Inspired by the revelatory sensation of discovering Gatsby again, I went back to another high school American Lit. classic in the hopes that it would resonate with me as an adult in a way that it did not as a teenager: no such luck. Whereas with Gatsby I had remembered only a fuzzy sense of a plot and most colorful characters, I remembered practically everything in Scarlet Letter: the story, all the characters, even many of the chapter titles, and it didn’t ring any new bells for me, except, perhaps, for a more mature (if grudging) empathy with the burden of a bad conscience and trials of parenting.
I think one of the challenges of Scarlet Letter is that I am here in the 21st century, reading Hawthorne’s work from the 19th, about events that are supposed to have taken place in the 17th, and sexual mores have changed so much between each time period. I have trouble relating to Hawthorne’s sense of justice that the lovers must endlessly suffer in life, and I find Hawthorne’s depiction of his characters, particularly Hester’s positive conviction that God has forgiven her, anachronistic to the Puritan society she inhabits. Simply leaving the New England community that has ostracized her seems like a sensible thing to do, both in the beginning when Hester first contemplates it, and then at the end, when Hester and Arthur make plans to go away, and although Hawthorne gives multiple explanations as to why not in the first case and invents a plot-point in the second, it feels like the author forcing them to stay put for the sake of his story, rather than something integral that comes out of the characters. There is one thread at the end of Hawthorne’s long justification for Hester’s inaction – the suggestion that perhaps she wants to stay close to where her lover is, even though there will be nothing more between them – and I think he might have developed this into something more: a tragic sense of being tied to things we know are not good for us? But it’s only a whiff, and one of the most surprising things to me about Scarlet Letter is how cold the protagonists are (interiorly, to each other), even though Hawthorne drops phrases like “passionate nature”. I suppose this is to make each of them more admirable, but self-control can only be appreciated by an outside observer when it shows signs of cracking. Perhaps Hester and Dimsdale worked for a 19th century reader. I find Hester proud, Dimsdale weak, and both of them masochistic and self-indulgent in their determination to dwell on and shape their lives around one past event, even if it was A Big Sin. But there I am in the 21st century: move on. Think about other people. Get over yourselves.
Not that Hawthorne will let them, since almost all of the events of the book are centered around the appearance of the letter A. I am not a big fan of motifs, “leit” or heavy, in literature, and this is one of the heaviest… In general, I find the use of recurring images or phrases somewhat lazy: instead of finding multiple ways to circle around the same thought or theme, the author merely plugs in the symbolic element with little variation. What I can appreciate is that Hawthorne is trying to set up a world in which whatever these characters do, they are haunted by their conscience. Even if they wanted to forget, the people around them, even Nature, or Chance, conspire to make this impossible, but it is painfully unsubtle, and at the cost of maintaining genuine interest in the story. The reader is rarely, if ever, driven to ask, “What happens next?” because we are already assured it will be yet another plot-isolated vignette in which little Pearl annoyingly makes or points out the letter A. On the other hand, a really good novel, I think, would have had a strong character-driven plot containing elements of suspense or mystery (who is Roger Chillingsworth? What is he up to?) and the adultery theme could have appeared throughout as a sort of secondary plot-line or recurring image.
Hawthorne makes a strong (and welcome) case for the role of the “wounded-healer” in Dimsdale and later in Hester, who both seem able to reach people at a deeper level because of their own consciousness of sinfulness. I don’t know how to take the ending suggestion, then, that a future prophetess, without sin, should herald in a new age:
“Women, more especially,—in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced, or erring and sinful passion,—or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because unvalued and unsought,—came to Hester’s cottage, demanding why they were so wretched, and what the remedy! Hester comforted and counselled them, as best she might. She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness. Earlier in life, Hester had vainly imagined that she herself might be the destined prophetess, but had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow. The angel and apostle of the coming revelation must be a woman, indeed, but lofty, pure, and beautiful; and wise; moreover, not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy; and showing how sacred love should make us happy, by the truest test of a life successful to such an end!” – Ch. 24
No doubt someone else has a better understand of this than I do; it leaves me mystified, and seems to undercut the sober reality of the book in which no one leads a wholly blameless life and those most conscious of the fact are best able to minister to their neighbors.
I did find “The Custom House” prologue interesting (and mildly amusing) this time around. I thought what he had to say about being a writer with a job was interesting: it’s good for a writer to have a job because it exposes you to other people and habits; on the other hand, it’s bad because your brain atrophies. When he goes on to say he only works 3 ½ hours at the custom house, my sympathy wanes severely. There is also a Paul Ryan-esque rant about government jobs making people soft, which reminded me of reading Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” recently and being struck by how “Tea Party” they both sound. The same grievances and arguments (why should a community feel itself obligated to help individuals who should, in theory, be able to help themselves) have been around for a long time in American history.
I sighed and closed the book on Scarlet Letter wistfully thinking instead of a quote from a novel I would rather have been reading, E.M. Forester’s A Room with a View:
"Leave them alone," Mr. Emerson begged the chaplain, of whom he stood in no awe. "Do we find happiness so often that we should turn it off the box when it happens to sit there?” – Ch. 6