Monday, September 21, 2015
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE SCARLET LETTER” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (first published 1850)
Here, in its barest outline, is the plot of what is often regarded as America’s first symbolist novel:
In the Puritan colony of Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1640s, Hester Prynne is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” (for “Adulteress”) on her breast because, her husband having never arrived in the colony, she has borne a child out of wedlock and refuses to reveal the identity of the father. On the very day she is being humiliated publicly on the scaffold, her husband arrives in the colony incognito. Not wishing to be associated with her shame, he swears her to secrecy about his identity and their relationship, and he establishes himself as a doctor in the colony, under the name Roger Chillingworth.
The years go by.
Ostracised by society, Hester raises her wilful little daughter Pearl and gains a reputation for the goodness and charity she displays. Meanwhile Roger Chillingworth has guessed correctly that the father of her child is the conscientious and scholarly young clergyman Arthur Dimmesdale. Established as Dimmesdale’s physician, Chillingworth proceeds to torment the clergyman with subtle reminders of his sin. Dimmesdale is torn with remorse. When Dimmesdale meets Hester in the woods, their old flame revives and they determine to flee the colony and find happiness outside it. But their escape is blocked for, coincidentally, Chillingworth has booked passage on the very ship they intend to take.
Finally, on a day of public thanksgiving, Dimmesdale mounts the same scaffold where Hester was first humiliated, and declares his sin publicly before falling down dead. Many on the onlooking crowd swear they see the letter “A” cut into his flesh.
Hester’s goodness and charity continue to be a byword in the colony.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Now how does one react to this odd story?
Long ago on this blog, I commented on two novels by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), his well-known TheHouse of the Seven Gables and his lesser-read The Blithedale Romance. It is The Scarlet Letter, however, on which his fame as a novelist (as opposed to short-story writer) mainly rests. Amazing as it seems to us, this book was once set regularly as a text in American high schools, in much the same way that Eliot’s Silas Marner was set in English schools. It was seen as an improving and morally-uplifting story, with students encouraged to admire Hester’s forbearance and purity of heart.
In reading it, one first has to negotiate one of those early 19th century conventions of novel-writing. The first 50-odd pages (of the 290-page edition I own) are a long introduction by Hawthorne called “The Custom House”, quite a jolly and often satirical affair, in which the author pretends to have “found” the story he is about to relate among the papers of a deceased Surveyor of Customs in Salem, the better to attune us to its New England setting. Apparently, scholars say, Hawthorne’s first idea was to use papers “found” in the custom house as a pretext for a series of long short stories, but The Scarlet Letter grew until it was the sole story.
This preliminary over, one plunges in and quickly discovers that there is no way The Scarlet Letter can be judged by the standards of naturalistic fiction. Weighed against probability, the story rapidly disintegrates. Why should Chillingworth just happen to arrive at the very moment that Hester is being ritually humiliated? In seven years of dwelling together (Pearl is seven at the novel’s end) is Dimmesdale so dim that he never picks up a hint of Chillingworth’s relationship with Hester? And to be particularly crass, given the nature of Hester and Dimmesdale as they are described, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in their original (and later rekindled) sexual passion.
So we rapidly have to abandon verisimilitude and look at The Scarlet Letter as a completely different order of literature – as a symbolic novel. Or rather, as an allegory, for everything in the novel is a symbol. The scarlet letter itself. The young Pearl, like the scarlet letter personified, asking all the right [artless] questions at the right time to torture Hester’s conscience. Dimmesdale constantly holding his hand over his tortured heart. The dark hints of witchcraft [sexual passion?] lurking in the dark woods, with Governor Bellingham’s sister, the witch Mistress Hibbins, repeatedly accusing Dimmesdale of wishing to commune with the Black Man; the old and deformed nature of Chillingworth.
In this spirit, the novel does not proceed forward with a “plot” as such, but is like a series of symbolic tableaux – a tableau of maternal care as Hester petitions Governor Bellingham to keep her child; a tableau of unresolved remorse when Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold at midnight, when nobody is there to hear him, and cries out his sin to the air – and a comet shaped like unto the letter “A” flashes in the sky; a tableau of amoral innocence as Pearl weaves, Eden-like, a letter “A” out of green rushes.
Hawthorne here (as in The House of the Seven Gables) seems to have “coloured in” a general conception he had, describing rather than dramatizing. I would also agree with Henry James’ comment that Hawthorne did not so much create characters as personified ideas.
And moving away from comments on style and literary conception, we are left with the biggest question – what does it all mean?
In one sense, I see it as a purely fantastic story (like Balzac’s Wild Ass’s Skin; like Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray), in which Hester’s scarlet letter is the outward and physical manifestation of a hidden sin. The letter often takes on a life of its own (sometimes described as glowing, smouldering, smoking etc.).
But Hawthorne, the Puritan, keeps “justifying” his symbols as psychosomatic delusion and has a heavy moral seriousness. Throughout reading this novel, I had in my mind Shakespeare’s phrase (from Twelfth Night) about “concealment like the worm in the bud”. There is something gnawing away at people secretly, hidden from public gaze. In the novel itself, Hester tells little Pearl “We must not always talk in the market place of what happens to us in the forest”. (Chapter 22). This could be the novel’s epigraph. It seems to me that it isn’t so much his sexual sin which tortures Dimmesdale, as his hypocrisy. His integrity and sense of self dissolve in his awareness that he has himself transgressed the very code, for the upkeep of which he is admired.
The easiest option for the modern reader is to see The Scarlet Letter as an attack on the repressive Puritan approach to sexuality; but I do not think this is Hawthorne’s intention. Hawthorne is fully aware of the connection between religion and sex – Hester’s “purity” is part of her attractiveness and Hawthorne at once tells us how the young women of the colony particularly adore the righteous Arthur Dimmesdale. Never emphasised, a degree of sexual frustration could be inferred in Hester from the age gap separating her from her old (and deformed) husband Chillingworth. But even if Hawthorne satirises the censorious dames who scorn Hester, he still observes the proprieties. Reproof of adultery is seen as a proper thing by Hawthorne, but the manner of the reproof is something else.
On my second reading of The Scarlet Letter, I concluded that Hawthorne is in fact compromised in his viewpoint – he has a general idea of sin and its expiation in charity, he has a general sense of the oppressiveness of guilt and conscience; but he is never sure if he is on the sinner’s side. For, by just the most minor adjustment of the tale, this could become a fable of Edenic naturalness oppressed by an unnatural society.
This is the feeble best I can do in interpreting a novel, which shares the values of the Puritans while at the same time acknowledging the crushing legalism of their society and their failure to forgive.
There are a few minor things that strike me about this still-puzzling novel. One is the way in which Hawthorne goes into hyperbolic ecstasies over Hester’s beauty, purity and goodness, but then (as a Protestant) is abashed by such feelings and so has to more-or-less ascribe them to somebody else. In Chapter 2, as Hester stands before her accusers, Hawthorne says “her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was developed.” He is saying, in affect, that she is like a saint. But then he draws back a couple of pages later and declares “had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans” he would have seen Hester cradling her baby as being like the Blessed Virgin Mary. So you see, superstitious Catholics have these exaggerated feelings…. but not us Protestants… even if it is a Protestant who writes the hyperbolic formula in the first place. Later, in Chapter 11, it is clear that Dimmesdale, in his solitary and undeclared remorse, wishes he had somebody to confess to, as those Papists have. Hawthorne severely remarks that the clergyman’s solitary penance involved “practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome.” There is also the odd declaration (in Chapter 13) that in moving Hester to acts of charity “the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom.” Oh how those Puritans ache for the colour, ritual and order that their text-based religion denies them!
I am not surprised that the nineteenth century French artist Hugues Merle depicted Hester Prynne and her baby virtually as a version of the Madonna and Child.
The other incidental matter that strikes me is Hawthorne’s frank realization that repression breeds its opposite – rebellion. Of Hester he remarks “It is remarkable that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society.” (Chapter 13). Later he says of her “the tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame! Despair! Solitude! These had been her teachers – stern and wild ones – and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss” (Chapter 18). Meaning, one assumes, that she now thinks much that gainsays Puritan mores. More remarkably, there is in Chapter 20 a wonderfully vivid description of Dimmesdale, having talked with Hester of their sin, wanting to shout out uncontrollable blasphemies and obscenities at the community.
The bursting-pressure-cooker effect of moral repression is as acute in The Scarlet Letter as the Puritan’s underlying suspicion that there is something badly wrong with Puritanism and that it may not necessarily be the most desirable form of Christianity.
Cinematic footnote: Being the symbolic work it is, moving from tableau to tableau, one would assume that The Scarlet Letter would be fiendishly difficult to dramatise. Surprisingly, though, it has been adapted frequently as operas, musicals and films. A check with Wikipedia tells me that it was filmed numerous times in the silent era and has a number of times become film and television dramas since then. Let’s not forget that it was, in effect, a bestseller in Hawthorne’s own day, and has been a standard students’ set text since then. Even people who hate Puritanism see it as necessary to have some literary work depicting the early colonial era of America’s past.
I haven’t seen any of the American television adaptations that have been made – viewing guides suggest they are plodding, worthy and literal-minded. Nor have I seen the 1973 German language version of the story directed by Wim Wenders which, coming from that director, would have at least an even chance of being interesting.
Three mainstream American film versions I can, however, comment on.
The best-known of the silent versions was made in 1926 and starred Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne. As I remarked before on this blog (see the footnote to the post on George Eliot’s Romola), Lillian Gish was the silent cinema’s reigning ethereal virgin. Apparently this film survives now only in archives. But as with Gish’s silent version of Romola, one has to assume that it presents its heroine as high-minded, saintly, pure and not in the least associated with sex. Stills suggest this interpretation (and lead to impish speculation on how such a woman could have got pregnant in the first place).
Oddly enough, and thanks to Youtube, I have seen Hollywood’s first talkie feature film of the novel (a mere 70 minutes long), made in 1934. It is extremely primitive in technique, though it has a couple of powerful sequences – especially two in which Dimmesdale has to publicly defend Hester without revealing his connection to her. Allowing for a then-acceptable melodramatic style of acting, Colleen Moore, a silent star who just made it into the talkies, does quite a good turn as Hester. She suggests, legitimately enough, that Hester’s refusal to name the father of her child is not just a matter of defending Dimmesdale, but is also a matter of pride. She wants to be her own woman, and looking after her child on her own defines her status as such. Unfortunately, this film version is rendered unwatchable by the extremely foolish decision of its producers to supplement its reasonably accurate rendition of the main story with completely incongruous and buffoonish low-comedy slapstick, as “comic relief”. As an adaptation of Hawthorne, it quickly loses credibility.
Speaking of a lack of credibility, we come to the disaster that was the 1995 film called The Scarlet Letter, but having only a passing resemblance to Hawthorne’s story. I saw this one, as a film-reviewer, at an advance preview screening with other reviewers. I remember that the screening room rocked with our mocking laughter at how bad the film was. (It is consoling to know that it bombed at the box-office and lost its backers millions.) Apparently made as a vanity project for its star, Demi Moore, the film wound a few elements of Hawthorne’s novel into a tale of the settlers’ wars with neighbouring Indians and provided a happy ending in which Hester (Demi Moore) and Dimmesdale (played, in another waste of his talent, by Gary Oldman) ride off into the sunset. It also featured a sequence of Hester Prynne wanking in sweaty close-up. So, folks, the whole meaning of the story is that all Hester needs is a damned good bonk. Saves you pondering on such matters as sin, remorse, guilt and redemption, which that tiresome Hawthorne fellow banged on about for some reason.
Speaking of the all-they-need-is-sex approaches to The Scarlet Letter, I’m aware that the novel has inspired rude dramatic ripostes such as a musical called Fucking A (Hester is an abortionist) and I have seen the smart-arse 2010 film called Easy A, a high-school rom-com in which the modern equivalent of Hester is a girl telling the world that whether she bonks around or not is nobody else’s business.
Ho hum. I won’t say that Hawthorne is rolling in his grave. I think he must have been worn away years ago from doing that.