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In Chapter Three of The Scarlet Letter we find the following as a response to a question of who the father of Hester’s child is:

Of a truth, friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting.

As far as I can tell there is no character in the story (at least up to this point) named Daniel. It seems, then, that “a Daniel” is being used as some kind of term for someone who could know the answer to the vexing question.

Is my assumption correct? If so, what is the evidence for this (either in this specific case, or in general usage), and what is it based on?

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The "Daniel" mentioned by the townsman in The Scarlet Letter refers to the Hebrew prophet Daniel. In Chapter 2 of the Biblical Book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, says he has had a dream and wants it to be explained without saying what the dream was about ('The thing is gone from me', he claims):

And the king said unto them, I have dreamed a dream, and my spirit was troubled to know the dream.
Then spake the Chaldeans to the king in Syriack, O king, live for ever: tell thy servants the dream, and we will shew the interpretation.
The king answered and said to the Chaldeans, The thing is gone from me: if ye will not make known unto me the dream, with the interpretation thereof, ye shall be cut in pieces, and your houses shall be made a dunghill.

In a sense, the king presents the Chaldeans with a riddle and they are unable to solve it.

The dream is eventually revealed to Daniel in a vision and he both describes and explains the dream to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2, 19-45).

Daniel interprets one of Nebuchadnezzar's other dreams in Chapter 4.


Note that the Daniel reference in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1 (see Rand al'Thor's answer), is not from the Book of Daniel, but the book of Ezekiel, chapter 28:

Behold, thou art wiser than Daniel; there is no secret that they can hide from thee:
With thy wisdom and with thine understanding thou hast gotten thee riches, and hast gotten gold and silver into thy treasures: (...)

In those lines from Shakespeare's play, Portia is compared to Daniel as a judge, not as a solver of riddles.

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  • 1
    To back this up, there's a reference to David in one of the later ones that is made explicit in the end.
    – Joshua
    Sep 13 at 18:50
  • 3
    @Joshua I don't know how David would be relevant. (Since the story is set in a community of Puritans, familiarity with the Bible is a given.)
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 13 at 19:54
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Allusion to Daniel

Adding just a few more comments to the astute answers already given . . .

“Of a truth, friend, that matter remaineth a riddle; and the Daniel who shall expound it is yet a-wanting” (Hawthorne 46) is an allusion to the book of Daniel reading:

Forasmuch as an excellent spirit, and knowledge, and understanding, interpreting of dreams, and shewing of hard sentences, and dissolving of doubts, were found in the same Daniel, whom the king named Belteshazzar: now let Daniel be called, and he will shew the interpretation (Daniel 5:12, KJV).

Daniel was the fourth of the greater prophets, taken as hostage in the first deportation to Babylon (c. 605 B.C.), because of the gift of God of the interpretation of dreams, he became the second in command of the Babylon empire and lasted through the end of the Babylonian empire and into the Persian empire. His prophecies are the key to the understanding of end time events. Noted for his purity and holiness by contemporary prophet, Ezekiel: “Though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 14:14, KJV) (see also Wood 344ff).

While Daniel is famous for being the interpreter of dreams, it is worth noting also that his name Daniel ( דִּנִיֵּאל) in Hebrew means "God is my judge" (Davidson 153). Also, while it is significant to the story (Scarlet Letter) that Daniel is an interpreter of dreams, it is equally significant that Daniel was known for his righteousness. Additionally, in historical context, Daniel is quick to give God the credit for his is ability to interpret dreams (see Daniel 2:23ff).

It is interesting, perhaps ironic, to note that in The Scarlett Letter, this allusion is in the context of Hester Prynne’s husband (the “stranger”) who is incognito and conversing with the “townsman” (45) and who later assumes the name “Chillingworth” (a name denoting coldness as in a “cold-hearted” person). He proceeds to extract the truth of Hester Prynne’s “accomplice” through manipulation and inhumane torture (of Dimmesdale)—decidedly “ungodly” behaviors (quite the opposite of righteous Daniel).

Sources

Davidson, Benjamin. The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.

The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1972.

Pearson, Leland. The Scarlet Letter (Norton Critical Edition), W.W. Norton and Company, 2005.

Wood, Leon J. The Prophets of Israel, Baker Book House, 1979.

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Daniel can rarely be used as a common noun, to mean a wise person, in reference to the biblical Daniel.

This usage is mentioned in Wiktionary and Collins Dictionary, and perhaps its most famous usage is in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, used by Shylock and later mockingly by Gratiano:

A Daniel come to judgment! yea, a Daniel!
O wise young judge, how I do honour thee!

--Shylock, Act IV Scene I [while he thought Balthasar/Portia was on his side]

This might even be the first usage of "Daniel" as a common noun, another coinage of Shakespeare, since Google Ngrams shows no results for "a Daniel" or "the Daniel" before the 1590s when The Merchant of Venice was written.

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The more specific reference is to the story of Susanna (considered the thirteenth chapter of the Biblical Book of Daniel by some denominations, an intertestamental book of the King James Bible, and apocryphal by others). In it, a youth named Daniel, apparently not the same Daniel who interpreted the dreams of the King of Babylon, exposes the hypocritical elders who tried to coerce a woman into sleeping with them, falsely accused her of adultery when she refused, and tried to have her executed. This is an ironic parallel foreshadowing who the father of Hester’s child is.

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