Friday, September 5, 2014

The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne

“It is a little remarkable, that — though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends — an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public. The first time was three or four years since, when I favored the reader — inexcusably, and for no earthly reason, that either the indulgent reader or the intrusive author could imagine — with a description of my way of life in the deep quietude of an Old Manse. And now — because, beyond my deserts, I was happy enough to find a listener or two on the former occasion — I again seize the public by the button, and talk of my three years’ experience in a Custom-House. The example of the famous “P. P., Clerk of this Parish,” was never more faithfully followed. The truth seems to be, however, that, when he casts his leaves forth upon the wind, the author addresses, not the many who will fling aside his volume, or never take it up, but the few who will understand him, better than most of his schoolmates and lifemates. Some authors, indeed, do far more than this, and indulge themselves in such confidential depths of revelation as could fittingly be addressed, only and exclusively, to the one heart and mind of perfect sympathy; as if the printed book, thrown at large on the wide world, were certain to find out the divided segment of the writer’s own nature, and complete his circle of existence by bringing him into communion with it. It is scarcely decorous, however, to speak all, even where we speak impersonally. But — as thoughts are frozen and utterance benumbed, unless the speaker stand in some true relation with his audience — it may be pardonable to imagine that a friend, a kind and apprehensive, though not the closest friend, is listening to our talk; and then, a native reserve being thawed by this genial consciousness, we may prate of the circumstances that lie around us, and even of ourself, but still keep the inmost Me behind its veil. To this extent and within these limits, an author, methinks, may be autobiographical, without violating either the reader’s rights or his own.”

Thus, in guilty circumlocutions, and over-punctuated sub-clauses – though guilty, perhaps, is not the precise word: self-effacing, or, indeed, self-conscious, might be more accurate – did Nathaniel Hawthorne open his "Scarlet Letter", published on March 16th 1850, laying out the apologia for the confessional novel - an apologia which ought to be the mandatory pre-reading of every would-be novelist about to undertake the therapeutic act of transmogrifying lived experience into literature.

The Scarlet Letter was first banned in 1852, just two years after its much acclaimed publication, and continued to be banned in some parts of America until as late as 1977 (the parents in a particular school district petitioned for its removal from the curriculum on the grounds that it was "pornographic and obscene"), even while other school districts had now marked the book as part of the "required reading" list - as I have observed elsewhere, forcing children to read books and prohibiting them from doing so is actually the same thing: bullying, bigotry and brain-washing.

But the banning of The Scarlet Letter may not totally conform (I choose my phrases very deliberately) to the normal conventions of prohibition - especially because this is a novel in which the nearest thing to a description of physical intimacy is the kiss that Pearl places on the dying Dimmesdale's forehead, after she has learned that he was her father.

The narrative of the tale is set in the town of Salem (the tale itself is set in Boston), beginning in June 1642, in a Puritan community... fifty years before the witchcraft trials, but no American reading the book today is likely to miss the connection; the Salem crucible was first heated in January 1692 and went on simmering until May 1693, so that Hawthorne's tale manages to confront the issues even without knowing that the seeds were already in the sowing.

The "pornography" and "obscenity" rest with the fact that Hester Prynne and her priest-lover 
Dimmesdale conceive a child, Pearl, both "out of wedlock" and, in her case, adulterously. Both of these being the Devil's work, she is branded a "harlot" by her community - his involvement is unknown and he carries on as town-priest in most hypocritical and un-Christian silence - briefly imprisoned (when she comes out, she is wearing a "fantastically embroidered and illuminated" scarlet letter A for "adultery"), and after her release, like every "sex offender" in today's world, officially ostracised by society - though any hypocrite in need of a cheap seamstress would prove entirely happy to make up valid excuses for preferring her over another more expensively moral. 

Hester lives what is actually an exemplary "moral", an exemplary "Christian" life, bringing up her daughter with love and concern for her spiritual and educational well-being, keeping a clean and sufficiently-accommodated home; and this is really the "problem" with the novel, Hawthorne's unstated central theme in writing it - that those who have condemned her in the name of Christian morality do not exemplify it in their own lives (those who banned his book ditto), as particularly evidenced by their treatment of - yes, Hester; but even more, of Pearl, the one true innocent in this morass of normal human contradictions. The community tries to take the child away from Hester, because she is "unfit" to bring her up...

   this is now the point at which teaching the novel to an AP class (AP is to America what A Levels are in the United Kingdom) becomes interesting...

... the community tries to take the child away from her. Why? Because Pearl is too much of a free spirit. "Raised in a liminal space" - I am quoting now, from one on the standard study guides used in American schools - "both literally and figuratively, she is the child of a scarlet woman who grows up on the edges of the wilderness—or what remained of it in Salem at the time. She is too exuberant, strange, and alive, and these are the qualities that scare people..."

The bottom line is that the Puritans of then, like the Puritans of now, wanted the book banned because it was a multi-sided attack on Puritanism, on its hypocrisy, on the brutality of its conventions, on the narrow-minded bigotry of its so-called values - so ostracising Hester, so trying to take Pearl away, become the models for the banning of the book, and ditto the reasons why none of these should be. Born and brought up in that world himself, Hawthorne had come to hate it, and this book provided him with the means and opportunity to vent that hatred, fully, publicly and unequivocally.

It makes sense to study the novel alongside Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible", not only because the Miller endorses and expands the Hawthorne, not only because (in Chapter 8) Hawthorne does indeed touch on the theme of witchcraft that was evidently already present in the community, not only because the "demonising" of Chillingworth in Hawthorne mirrors the "demonising" of John Proctor in Miller, not only because the role of Hawthorne's Mistress Hibbins mirrors that of Miller's Tituba, but especially because both together - Miller's play after all was primarily an allegory of the McCarthy Trials, the latter-day ostracising of those deemed socially unfit and unacceptable by the Puritanical rulers of an unliberal socety - provide a universal statement about ideology that every student needs to confront before they follow Candide into the realities of the adult world.

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