Sunday, October 22, 2017

Dark Materials

Halloween 2003: Hester and Pearl hang out with
their pals Darth and Leia.

A prison door studded with iron spikes swings open, and a young woman with an infant is led onto a scaffold above a sea of stern faces belonging to her neighbors, who've gathered to witness her humiliation. One person in the crowd thinks the prisoner’s forehead should be branded. Another suggests she be executed.

So begins The Scarlet Letter, the 19th century novel of New England puritanism that high school students often fear more than peer pressure, cafeteria food and SAT scores.

Don't worry, teens—there is hope! Here are a few reasons why The Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece of dark entertainment:

The Bold and the Beautiful. At the heart of the book is Hester Prynne, who gets pregnant while her husband is away—a bold move considering she lives among a group of religious zealots, including “iron-visaged…old dames” and sober men “in sad-colored garments.”* Although the novel begins by describing her punishment on the scaffold, Hester is no quivering victim. Hawthorne describes her as being “tall, with a figure of perfect elegance, on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glassy it threw off the sunshine with a gleam….” In short, she’s a powerhouse; Wonder Woman in a long grey dress.

Portrait of an Artist. Hester, though, is more than strong and stunning: She’s also wildly creative. Sentenced to wear an A (for “adulteress”) on her breast, she pulls out all the stops, crafting her version of the letter “in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread.”

Rebel, Rebel. What’s supposed to be a symbol of shame within a strict society becomes, in Hester’s hands, a celebration of individuality. She has made the A “with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy” that it's “a splendor” and “greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.” Such unique needlework isn’t just a skill; it’s an expression of the deepest self—a forbidden act in this society. Even Hester’s cuckolded husband (Roger Chillingworth), who’s horrified when he shows up and sees his wife standing on the scaffold—with another man’s baby in her arms, no less—is “unable to restrain a thrill of admiration” for this gutsy gal.

Black and White and Red.  Of course any good story isn’t that simplistic, and standing apart from society is never a barrel of laughs. Hester’s individuality gives her the gumption to survive the pitiless scrutiny of her soul on the scaffold, but it also sentences her to a life of slow torture. In the community’s eyes, which are fixed to her breast every time she walks by, she’s no longer a human being, but a “general symbol at which the preacher and the moralist might point.” The scarlet letter is both torment and triumph for Hester.

The book's ending is similarly complex. Hester and her daughter manage to get away from this awful place and its iron rules. Then, for some reason, Hester voluntarily returns to her old cottage and resumes wearing her old gray garb with the symbol of her sin attached to it. Why in the world would she do that? Has she internalized the harsh lessons of her community and truly believes she deserves to be punished? Or is the scarlet letter her only living connection to her now-dead lover? Symbols mean different things to different people. What Hester—and we—read into the A appears to go beyond the original intent of the Puritans.

Funny Ha-Ha. For a book that’s about sin and punishment and suffering souls, The Scarlet Letter is surprisingly full of humor. The name of Chillingworth is one obvious example, considering the character’s heart is about as warm as the steel blade of a scalpel. Hawthorne, who finely shades so many of his sentences with a sly irony (like when he refers to the prison as the “black flower of civilized society”), is happy to make sure we get this particular joke.

The name of Hester’s unfortunate lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale, is a similar gag. Even if you didn’t know that the man has a pale face and trembling hands, you could tell by his name alone that Dimmesdale doesn’t have half the spark of his paramour.

In a sneakier way, it’s funny, too, that Dimmesdale is the pride and joy of the community. At the beginning of the book, he publicly tells Hester to name the father of her babe in hopes of saving the sinner (a.k.a. himself). What the townspeople don’t know is that he’s simply not up to confessing his own guilt. Later, he does tell his congregation he’s a sinner (without saying specifically what he’s done), but they just think he’s being modest and love him even more. The same stern-faced folk who’d like to chase the "evil" Hester out of town don’t guess that their angelic reverend is her partner in crime.

This joke is at the heart of the novel…and it’s a dig both at the hypocritical community that has condemned Hester Prynne and at anyone who’s ever had a sense of their own superiority…meaning, maybe, most of us.

On the outside, The Scarlet Letter may look like a musty bore, but inside is a sumptuous story with a labyrinth of relevant ideas for modern readers to explore.

*Quotes are from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1850 by Ticknor and Fields.

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