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Friday, August 21, 2015

Infamy was babbling around her in the public market place.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
The Scarlet Letter is the tale of Hester Prynne, a woman scorned by her Puritanical peers for committing that oldest of sins, adultery, and having a child from aforementioned sin. The book opens with Hester being forced to stand on the town scaffold with baby Pearl in hand, wearing an embroidered scarlet "A" on her chest (for adulterer, not adorbsable) and refusing to tell the town muckety-mucks who the baby daddy is. The rest of the book follows Hester in the years after that moment, chronicling her transition to becoming a 'Sister of Charity' and an invaluable member of the community. Hester wears the letter on her bosom until the day she dies, Pearl grows into a fine healthy and rich woman, and it turns out the baby daddy is Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's most revered and anGelic spiritual guide (SOOPRize!). Roger Chillingworth, Hester's hubby who had disappeared into the wilderness (literally) spends most of the novel trying to psychologically torture Dimmesdale, after mysteriously showing up in town and making Hester pinky swear that she won't tell anyone who He is. Hester manages to live a fairly full life despite being burdened with POUNDS of secrets from lovers and hubbies, but she never seems to remarry or have more children or do anything other than be a 'sister of charity'. Which is fine, I suppose - charity is good! Oh, and Dimmy confesses he's the baby daddy on the scaffold in public after a dramatic sermon, and then promptly exPires. Out of revenge fantasies, Chillingworth kicks it soon after. Hester continues helping people until she, three, expires.THE END.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Well folks, we've reached the last book on the list! I'm going to write some more retrospective deep thoughts about this whole blog process after I've had a bit of time to reflect, so this post will just focus on The Scarlet Letter. I read this book once before, and I recall liking it quite a bit, which surprised me, as I didn't particularly enjoy it this go round. I didn't have a terribly negative reading experience, but it wasn't thrilling, or particularly lyrical, or poignantly moving for me.

Introduction, shmintroduction
This book opened with an incredibly obnoxious informative and super helpful and necessary introduction. It went on for about 40 pages about Customs Houses and how they are structured, which then seemed to have NOTHING to do with the rest of the book. There was one loose little story tie where the narrator found a raggedy old letter "A" in a drawer and was all, GEE WHAT COULD THIS BE, I WONDER what the story is here..... and then the story finally Started! I don't know what Hawthorne was thinking but he seriously could have used some editing love there.

Cruel and unusual punishment, much?
When Hester's crime is first announced and the town higher ups are discussing what to do, someone throws out this nugget: "This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die." This is quickly followed up with: "A blessing on the righteous Colony of the Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine!" AHH, Puritanical New England of yore. how we Don't miss you. Not that adultery is on my day calendar or anything, but still for Realz!? Pretty extreme. I thought the "A" was intense, but I guess it's better than Off with her Head!

What's in a Name?
One thing this book does have going for it is the names - Hester Prynne, Roger Chillingworth, Arthur Dimmesdale, Pearl -- aren't they great? They really give a spirit and sense to each of the characters, which is good because they're the ONLY characters we get. 

Since there are only four big kahunas, why don't I introduce them to you? Drum roll, please!

Hester Prynne, our scarlet letter wearer and woman scorned by society:
  • "In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind." how lonely! I'm impressed with how well Hester bears up under the 'A', especially given how friendless she is. I'm not at all sure I would do as well.
  • "The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her - so much power to do and power to sympathize - that many people refused to interpret the scarlet "A" by its original signification. They said that it meant "Able"; so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength." That's right, Hester - you turn that frown upside-down!
  • "Those who had before known her and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped." can't wear this lady down. She's strong with a capital S!
  • "Speak; and give your child a father!"
  •     'I Will not speak! And my child must seek a heavenly Father; she shall never know an earthly one!" I don't really know why Hester won't give up old Dimmy (he certainly doesn't seem like he's particularly worth protecting, imho) but it is pretty badass just the same. 
Roger Chillingworth, original hubster, devious revenge-seeker, sometime doctor-man:
  • "So Roger Chillingworth - the man of skill, the kind and friendly physician - strove to go deep into his patient's bosom, delving among his principles, prying into his recollections, and probing everything with a cautious touch, like a treasure-seeker in a dark cavern." Creepy, right? ;) I'll just have the Regular physical, please, no special prying or delving required.
  • "A secret enemy had been continually by his side, under the semblance of a friend and helper, and had availed himself of the opportunities thus afforded for tampering with the delicate springs of Mr. Dimmesdale's nature." oh, poor Dimmy's springs! Very Delicate! Not to be tampered with!
Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, silent partner in 'A' for Adultery, all-around nervous nelly:
  • "In Mr. Dimmesdale's secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge." 
  • "No man for any considerable period can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." True! Hard to know who you are. Might tear all the skin off your face and be someone else underneath!
Oh-so-Perceptive Pearl, product of 'A' for Adultery, smartest hen in the henhouse:
  • "Hester, to Pearl: 'Wilt thou not love him? Come! he longs to greet thee!'  'Doth he love us?' said Pearl, looking with acute intelligence into her mother's face. 'Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together, into the town?'' Pearl is acutely aware of Dimmy's willingness to greet them in the privacy of the woods but NOT in the publicality (a word? perhaps not - I care not) of the town square. I thought this was a very sneaky technique of Hawthorne's, making Pearl know the secret all along in her precocious child wisdom. 
The Scarlet 'A' as a red jacket
  • "It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness which enabled her to walk securely amid all peril. Had she fallen among thieves, it would have kept her safe." I loved this line about the way that the 'A' evolves over time. It reminded me of how I felt wearing my City Year uniform after a time. Here's a quote I wrote during the Poisonwood Bible blog about it:
"I really identified with Leah and her desire to feel the guilt and responsibility of whiteness but move forward with the culture of her husband and family at the same time. In my work with Breakthrough and City Year in Philadelphia, I often wanted to shed my whiteness, or find a way to obscure it. I knew how charged it was, and how difficult it could be for my students and their families to see anything but my whiteness when I walked into a room. Sometimes I still miss my City Year uniform, in all of its droopy pajama-esque unprofessional glory, because I felt like it announced that I was a helper with good intentions first, and a white woman second. Now I have to build that image for myself without the simple luxury of sliding on a red jacket." Weirdly, Hester's 'A' becomes a badge she can wear into dark and challenging situations, and which provides her a sort of benevolent protection.  

Lastly, a bit of Hawthornian Vocabulary
besom - a broom made of twigs tied around a stick (I found a mildly disturbing number of Wicca websites offering to sell me one)

chirography - handwriting, esp. as distinct from typography (I am growing to like my handwriting more and more with time, and treasure the handwriting of others, particularly those I care for. Do you?)

lucubrations - study or meditation

town beadle - a ceremonial officer of a church, college, or similar institution (not to be confused with the town beagle. he mostly just sleeps all day.)

eldritch - weird and sinister or ghostly (um, this word is AWESOME. can we use it all the time now? Something Eldritch this way comes! (Not now, Aldwich, we're working!)

asperity - harshness of tone or manner

nugatory - of no value or importance; useless or futile (apparently sleep is nugatory for me at this juncture in vacation. #notreally #cantstopwontstop)

escutcheon - a shield or emblem bearing a coat of arms (as in, Suzy, please bear mine escutcheon as we process down to the party so that everyone can know our auspicious provenance)

As always, it's been a pleasure. More final thoughts to come, but now I'm off to the land of Nod so I can prepare for my party tomorrow! If you're in town, come around. :)

1 comment:

  1. How was the party?? Is this the last of the first 100 books?