115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

 “The Freedom of a Broken Law”: Antinomianism, Abolition, and Black Rebellion in The Scarlet Letter

Hannah Manshel, University of California, Riverside

This paper reads Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) in the context of both its 1640s Puritan setting and its 1840s writing, and argues that antinomianism functions as a critique of white abolitionists’ conflation of law and sentimentality in the mid-nineteenth century. Pearl is the embodied manifestation of an antinomian for who, I argue, is also a force of black female rebelliousness. 


This paper puts forth a black feminist reading of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). I argue that Hawthorne uses the novel’s 1640s Puritan setting, in particular the Puritan concept of antinomianism – a belief that free God’s grace nullifies civil law to critique – 1840s white abolitionists, whose methods conflate law and sentiment. Hawthorne’s disdain for the abolitionists’ sentimentalization of law anticipates Saidiya Hartman’s argument that white anti-slavery activists’ sentimental political strategies serve not to engender freedom but rather to spectacularize black pain. Although Hawthorne held anti-abolitionist and pro-slavery views, in the novel he articulates an alternative anti-slavery politics that his deep-seated white supremacy leads him to fear: an antinomian politics of black rebellion. The novel offers antinomianism as useful for Hawthorne in that he seems to believe it can hold law and sentimentality apart, but in my reading, it acts as a force that can undo both law and sentimentality. By way of his critique of abolition, Hawthorne develops a set of concepts for thinking black rebelliousness as antinomian, anti-sentimental and utterly indifferent to law.


My reading argues that Pearl, Hester’s child, is both antinomian and a force of black feminine rebelliousness who exceeds Hawthorne’s efforts to contain her. She is the product of a law-breaking “monstrous birth” and she resists incorporation into both law and sentimentality. Thought Pearl is produced by the white imagination, she is unbound from it, uncapturable by the form of romance narrative. Pearl is not enslaved, but she is subject to the structural conditions of enslavement, and performs freedom accordingly. Her modes of rebelliousness are diffuse, partial, and temporary. Her black freedom shows that in a world structured by slavery, antinomianism – being subject to but not a subject of civil law – might in fact be the ongoing condition of black life. She shows that black rebellion, and black freedom, cannot be contained by law, which attempts to negate it completely.