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Janusz Semrau, ed. - The Scarlet Letter, New Critical Essays, (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2018). 37.40 euros, 122 pages, ISBN: 978-3631743393 - Stéphanie Carrez, Université de Tours.

In the introduction to this collection of five essays on The Scarlet Letter, Janusz Semrau addresses the issue that way too many studies have already been published on this text, debunking potential criticism by indicating that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece is the kind of artwork always worth looking at "a second time." [8]

The five contributors explored different avenues to provide the reader with renewed angles. Three of them relied on hitherto less often explored theoretical references to shed new light on the text: Joseph Kuhn focused on Maurice Blanchot's and Serge Leclaire's analysis of childhood, Pawel Stachura on Biedermeier aesthetics and Jorgen Veisland on René Girard's concept of triangular desire. Marek Pariz on the other hand chose to reread and discuss the canonical interpretation proposed by Sacvan Bercovitch. Finally, Janusz Semrau decided to analyze a detail other critics had neglected to pay attention to, suggesting an insightful interpretation of the presence of Spanish sailors at the end of The Scarlet Letter.

In the first article, Joseph Kuhn starts by discussing the character of Pearl and its functioning as a symbol to clarify what Henry James disliked about Nathaniel Hawthorne's allegorical mode. He compares the way both authors characterized children to argue that in spite of his critical stance, James is indebted to Hawthorne in that respect. According to him, both their modes of characterization can be fruitfully paralleled with the theory of the infans and the complex relationship between childhood, society, desire and death developed by Maurice Blanchot.

Relying on Sacvan Bercovitch's analysis of the relationship between The Scarlet Letter and "the advent of liberalism in America," [30] Marek Pariz examines the three main characters of the novel, Hester, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, to study the way the nineteenth-century readers could relate the historical tale to their contemporary concerns. He shifts the focus from liberalism to the broader category of "modernity" [30] and associates the protagonists with two opposite stances regarding cultural change, mobility and immobility. He thus conclusively argues that Hawthorne's novel can be construed as a reflexion on "the nature of change in history." [42]

In the longest of the five articles, Janusz Semrau uses the presence of Spanish sailors in The Scarlet Letter as a starting point to convincingly demonstrate that the text "can be most rewardingly read as a palimpsest written with poetic license over the Book of Revelation," [55] developing a detailed and thorough analysis of both imagery and narrative structure to prove his point and thus make comprehensive sense of a number of often overlooked details of the novel.

In the fourth article, Pawel Stachura proposes to consider "The Custom-House" as an example of the "programmatic introductions" which were popular in the nineteenth century. [87] He then points to "some unexpected, historical similarities between the United States and Germany in the first half of the nineteenth century" and especially focuses on Biedermeier, "a period of conservative reaction to the earlier, revolutionary turmoil in Europe." [91] Heavily relying on Virgil Nemoianu's study of Biedermeier aesthetics, he identifies and discusses three characteristics which can be usefully applied to a study of Nathaniel Hawthorne's text. The first is the concept of Sammeln und Hegen, defined as an "accumulation of details and meticulous descriptions of mundane things." [92] The second, Christlicher Naturalismus, is associated with the negation of violence and a "gradual restoration of the preceding order." [96] Finally, he analyses a common tendency to use "characters who are confused, socially isolated, and unpredictable or mad" as narrators. [98]

The last article by Jorgen Veisland begins with a reference to René Girard's concept of triangular desire. The author proposes to consider Hawthorne as the subject, Hester as the mediator and the Letter as the object of desire in order to explore The Scarlet Letter as "a dual aesthetic dynamic, namely, attraction and repulsion." [106] Using this idea as a rationale, he examines the connections between "Hester's needlework" and "Hawthorne's pen," [107] presents Dimmesdale and Chilingworth as embodying two different modes of knowledge, and finally analyzes the ties between Pearl and the Letter as pointing to "a new disorderly Artwork." [116]

As a conclusion, it can be said that this collection of five essays does its office by bringing to light new critical angles worth the reading of any scholar interested in fully exploring the complexities of The Scarlet Letter.

© 2019 Stéphanie Carrez & GRAAT On-Line