I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

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Comments
  1. cathcarter says:

    A long while back, you narrated the plot of The Celestial Railroad to me, and remarked that for Hawthorne, the fact that this is a fallen world means we have to forgive each other, and ourselves. I’d never thought of Hawthorne (or the world) just that way, and it’s still something I repeat to myself on occasion, mostly when I’m trying (without notable success) to forgive myself. It kind of helps. So, you know, thanks. 🙂

    • theoccasionalman says:

      When teaching The Scarlet Letter, I like to pair it with “Young Goodman Brown,” as it captures those themes even more strongly. And when I have a hard time forgiving myself, I change my language — can I still love myself? I go stare in the mirror for a while and decide that I can. After all the help you’ve given me (including calling me out on my shit when I’m full of it), I’m glad you get some benefit from our friendship as well. 🙂

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