Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Repentance; or Literature with a capital A

I guess you could say I'm trying to repent. Part of repentance is making restitution, so I'm going back and actually reading some of the books I was supposed to read in high school but didn't (Cliff's Notes and I were pretty good friends). Mind you, there are some I never intend to read, but others – like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter – actually seem interesting to me now.

First of all, the book starts off with what I believe is commonly called "The Custom House Essay," which I take is mostly autobiographical on Hawthorne's part. The candid comments about writing and his ancestors (his great grandfather was involved in the Salem witch trials) are interesting and he makes a point of explaining the ties which bind him to Boston and Salem, even though he makes it sound like a tired connection he would break if he had more ambition. And while there were many interesting quotes and I made a lot of highlights, it was overly long and tedious. He loosely explains finding the scarlet letter, although I wonder if this was just a method common to the times of introducing a story to lend it an air of authenticity? (Gaston Leroux does the same thing in The Phantom of the Opera.) At any rate, in the end it was boring and if someone could tell me its purpose I'd be grateful.

The actual story starts with Hester Prynne being led from the town jail with her infant to the scaffold where she endures the public shame of her sin. Rather than being hanged she is to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Her husband had sent her ahead of him to Boston but when he failed to join her it was assumed he was dead. On this day of her shame, however, he appears in the crowd but keeps his identity secret, and when he later has a chance to speak to her (he poses as a physician) he apologizes that he and she were a poor match (he's an old man and she's very young) and asks her not to expose him. He moves into town under the name Roger Chillingsworth.

The father of the child, however, isn't immediately revealed. I think it's well-known that the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, is the father but the book only hints at it and doesn't get very specific until much later. I was afraid it was going to attempt a big surprise at the end, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but fortunately it takes a different route. Dimmesdale hides his sin but is continually tormented by it. While it gives him an insight into the struggles of his parishioners, his guilt becomes increasingly burdensome. The townspeople mistake his guilty sorrow for humble 'Godly' sorrow, however, and his fame among the people rises, which adds to his torment. His 'celebrity' is in stark contrast to Hester's exile. She and her daughter, Pearl, take up residence in a sad little cottage outside of town and she not only endures the rejection and disapproval of the town but the taunts of the children. Her talent as a seamstress is her only means of support.

Although Hawthorne is critical of the soberness and intolerance of the Puritans, I thought his psychological portrayal of the effect of sin was most interesting. He creates a very sympathetic character in Hester and it's easy to empathize with the pain she feels. She knows she has sinned and deeply regrets her impulsiveness, but resigns herself to silently endure the ostracism in hopes of cleansing her soul. Dimmesdale, in contrast, suffers for his lie in not confessing his part in the affair and feels trapped by the adoration heaped on him by his flock. His health suffers and Chillingsworth – Hester's real husband – moves in with him as a physician to help. But when Chillingsworth discovers the secret, he exacts a silent revenge and becomes a minister of evil, even become warped and misshapen as if the foulness of his heart becomes manifest in the outward appearance.

To me the best part of the story is always Pearl. She is the scarlet letter in the flesh for Hester, but in spite of her mutual exile with her mother and lack of playmates her own age – or perhaps because of it – she grows into a lively and outspoken little girl. While Hester dresses herself in plain clothes (the exception being the ornate letter A), Pearl wears beautiful dresses fashioned by her mother's talent as a seamstress. Her liveliness is described in the book as devilish or impish and usually attributed to her sinful origin, but just as often likened to elves, fairies, and sprites. But to me she just seems a beautiful and charming – if exceptionally energetic – little girl, and the brightest spot in Hester's otherwise dreary life.

In truth I have to confess that I rather liked The Scarlet Letter. And while I wonder if I would have liked it as much when I was assigned to read it at 16 if I'd have given it a chance, in all honesty I doubt that I would have appreciated the powerful writing or the deep moral questions it displays. I don't think I could have felt the same compassion for Hester or Mr. Dimmesdale, as I think teenagers see the world more in terms of black and white (hmm, maybe more on that another time - I'll have to think about it). I might have found the Puritanical perspective unduly harsh, but I just don't think I could really appreciate the book with the limited perspective I had at that age. I'm not sure that's a bad thing, though.

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