The Mark and the Knowledge

Social Stigma in Classic American Fiction

Marjorie Pryse


Literary Criticism / American / General
179 pp. 6x9

Open Access Text


The outcast banished by communal rejection; the scapegoat punished in ritual cleansing; the stigmatic branded and disfigured for his special destiny; the exilre isolated by his own convinctions or his doubts—these are familiar figures in world literature who remain compelling. Marjorie Pryse observes the American novelist’s abiding preoccupation with such individuals, whom she defines as marked characters, and demonstrates how they have come to occupy a central place in American fiction of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale, Melville’s Ahab and Ishmael, Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, and Ellison'’s Invisible Man—in a tradition which includes Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Stephen Crane’s Henry Fleming, Wharton’s Ethan Frome, Henry James’s John Marcher, Anderson’s Wing Biddlebaum, Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, Hemingway’s Jake Barnes, Flannery O’Connor’s grotesques, and many others—are the protagonists in a fiction of social and metaphysical isolation that provides the context in which American literature defines itself. For these figures express—and by expression attempt to resolve—the hidden conflicts and internal contradictions that mark and characterize our individual and collective benhavior.

Professor Pryse offers a systematic examination of four important texts—The Scarlett Letter, Moby-Dick, Light in August, and Invisible Man—in which she demonstrates the usefulness of examining marking as a process that has significantly affected American literature and culture. In describing the process of marking, she begins with the Puritans, for whom the path to self-knowledge lay in creation of a social symbolism—a system of marks and brands that allowed their American heirs to define themselves in terms of what they were not. She moves on to the American transcendentalists, who advocated withdrawal from soceity as the means to establishing a more principled relationship with it, and whose understanding of social stigma included from the first a metaphysical dimension. She characterizes the connections between social and metaphyiscal isolation as “the transcendental imagination” of the American fiction writer.

In the application of the principle of Puritan inner scrutiny to literary works, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, and Ellison, in spite of their Puritan heritage, demonstrate a way of seeing that Puritanism obscured. The “manifest destiny” of American fiction has become the necessity to reveal those nonmanifest myteries that symbolize the essence of who we are. Professor Pryse concludes that the act of marking or stigmatizing, which history has shown to be so destructive in our social behavior, throws into relief the esistence of those mysteries—and marks one way of determining what is American about our fiction.

Marjorie Pryse is assistant professor of English at the University of Tennessee.