Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief.  Tomorrow would bring its own trial with it, as would the next day, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably grievous to be be borne.  The days of the far-off future would toil onward; still with the same burden for her to take up and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days and added years would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame.  Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of a woman's frailty and sinful passion.  Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast--at her, the child of honorable parents, at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, at her, who had once been innocent--as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.

A student that I deeply respect told me at the end of the year that she hadn't enjoyed reading The Scarlet Letter.  That's sadly typical, I think--even students who like reading don't often like to read Hawthorne, who is an accomplished stylist but also a ponderous and stuffy one.  I told her that I had felt the same way about it when I read it in high school, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I learned to appreciate it, when I realized just how profoundly weird it is.  The lurking Satan-allied witch Mrs. Hibbins, the comet shaped like an "A" in the sky, the destructive, yet difficult to describe force that Chillingworth exerts on Dimmesdale--it's all bizarre.  Of course, we live in a world where Hester Prynne's "A" has become the dominant image of social ostracism, but for those who can approach The Scarlet Letter fresh, it's am immensely rewarding book.  (And much better than The Marble Faun.)

Moreover: Is there any book by a male writer in the history of American literature with a female protagonist as strong as Hester Prynne?  The letter on Hester's breast is meant to reduce her to a symbol, a warning sign--to make her a literary trope instead of a person.  Reading it now, I was struck by how that ostracism, by alienating Hester from her society, makes her a better person:

For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticizing all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church.  The tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free.  The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.

Hawthorne is pretty down on Puritan society, and in part Hester's strength is a result of her alienation from it.  But comparing her with the Reverend Dimmesdale, her partner in crime, reveals just how strong she already is.  As he yearns to unite his public face with his private one, and undergo the kind of atonement that keeping his adultery secret has denied him, he withers into a sickly mess.  Many critics have noticed the flipping of gender roles here, and I think that's an important contrast even to today.  How many films and television shows have you seen just this year in which a principal female character, no matter how strong she otherwise may be, requires saving by another male figure?  Here, Dimmesdale clings to Hester when he can, so much that the rescue plot--their escape back to the Europe--is her plan, and it only fails because of his own weakness.

Ultimately, the symbol of the "A"--and the symbol of Hester--refuses to remain unchanged.  Her life of solitude and hard work causes some to interpret it as "able," and critics have subsumed many other "a" words into it as well.  (My favorite is "America.")  Hester herself is something of a Moby Dick--the symbol that keeps slipping in meaning.  But Moby Dick can do it because he is inscrutable, unconquerable; Hester can do it because she exerts ownership over herself in a way that Dimmesdale never could.  She refuses to be inscribed upon, to be turned into text, and in this way The Scarlet Letter is a powerful assertion of individualism against the community.

Here's Brent's review from earlier this year.

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