Scarlet Witch/Scarlet Letter: Hawthorne, Ambiguity, and the Avengers
So far I’ve been able to kill just about any conversation on this board with a single post. I don’t expect anyone to actually read this, but it’s been on my mind for a week or so now and I thought writing about it would help to clarify.
I have been re-reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter recently, and as I did so it struck me that there are certain symbols and relationships that Hester Prynne, the red-garbed adulteress, has in common with our favorite mutant Avenger. Now I am not saying that the Scarlet Witch was inspired by the Scarlet Letter, or that Kurt Busiek (or any other writer) is intentionally drawing on these themes in his depiction of Wanda, but the correspondences are there to be found and, once explored, they provoke some interesting questions and possible future plotlines.
Wanda as Hester Prynne: This is the obvious part. Acknowledging the fact that both women wear red and moving on -- Hester is a young, beautiful woman who is married to a cold, emotionless man of intellect. After her husband is presumed dead, she falls in love with another man, a love which earns her the hatred of the public and of society. Seldom do we enter Hester’s mind to learn her own thoughts; she is illuminated primarily by her interactions with society and with the men in her life.
The Scarlet Letter as Wanda’s mutant heritage: Think of those “Days of Future Past” stories when the mutants wore an M on their clothes, or on their own bodies. The Scarlet Letter is the obvious sign of Hester’s social transgression -- in her case, adultery. Wanda’s transgression is biological in nature -- she’s a “mutie.” Now for years Hester is hated and reviled because of her A, but none of that changes the fact that she is a good person. She lives modestly, donates her money to charity, visits the sick when no one else will touch them, never tried to dodge the punishment the town of Boston has placed upon her. In time, the people begin to change their mind about her. The “A” no longer stands for what it used to; some say it stands for “Able.” Wanda wrestled with similar issues early in her career, working in the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and earning the hatred of the populace. But by becoming an Avenger, and staying one for so long, she has really left her mutant nature more or less behind. Her brother wrestles with his legacy as the son of Magneto constantly, but Wanda hardly seems to give it a second thought. Her Scarlet Letter has changed meaning. She has been accepted; or as accepted as a mutant/adulteress can be in a puritanical society.
Pearl, Hester’s baby girl, as Wanda’s hex power: OK, work with me here for a minute. Hester’s adultery has a tangible result: a little girl named Pearl. Pearl is a wild, uncontrollable, unteachable child who is, in fact, a living symbol not only of the Letter itself, but of the socially destabilizing power the Letter represents. When townspeople harass Hester, it’s Pearl that drives them off with shrieks and howling. People call her a witch-child. This is interesting because there is a move in the first third of the book to take Pearl away from Hester, both for the good of the child (if she is not a devil child, she should be raised in a purer home than that of an adulteress) and for the good of the mother (if Pearl is born corrupted, it will be easier for Hester to repent and live a clean life if she is not forced to live in such close company with the tangible result of her sin). I was reminded of those stories in which Wanda wrestled with loss of her own power. What would she do with herself, were her Pearl taken away? If you don’t buy this analogy there’s another way of looking at it...
Pearl as the Twins: If Pearl is a living embodiment of Hester’s sin, then the logical embodiment of Wanda’s hex power is her own twin children, who were only conceived and born thanks to her “chaos.” The twins have since vanished, but this relationship is ripe for revival, especially since Wanda’s recent mastery of her powers might suggest that a new baby would be more stable and permanent than the first one. Pearl was a dangerous, socially threatening force who hung in the balance between good and evil, between adulterous chaos and lovely order. There is rich story potential for such a child in Wanda’s life, and in the Marvel Universe as a whole. But if Wanda is going to have a baby, who is the father?
Roger Chillingsworth as the Vision: Hester’s husband is a man, as mentioned, of cold intellect, a man of science. He has a slight physical deformity; not enough to earn stares, but enough to set him off from the people that surround him. When he returns from the dead (in this case, he was only presumed dead after being abducted by Indians and held in captivity for several years) he confronts Hester, who has already had her affair in his abscence, and absolves her of all guilt. He has no hard feelings towards her, he insists, but the man that she was with: that man shall have Chillingsworth’s hatred for ever! This is his dark side, a frightening demeanor that becomes more and more exaggerated through the tale, until the man has become a monster. No one would accuse Vision of being a monster, but I think it would be easy to turn our noble android into an inhuman and calcuating being, obsessed with revenge. He did start out as a villain, remember. A being who reaches into your very heart; Vision has always had that frightening aura of inhumanity about him.
Dimmesdale as Simon Williams: Hester loves a man who is revered by the public, adored and beloved by them, but who harbors a secret shame, a guilt that, were it known and publicly discussed, would be his ruin. But the people love him so much that they refuse to see his crimes. He is tortured by fear and by guilt. In the end he refuses to leave Boston with Hester and flee back to Europe, in favor of giving a dramatic speech and final performance -- on a stage no less -- making a confession and revealing his crime to everyone. After his speech, he dies. The Chillingsworth-Hester-Dimmesdale triangle lends itself most easily to Vision-Wanda-Simon, but there are other possibilities...
Chillingsworth as Magneto, Dimmesdale as Quicksilver: This relationship replaces the marital/love ties with familial ones. Chillingsworth is the harsh master who took Hester into his home when she was young and naive; Dimmesdale the one that led her back to independence. Now the relationship between the two men has more resonance, with Chillingsworth haunting his young “friend” relentlessly, and Dimmesdale torn between friendship for the brilliant scientists, and horror at the fiend that scientist has become.
So which is it? You may ask. Is the cold and calculating Roger Chillingsworth a metaphor for the Vision or Magneto? But that is the beauty to Hawthorne; there’s no reason why he can’t be both hero and villain at the same time. Hawthorne is a pioneer of the ambiguous. He will present you with a “fact” and then, in the next sentence, undercut that fact with another possibility. Everything in Hawthorne is multiple choice, even reality. There are no wrong answers to block us but, alas, also no right ones to give us security.
And that is, perhaps, the best lesson from this exercize. Hester, Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth existed in a Puritanical society where there was only one interpretation of events. They loved Dimmesdale, but never accepted Hester, and certainly never understood any of these three characters, so pivotal in the history of American literature. Will we follow in their lock-stepped footsteps? Will our debate of Vision, Simon, Wanda, fall into a simple “Is not!/Is too!” pattern? If so, we are doomed to never understand these characters. No single interpretation of them and their history will ever succeed. Only by embracing multiplicity, ambiguity, can we understand. This is what modernity is all about. I, for my part, do not insist that the analogy I have built be taken as gospel, or even that it is really valid. I say only that it is interesting, that it prompted thought and analysis, and I hope that in this maze of conflicting ideas you have found something curious enough to pursue.
Thanks for your time.
-- And do you believe your own theory?
Stephen Daedalus in Ulysses, by James Joyce