story of Sethe and her escape from slavery, as well as her intense emotional connection to her children. This bond even causes her to slit her baby’s throat (also known as Beloved) with a handsaw so as to see that her daughter would not be put into slavery. As a slave, Sethe endured many horrors and does not want the same life for her children. After enduring a brutal violation by schoolteacher’s nephews in the barn, Sethe is left without breast milk for her baby that is soon to be born. She continually cries out in despair about this loss, saying “They took my milk” (Morrison 85). Obviously a huge emotional scar in her life, this saying is repeated frantically by Sethe throughout the novel; she utters “And they took my milk!” often when talking to Paul D (Morrison 20). Sethe ends up reporting the crime to Mrs. Garner, her master. When schoolteacher finds out that Sethe told Mrs. Garner the truth about what happened that night, he becomes enormously enraged and has Sethe whipped quite severely, despite the fact that she is pregnant. Though she ends up running away to safety, she eventually collapses from sheer exhaustion in the woods. Her back is now completely swollen and scarred from her whipping. The scars form a “chokecherry tree” on Sethe’s back. When Paul D asks if there is “something growing on [Sethe’s] back”, she responds with, “I’ve never seen it and never will. But that’s what [the whitegirl] said it looked like. A chokecherry tree. Trunk, branches, and even leaves. Tiny little chokecherry leaves. But that was eighteen years ago. Could have cherries too now for all I know.” (Morrison 19)

The tree on Sethe’s back is not only a representation of her physical pain from that night, but also her emotional pain. The past is a painful place, yet she still often ends up there, and the chokecherry tree is a harsh reminder of the pain she went through during slavery. The repetition of her cry regarding her stolen milk also alludes to this painful past. Though it is severely torturous, she often ends up discussing the past anyway. It comes back to haunt her, much like her daughter, Beloved, actually does come back to haunt her – first as a ghost, and then as a person. How she chooses to deal with the past over time ends up transforming her as a character. As mentioned in The Parturition of Memory: Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the text of the novel “deals with this excruciating process of returning life and feeling into that which had been beaten and repressed into oblivion.” (Lucas 39) It is doubly significant in that the trauma is on both psychological and physical levels. It seems to be a process of “recognizing where the damage has been done, then, as does Amy with Sethe’s torn and rotting feet, of gently coaxing the battered and numbed flesh back into memory and sensation, and finally, of learning to live without denying the scars, the irredeemable dead tissue which will result from the experience.” (Lucas 39) Through this scar, Sethe remembers her time in slavery, and recalls her current freedom. Though Amy Denver may have soothed her foot scars, this chokecherry tree still stands as a reminder of her past; “she will never be free of the physical and psychological scarring which her experiences have inscribed upon her.” (Lucas 39) This tree, then, becomes a symbol of her past and provides the reader with insight into Sethe’s character. “It is as if identity, and its recognition, depended upon the body having been marked with a special sign, which looks suspiciously like a linguistic signifier… marking the body signifies its passage into writing, its becoming a literary body, and generally also a narrative body” (Durkin 543). Hence, the chokecherry tree becomes a storytelling device. Within Sethe’s scars lies her story. The human body literally becomes a “textual body” through this scarring process (Durkin 543).

In The Scarlet Letter, the main character, Hester Prynne, is forced to wear a scarlet “A” on her bosom. This letter is a symbol of her crime – adultery – as well as the shame associated with it. It is enforced upon her by the public, by society, in order to make a point. This marking is not of her choosing, but rather placed upon her by rules from the status quo. Through this sort of branding, Hester becomes a symbol of shame and sinfulness for her society. The townspeople refer to her as a disgusting criminal. She is no more than a symbol of the town’s shame. One citizen remarks, “What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead? This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly, there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book.” (Hawthorne 49)

Hester is called “a scarlet woman and a worthy type of her Babylon.” (Bell 10) They dehumanize her, scorn her, ridicule her, and so on. The same happens to her daughter, Pearl. This ridicule begins before she even takes her first step out of the prison doors in chapter one. People begin gossiping about her. One even says, “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she, – the naughty baggage, – little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!” (Hawthorne 49) A young wife responds to this in a wise manner, saying, “Ah, but, let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.” (Hawthorne 49) The young wife, here, is correct – the scarlet letter is not only embroidered on her gown but also carved into her heart. She cannot forget simply by covering up her letter; it will always be there in her mind.

Much like Sethe, Hester’s marking can be seen as something beautiful. Whereas Sethe referred to her back scars as a chokecherry tree, Hester embroidered the A on her chest in such a way that it would look beautiful; it was “so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom” that it “had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” (Hawthorne 51) Again, like Sethe, Hester’s marking is a symbol of her past and the shame that came with it. It is “the emblem of her guilt.” (Bell 11) It is not only a symbol of her past, though; it also represents her present state: “A material object, a piece of embroidered cloth held in the finder’s hand, it is the one irreducible reality which connects the intangible historic past with the narrator’s present sensation… As an abstract sign on Hester’s bosom, it purports to speak both for the nature of her past and for the present condition of the wearer.” (Bell 16) The catch here is that the word which the letter A stands for (adultery) is never spelled out for us; “the word, like the act it designates, is invisible in the text – the act held inaccessibly out of the reader’s sight while the word only hovers in his mind.” (Bell 16) Hester even begins to identify with the letter – she objects to removing it by saying, “were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that would speak a different purport.” (Bell 17). She continues to insist on its relation to her identity while also realizing that it tells her story, like Sethe’s chokecherry tree.

Dimmesdale also bears a marking much like Hester’s – but unlike his lover, his scarlet letter “burns in secret” (Hawthorne 176). It is never revealed to the reader what exactly the marking looks like, seeing as only Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth (AKA The Leech), discovers it and is, consequently, astonished by it. It seems as though Dimmesdale’s scarlet letter appears due to “the effect of the ever active tooth of remorse gnawing from the inmost heart outwardly” (Bell 17). It, like Hester’s scarlet letter, is a symbol of guilt and shame. The only difference is that while Hester “wears the scarlet letter openly on [her] bosom”, Dimmesdale has been forced to feel this shame in secret. He responds to Hester, saying, “Thou little knowest what a relief it is, after the torment of a seven years’ cheat, to look into an eye that recognizes me for what I am!” (Hawthorne 176) Like Sethe and Paul D, Arthur Dimmesdale feels true freedom when he is finally able to share his actual self with others like Hester Prynne. This is also true when he stands with Hester and Pearl on the scaffold at the end of the novel. Once Dimmesdale reveals his scarlet letter – his marked body – he feels true release, “with a flush of triumph in his face, as one who, in the crisis of acutest pain, had won a victory.” (Hawthorne 232). Even as he sinks down onto the scaffold and dies, Dimmesdale continues to feel release from his exposure to the society and his admittance of his guilt regarding his crime of adultery with Hester.

Both Morrison and Hawthorne truly demonstrate marked bodies as a symbol of shame and transformation. Sethe, Hester, and Dimmesdale all share a common quality; it is not only the sharing of the scars, but the remembrance of their pasts that connects the aforementioned characters together. Their pasts – though filled with pain, sorrow, suffering, sin, guilt, remorse, and injustice – are burned into their flesh, and, like scars, never fully heal. However, these marked bodies become devices utilized to tell each character’s story.

WORKS CITED

Bell, Millicent. “The Obliquity of Signs: “The Scarlet Letter”” The Massachusetts Review 23.1 (1982): 9-26. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.

Durkin, Anita. “Object Written, Written Object: Slavery, Scarring, and Complications of Authorship in “Beloved”” African American Review 41.3 (2007): 541-56. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Bantam, 1986. Print.

Lucas, Rose. “THE PARTURITION OF MEMORY: TONI MORRISON’S “BELOVED””Australasian Journal of American Studies 10.1 (1991): 39-47. JSTOR. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved: A Novel. New York: Signet, 1991. Print.