Thursday, July 19, 2012

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

When I mentioned reading The Scarlet Letter to a friend, she immediately responded with, "Ugh, I do not feel bad for Hester at all." I was a little taken aback. Is that a common reaction? That Hester's "sin" of having sex with a man she loves is so bad that we feel her and her daughter entirely deserving of being shunned and reviled by her community for years? I found nothing to judge in Hester and her actions. She accepts the town's judgment of her and devotes her life to her daughter, Pearl, and doing good in the community. So what if she doesn't really repent of her crime? Maybe there was nothing to repent of, you Puritans!

Now, if you're looking for an unsympathetic character, I'd go with Hester's partner in "crime," the Rev. Dimmesdale. I don't fault him for sleeping with Hester, and perhaps not even for keeping it a secret, but I do find fault in his grandiose sense of self-worth. He berates himself for years over his crime, moaning to his congregation that his faults are the blackest of those there. And, you know, maybe his sin just wasn't all that bad? Maybe God just doesn't care that much about it. At the same time, he drinks in the adoration of his congregation. It seems Hawthorne is trying to portray him as worse off than Hester for living a lie--suggesting that the congregation's praise only makes his sin feel worse--but I think he rather likes being an adored sinner. Dimmesdale does come to peace and some redemption at the end by confessing his actions in front of the town. But then he also conveniently dies, relieving him from having to face the consequences, which I think are far, far harder to live through than the confession itself. Hester deals with that for her whole life.

The secondary characters are somewhat odd. First, there's Pearl herself, who is constantly referred to as an elf, or devil, or sprite because she's not a quiet, static, obedient little girl. She's also frequently associated with the Scarlet Letter itself, an ostentatious badge of shame upon Hester. Yet Pearl doesn't seem to have a real personality. Hawthorne avoids the suggestion that any oddness, perhaps, arises from being raised, from birth, ostracized from the community. And I certainly don't buy this "Dimmesdale dies and his kiss changes her" crap. What is this, Hawthorne, Beauty and the Beast?

Then there's Mr. Chillingworth (what a fabulous name), Hester's husband who devotes his life to seeking revenge upon Dimmesdale. But why? I can understand a man might be angry his wife slept with another man, but we're not given any special motivation for Chillingworth. He's an empty, evil vessel and seems completely unnecessary for the story.

But, Hawthorne isn't interested in these characters as much as I am. He's much more focused on the nature of guilt, sin, and revenge and the way in which these negative traits consume an individual (e.g. Chillingworth literally starts looking evil once he begins his campaign against Dimmesdale). I find guilt and sin largely dull, as were some sections of the novel. Nonetheless, I mostly appreciated the text, and I'm sure I enjoyed it significantly more than I must have in high school.

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