Friday, June 29, 2012

Scarlet Letter - Inquiries

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
A Sprinkle of Inquiries

When I was in fifth grade, I read The Scarlet Letter.  (I was in Catholic school; it was required reading.)  It was standard to keep a journal while reading.  How I wish I knew what I wrote because I am curious to understand what possessed me to love The Scarlet Letter.  That is not the case now.   Before I started this project, I was anxious to get to this title; yet, early on, it was obvious that I just did not enjoy reading it.  I am rather glad to be done.  It rates down there with Gulliver’s Travels.

Not one character I sympathized with or appreciated.  If there is a character that flickers, it is Hester: she was good for her selfless sacrifice to others and her courage to publically carry her shame; but she did not greatly impress me as a mother or a woman.  She was too soft with Pearl, and she should have never had anything to do with Dimmesdale after he proved his cowardliness.  I would have left him to his own devices!

            I am not looking forward to the inquiries; therefore, I am going to evaluate them differently.   Here are just a few general questions:

Can you identify the climax?  If there is a climax, it is when Hester meets with Dimmesdale and tells him about Chillingworth being her former husband, the very man whom he’s been living with; once he forgives Hester for withholding such info for so long, they plot to flee Boston together with Pearl, causing some degree of joy and happiness in both of them, at least for a short time.  Hester even dares remove her burden from her chest, that is, until her devil-child orders her to retrieve it and put it on.

What is the author's argument?  People will do whatever it takes to protect those whom they agree with, to maintain a spotless image, or worship an ideal or office, and if they are exposed in debauchery or dishonest favor, there are those who will protect them and guard them.  This was the case for Chillingworth who did not want to see the office of minister made a mockery with the exposure of Dimmesdale’s shame and guilt.  Even the minister’s parishioners raised him up equal to a perfect, man of God.
Another argument is the hypocrisy and inequality of the Puritan order, which I think personally bothered Hawthorne.  Hester suspected several times the unrighteousness or guiltlessness of the people who judged her: how many of them had uncovered sins? Compare the punishment for her sin of adultery and the protected liberty of Mistress Hibbins, a suspected practitioner of witchcraft.
            I do not know if I can completely believe this argument to be true.  I read the story about Anne Hutchinson and the witches’ trials, which I think really got out of hand; but I do not think that that story should become the only story to remind us of our Puritan roots.  A lot of good comes from their society.  They did believe wholeheartedly in man’s sin nature.  I suspect The Scarlet Letter to be an exaggerated version of Puritan society.
Also, another argument could be that man may be able to escape judgment from the world, but he cannot escape God’s; as was the case for Dimmesdale who was able to hide his sin from his people for seven years, but he could never conceal it from God.

Why did the author write this book?  Again, I think Hawthorne personally wanted to bring to light the hypocrisy of the Puritan order or maybe society in general.  Puritan laws shunned ornate worldliness, and, yet, the governor’s hall appeared as a nobleman’s mansion; the Election Day procession was full of pageantry; and some of the townspeople dressed lavishly, such as Mistress Hibbins.
            And, also, Hawthorne wanted his readers to understand that we all are of a sinful nature, even religious men.  Before we condemn others, shouldn’t we first examine ourselves?  We should be forthright about our own transgressions before we stand in judgment of others.
What does the writer want me to do or believe? If I have to take anything positive from this work, I like this passage:
 Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister’s miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence: - “Be true!  Be true!  Be true!  Show freely to the world, if not our worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” 
How right it is to be honest about who we are: we must be like Hester - to stand with our own iniquity in courage and truth, not to cower behind our sins, hiding them, protecting them, or making excuses for them.  We must be truthful about our weaknesses and faults and not rely on others to shelter us.  We shall surely suffer anyway because no sin can hide from God; ultimately, in time, He will make it known.

There is so much more to inquire into this work of literature, but I am not interested in digging for it.  I’m ready to put this one back on the shelf.


Christine said...

Now that you've started MD, have you read anywhere about how Melville latched on to Hawthorne as a mentor/friend? I found that interesting. The two books are so different.

PS--Gulliver is also one of my least favorite WEM titles.

Ruth said...

The first thing I noticed is the dedication page: In token of my admiration for his genius, this book is inscribed to Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I think I read TSL with a bad attitude. Maybe I had too high expectations since I had loved it as a young girl.

And here it is, I anticipated NOT liking MD, and yet, I am enjoying it as I did Don Quixote.

Anonymous said...

I think your summation is spot on. I really expected to like this one more than I did... it became a chore to finish. -Sarah

Joseph said...

It is intriguing how differently books affect us at different stages in our life. I wonder how I would have liked SL now, had I read it in H.S. I can't imagine I would have much liked or appreciated it in H.S. but who knows. At any rate, I think you capture one of the finest moments...Be true, be true.... Indeed, the passage I used to begin my review. Astute review as always Ruth.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Joseph!

I do love how books do that to us, even how the same book can cause us to feel or think differently at different seasons of our lives.