Friday, September 18, 2009

"A" is for "AHA!": The Scarlet Letter as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Biggest Inside Joke

The Scarlet Letter (Modern Library Classics) The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We all read it in eleventh grade. The language was dense, but we ached for Hester, hated Chillingworth and rooted for Dimmesdale. It all felt so dramatic and deep and dark, like moss on an old oak tree covering up secret messages carved long ago by two star-crossed lovers.

And then you read it as an adult.

Umm...sorry Ms. Vehar, but how did you fail to mention that this books is hilarious? I could practically hear Nathaniel Hawthorne's eyelashes swishing as he winked sarcastically from from behind every page. The faux Puritan prose is just that: faux. While Hawthorne makes grandiose statements about the severity and coldness of those old Puritan days, he is practically bruising the reader with elbow jabs to the ribs saying, "Nudge, nudge, get it? WE ARE JUST AS JUDGMENTAL AND SEVERE TODAY! HA!!"

Despite the mild bruising, I couldn't help but adorn the margins with smiley faces every time I felt my buddy Nathaniel winking at me. But for all the smiley faces, it was a surprise to realize how distant the narrator really stays from the characters. While adaptations of the story focus on the passion of the silenced lovers and imagine a rich thought life for Hester, the book rarely visits the interior worlds of the characters beyond what is symbolically represented by their, well, symbols- her daughter Pearl, the rose bushes, the gallows, meteors, the eponymous scarlet letter, etc. The narrator spends far more time alluding to foreboding symbolic omens of psychological disruption, than inviting the reader to feel what the characters feel, or even know what they are feeling. This book is anything but romantic.

Further, Dimmesdale is in no way a hero to root for. From my reading, Hawthone thinks him the worst kind of cowardly narcissist there is. For all of Dimmesdale's self-imposed chastisement and loathing, he goes about his life feeling rather proud of his status as secret horrible sinner, whereas Hester bears the public shame and maintains her integrity. Dimmesdale's death (oops, spoiler) is his final pathetic act of grandiosity- he begs for Hester to give him her strength, but still chooses the easy way out as a martyr for his own sinfulness. He avoids the real risk, following Hester into a life beyond Salem's black & white punitive moral justice. He disintegrates into the non-person he is, rather than choosing to live honestly as an imperfect man.

I enjoyed my revisit to The Scarlet Letter, especially considering it had been twelve years since I'd read it. It's a short read, and if you can read it as satire, not morose allegory, it really shines with brilliant psychological insights. And no matter how unlikable I found her to be, Hester really is an amazing female character. Hawthorne supposedly based her largely on Margaret Fuller, a woman whom nearly all those transcendentalist fellows were head over heals for. She marched to her own drum, choosing lovers often over marriage, and career over domestic security. It must have been pretty shocking in 1850 to read about the choices Hester Prynne makes, and I bet a lot of Hawthorne's ironical winks and nudges would not have been as humorous if you were the party being implicated. But for 2009, it's an enlightening and entertaining read.

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1 comment:

ROBERTA said...

i've decided that what makes a book reviewer enter the holy category of "Bloody Brilliant" is the ability to make a person want to re-read a book they detested in high school - and my dear, you have that ability in spades.