If I were to label sub-threads in our history pieces this would be under “non-genre fantasy.” Now, at this point nearly everything I’ve discussed is officially “non-genre,” since the fantasy genre didn’t exist until the 20th century. Specifically, people didn’t market books under a sign reading “fantasy” in a bookstore. That’s really narrow, of course, and I still consider most of the stuff I’ve covered so far fantasy in a better, more useful sense. But this book might not be considered fantasy by some, though it certainly must be, as it’s not a work of realism. What’s the book? The Scarlet Letter.
Wait, don’t close that tab yet! Seriously. Not only is The Scarlet Letter fantasy, it’s great. You should read it. If you’ve already read it, you need to read it again after reading this post right here.
Hawthorne you’ve heard of, I assume. But probably you don’t know that Hawthorne was nearly a shut-in. His wife was also his number one fan, and that was as creepy as it sounds – Hawthorne censored his books because his wife was his first critic but she was crazy religious. Hawthorne, uh, not so much. He was buddies with Herman Melville. He also loved fantasy, but the popular market in America at the time was a bit unforgiving of it. The Realists (capital R) hadn’t made the scene yet, but the scene was evolving to create them, so Hawthorne had it rough. His short fiction allowed him room to really go crazy. I mean, he’s got a story about a mad scientist who fills his daughter with a deadly plant poison so anything not poisonous she touches dies (“Rappaccini’s Daughter”). Y’know, like Poison Ivy. There’s a story about a man whose heart literally turns to marble because he finds the ultimate sin (“Ethan Brand”).
But his novels needed to appeal to a wider audience. But Hawthorne was stubborn. So nearly all his novels begin with prefaces that subtly turn the realism of his day to a kind of fantasy. The Scarlet Letter specifically begins with Hawthorne apparently just describing his days working in a custom house. He tells some funny stories about feeling awkward on his first day, the old men who all nap at the same time without meaning to, so on. But then he claims to have found a manuscript in the attic while moonlight streams in and haunts the attic, turning everything fantastical. That’s the signal. Hawthorne never found a manuscript, it’s just the book he wrote.
And then the book proper starts. You probably know the story. Hester Prynne has an affair, has to wear a scarlet A (for adultery) on her chest the rest of her life, and everyone hates her.
Except almost none of that is true. She does sort of have an affair – she’s married and her husband is somewhere else. But no one in town knows she’s married. And the word adultery is never mentioned in the novel. It never appears once. So what does the A stand for? No one really knows. Critics call Hawthorne’s work “over-determined.” What that means is that he likes to be allegorical, he likes to use the mechanism that usually lets things stand for other things, but he doesn’t put a meaning or object at the other end of the arrow.
Picture an allegory like this:
X -> Y
So Aslan -> Jesus
The problem is that the text of the book does this instead:
Scarlet A -> ???
Back to plot. Right after Hester’s punished with the A, her husband shows up in town again. He’s been studying alchemy with the natives. And he goes into hiding in town, taking on a false name and ministering to the sick while trying to discover who Hester cheated on him with.
And when I say alchemy I mean it. He concocts potions, not remedies. He pulls plants from graveyards because dead bodies give herbs more power. He might summon spirits.
Dimmesdale is the preacher everyone loves, and Hester slept with him. It’s not really a mystery. And Hester’s husband figures it out very quickly. He torments Dimmesdale for years.
And then there’s Pearl. Pearl is Hester and Dimmesdale’s daughter. And I mean this quite literally: she is not human. She is a fairy creature. Because of the mystical concordance happening in the town, centered on Hester and Dimmesdale’s powerful emotions (coagulated in their guilt over their sin), their child wasn’t human. It takes an experience of suffering, her own suffering, to make Pearl human, just like fairies in stories. They can obtain human-like souls, but at the cost of their powers and whimsy.
It’s not an understated fantasy either. A huge red A fills the sky at one point, witnessed not only by the protagonists but by half the town.
I’m going to avoid spoiling the ending, because you’re going to go read the book. It’s very short and very intense. But why should you read it, other than my obsessive insistence?
Other than how good it is? Well, for our history it doesn’t slot in very well. Most fantasy writers today don’t read it like a fantasy novel (to my knowledge), so they don’t make as much use of it as they could. They most certainly have read it, though. Your favorite writer has most likely read a lot of stuff you would turn your nose up at in class because it wasn’t fantasy. Great writers (usually) tend to read in and out of their chosen fields all the time. Mostly because they probably don’t care so long as something’s good, but even if they feel their field is the best, still they want fresh angles, fresh approaches, and any closed-in field would get stagnant. That’s also another good reason you should read it.
However, my most important reason you should read it is so you get a feeling for how fantasy actually works. A lot of us probably think of something very specific when we think of fantasy. I did and still do a lot of the time, unless I’m writing or being quizzed or something. It will vary with each of us, but it probably has more than one sentient, intelligent race; it’ll have magic, generally some sort that people can manipulate or control, even if poorly or indirectly; it may also pretty much be tied to adventure stories; for many of us (this is one of my own personal loves) it’ll have a strong nature romantic component.
Well, The Scarlet Letter has a non-human, but its magic is entirely outside the realm of human experience, falling down on them like weather. It’s not an adventure, and it dwells on nature less than the rest of Hawthorne’s work. But it’s still a fantasy. All fantasy really is is anything that couldn’t happen in our world, in the zero world. It expands our horizon in our personal fantasy-land, our mental map of Faerie.