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This essay examines Hathorne's concept of language and the characteristic indeterminacy of his writing in the context of nieteenth-century language study. Recently, two opposing theoretical postionss have emerged to account for this indeterminacy-the deconstructionist view as exemplified by J. Hillis Miller's analysis of 'The Minister's Black Veil' and the more historical and political view that Jonathan Arac Takes in 'The Politics of The Scarlet Letter.' I argue that although Hawthorne's indeterminacy may invite a deconstructionist analysis, it is a product of his historical context, not ours, and although, as Arac argues. Hawthornes's indeterminacy may be connected to a politics of avoidance, it more directly arises out of the linguistic and philosophical issues being debated by his contemporaries. In his Notebooks and his fiction Hawthorne responds to these issues by experimenting with possible relations between literal and figurative meanings and with the role played by perspective in determining these meanings. In order to show the interaction bertweenn Hawthorne's writing and the context of mindineteenth-century language study, I first briefly outline this context; then, using examples from his Notebooks. I describe Hawthorne's concept of language; and finally, with 'Rappaccini's Daughter' as an example. I show how in his fiction Hawthorne experiments with the language theories of his contemporaries.

Journal Name

Nineteenth-Century Literature


Nineteenth-Century Literature 51.4 (1997): 433-454.

Copyright 1997 by The Regents of the University of California.