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Once Upon a time in Puritan New England

As part of the Classic Club Spin # 6, I was to read Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlett Letter! To the say the least I was not pleased; I am completely fed up with this 20th century obsession with the heroine whose infidelity leads to tumultuous ending. Case to the point are Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; I was done with the heroine trying to seek fulfilment outside an unhappy marriage leading to disastrous results with the only viable option left for our protagonist being death!! This might be fully in keeping with the morality of the age and the writing may be lyrical, majestic etc etc; but the stories left me cold (though I do love Anna Karenina more than any such genre novel; it’s because of its awe-inspiring descriptions of Russia and her society and of course the love story of Levi and Kitty; I must stop this is not after all a review of Anna Karenina!) Therefore with the strongest dislike I began to read this book; thinking of it more a chore than a pleasure! And Surprise! Surprise!

The book from the very beginning grabbed my attention. It begins with the description of the jailhouse from which an adulteress came out to be paraded onto the street and then to be displayed in all her shame with her “misbegotten” child in the town square before all the public; the letter A was emblazoned on her dress, which she would have to wear for the rest of her life in this new Puritan colony of New England. Here it self was a big difference, the story began where the other books had left off and in itself, it made a huge statement about the courage and valor of the heroine – a heroine who was capable enough to commit adultery in the conservative society of 17th century, was brave enough to live through it. The story of Hester Prynne was different because it traced her life and forced her to live after committing adultery. The Scarlett Letter follows her struggle as she is boycotted from the 17th century society and tries to bring up her daughter alone in such circumstances, defying the patriarchs of the colony who pressurize her to name her partner in the adultery. She lives outside the colony settlement and tries to earn her livelihood by doing embroidery and other such work. Her life is harsh and she is ostracized by the society even to the point of the poor who abuse her when she gives them alms  and  the Elders of the society debate whether she is morally fit enough to be a mother and try to take away her daughter from her, until pastor Arthur Dimmesdale, whose parishioner she used to be, intercedes on her behalf and ensures that Pearl, i.e. her daughter stays with her mother. Parallel to Hester Pynne’s tale is the story of this very Arthur Dimmesdale, a promising priest and scholar, who had graduated with a degree from Oxford and had then taken a ship to the Colonies to do his bit in this new community. Since the 7 years, when Hester Prynne was ordered to wear the scarlet letter A, Arthur Dimmesdale had become more and more ill. A new entrant to the New England colony, Roger Chillingworth who was supposed to be a famed doctor takes charge of Arthur Dimmesdale’s health and tries to improve it, but the latter continues to waste away! It is at this point that Hester Prynne intercedes to show the true nature of Roger Chiingworth’s character to Arthur Dimmesdale, leading to the culminating tragedy and revelation before all of New England’s society about the true nature of the scarlett letter. The novel closes with a brief epilogue on the last years of Hester Prynne with a comforting speculation about the well-being and happiness of her daughter Pearl, now a grown woman and ends with the death of the heroine due to old age!

I loved the fact that our adulteress protagonist lived and lived to a ripe old age, where her former sins were forgotten and she was the wise old woman of the society to whom everybody turned to for solace, advice and comfort. This in itself was such a huge shift in paradigm from Hawthorn’s contemporary or successors; it ties in directly with the concept of “Timshel- thou mayest overcome” as written by John Steinbeck 100 years after the publication of The Scarlett Letter. But then the character of Hester Prynne differs from all other competition literary adulteress’s in the fact that Hester never saw her act as a sin – she saw it as an act of love for which she was blessed with Pearl. Here lies the fundamental difference from the other heroines – she did not feel any guilt or vengeance. She did not regret the momentary act of passion, because for her it was borne out of love and it gave her the joy of becoming a mother. While she did regret the scorn and the isolation of her place of and in the society, never did she regret her child. She is a strong, proud woman who takes on the realities of life as it comes and yet retains gentleness, kindness and courage to act once again in complete contradiction of the society laws and norms, if it will be for the good of the people whom she loves. In Hester Prynne, Hawthorn created a character that would endure and win the admiration of her readers because of this endurance!! Arthur Dimmesdale character on the other hand is in paradox to Hester Prynne’s open courage; fearful of the society and yet lacking the moral courage to break free from the rules which he and others like himself impose, he decays from the inside. While Hester draws her strength from her harsh realities filled with adversity, Arthur Dimmesdale degenerates, both in soul and in person, because he is unable to face the reality and is constantly torn by what is perceived and what he knows himself to be! In drawing out the characters and their psychology, Nathaniel Hawthorne not only creates a masterpiece but also probably writes the first psychological novel in the history of literature. The story, so oft-repeated is taken to a wholly new level as the minds and behaviors and not so much action, takes the tale forward. The beautiful description of New England is breath-taking and even more so when the author so cleverly crafts the scenic details of the landscape to match the thinking/mentality of his protagonists. The book is set in 17th century Puritan England was written nearly two hundred years in the future in 1840s is well researched and describes the land, the people, the architecture, and clothes and costumes of that era is correct details. Puritan New England comes out vibrating to life in the pages of The Scarlett Letter.

This is not an easy book to read; you cannot read it overnight though it’s barely 200 pages. It is a book to be read in piece meal so that you can sit back and cast your mind over all that may have truly transpired so many centuries ago!!

All about Leaning Towards and In

I held of writing this review for practically 2 days because I did not want an outpouring of knee jerk reactions, especially since the subject of the book hit really close home. I am talking of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in – Women, Work and the Will to Lead. I know this book is the latest “in” book and I had for some time avoided reading it, primarily because, I do not like Management and Leadership yada yada yada books and secondly, I was convinced that Ms. Sandberg’s work could not possibly compare to feminist writings of Gloria Steinem, Emma Goldberg or even a Virginia Woolf. I did not believe that what these women had already written could be overridden and what could Ms. Sandburg possibly write that was original? However at a recent corporate event, I was given this book as a corporate gift, in fact it was given to all women participants and on the way back from work, out of curiosity, I began to read the book.

My assumptions were not wrong; this book is hardly literary or even scholarly. It is a Cosmopolitan to the Room Magazine. Like Cosmopolitan, every one’s heard of Lean In and like the Room Magazine, very few people have actually read The Second Sex, or Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellion. Those who have read any of the academic feminist authors will agree that Ms. Sandburg’s work lacks depth; it’s very narrow in scope and enumerates the challenges faced by a very narrow specific group – primarily white, educated (Ivy League educated) of upper class background. True feminist challenges are far more complex – women around the world have to struggle and overcome challenges with security, survival, socio-economic opportunities, just to reach the plateau from which Ms. Sandburg begins her hypothesis. She talks of supportive partners and bosses who will be open to communication – but for these to happen, there are certain “givens” which she assumes; partners who are not chauvinists and are not violent; bosses who do not indulge in sexual harassment or other discriminatory behavior. Her road ahead for equality and leadership is based on all things being equal and in equilibrium.

Having said all of this, I must acknowledge a deep respect for the home truths that she brings out if we reach that plateau or if things are in equilibrium. There is no getting away from the fact that women today in a corporate environment continue to be discriminated against and the “glass ceiling” very much exists. The leadership gap, which she succinctly points out, exists and I am in completely in agreement with her that unless women take up more and more leadership roles, the road to corporate equality will not be built and we will fight the same battles our mothers and grandmothers fought. Her understanding of corporate dynamics is par excellent – she writes that men are promoted basis potential while women are promoted basis past accomplishments; she dryly states that men are allowed to focus on their achievements but women are expected to be loyal to their organizations and leaders. She speaks of how professional ambition is expected out of a man, but is considered a non-complimentary trait among women. The women who has career aspirations is considered “too aggressive” , a “bit political” or “difficult or worse, much worse “a feminist” (Shudder! Shudder! Horror! Horror!!). I was absolutely bowled over when she wrote about work –live balance, an oft-repeated jargon of the corporate world. She is the first senior leader, regardless of gender, who points out the inherent dichotomy of the term – “Framing issues as work-life balance – as if the two were diametrically opposed – practically ensures work will lose out. Who would ever choose work over life?” She makes an extremely valid point about women “keeping their hand up” because inherently it’s men and not women who put themselves forward, and in the absence of raising the hand, even managers with the best of intentions miss out. She bares the fact out that women are emotional and cites the example of Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, who believes that women cannot help but care when attacked and they should react accordingly and feel anger, sadness associated with such criticism and then move on. She lambasted the popular myths of Mentoring and Having it all – she categorically states that the new culture of seeking mentor may not be the best way to go – usually, mentoring refers to a senior person seeking and talented junior employee out and guiding them along the path. It’s not having an hour-long in-depth conversation. She also brilliantly calls out that no woman can do it all – it’s just important to get it done. I am absolutely floored by the fact, that she notices that single woman as well women married with children need a home life. It is important for the single woman to have a personal life as much as a married woman, may be in the end so that she herself can meet someone and get married and become the married woman with children herself. In the end, there are two very important things that she states, one , men also need to lean in as the women and become equal partners at home and at work and secondly women themselves need to band together to promote their cause and celebrate their success!

I work for one the biggest Fortune 500 conglomerates and I can truly say that my organization is an equal opportunity employer and truly promotes and respects women. There are stringent laws on sexual harassment with an HR team which has a hawk eye focus and an independent authority to make sure there are no powerful influences distorting truth. I have colleagues and bosses, who openly declare that women make better employees. Yet despite all this, I know it’s not a level playing field and unconsciously there are actions which bring the glass ceiling up all around us. The very fact that “Lean In” was given to only female managers is a case to the point. When Zig Zigler writes a leadership book, everyone gets it, but” Lean In” is for women?????This is a management book for both men and women, but because the tag line has women in it, it is instantly branded as a women leadership self – help book. I have seen men who have been guilty of some really bad indiscretions, being promoted, while the women with great results, flawless execution are told to improve their “peer management” skills. A colleague of mine is aggressive and a go getter – guess what happens? Promotion. I have another colleague who is aggressive and a go getter and this one is told to be more “sensitive” and less “aggressive” – I leave you to guess the gender of both. Time and again, I have been told that I am a “emotional” creature and this is a disruptive quality in my career progression – well I am a woman and I am wired to be emotional and I am going to be emotional when someone critiques my work because it’s my hard work, my sweat, my sacrifice of my Ph.D, which keeps getting prolonged because I spend 16 hrs plus at work, so yes, I am going to be emotional about it!!

So where does it all end? I don’t know – I am too small a fry to real solve the big problems, but a nano step can be a move in direction, when men read a “Lean In”

 

Book Reading in June and Other Bookish Musings

June is here and the heat will not go away….not in the near future!! Oh! How I hate summers!! Sigh!! Winter!! Oh! Lovely winter…Come Soon!! I just realized that I have used more exclamation marks in the last couple of sentences, that I have used words! See..there I go again! I have to stop! Ok….really need to start a new paragraph and subject!!

First of all Reading plans for June – among other sundry and random reading, the following I will complete because of Classic Club reasons or others like I had already begun them –

  1. The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne – This is a part of my The Classic Club Spin#6. I did have some reservation about this one, but so far and it’s not far, since I have only proceeded to chapter 4, it’s holding up!!
  2. The Good Soilder by Ford Maddox Ford and Dubliners by James Joyce – While I began reading both in my sudden obsession for the Lost Generation, (Hence the Katherine Mansfield post!), it very nicely coincides with The Classic Club event of the month which they published today was to be on World War 1/The Lost Generation literature
  3. The Tin Drum by Gunther Grasse – This modern classic is well different. It’s not an easy read and it’s a lot like solving mental math problems except you are kind of solving world problems to really delve into this book about a family surviving World War II and Nazi occupation. This one takes time and I really do not think I will be able to finish it in June
  4. Gothic Tales by Elizabeth Gaskell – I love Gaskell….love every work of hers; whether it’s a novel with social message like North and South or a comedy of manners like Cranford; but this is the first time I will be reading any of her “gothic” stuff; but I have high hopes….
  5. The Elixir of Immortality by Gabi Gleichann – This is light reading! At least hope so; the few pages that I have so far ventured does not so far seem like that can be read through a night; but I could be wrong. Reasons for picking this one – Jewish History in medieval Spain and Portugal. I think that just about sums it up!!

Speaking of light reading, here is something I have been mulling over since last night…the last week at work was extremely stressful and all most all the five evenings were spent socializing, leaving me with very little “me” time! The little “me” time I had was spent in reading The Tin Drum or Dubliners, while great books, can hardly be called uplifting, cheery books. By the time Saturday night came, I was tired, sore and completely not interested in meeting anyone or doing anything! I wanted some comfort food (Pizza with all kinds of cheesy stuff! Yes! I know the health hazards, but it was a choice between physical health or sanity and I thought, sanity was kind of more important for the moment!) and some nonsensical book where I have to exercise my brain in very very limited capacity – so I read through two Georgette Heyer – The Grand Sophy and A Civil Contract and two Lisa Kleypas (Yes!! I was reading ‘romance’ novels – how shall I ever hold up my head again!!!)

But now more to the point, I have been wondering, if after all the fine reading, sometimes our minds want to play hooky and just tramp about aimlessly. But then to me reading is playing hookey or rather it is the only way of living and letting my mind wander….then why the high fields or the low fields? Why when I am reading some intense literature for a while, suddenly, I need something absolutely frivolous and nonsensical – I mean like last night, I was so exhausted, I did not even to go to my comfort books like Jane Austen, Agatha Christies or Harry Potters! I needed something completely that was a no brainer and while I LOVE Georgette Heyer, her irony and sense of fun is just brilliant; I can say very little about the Lisa Kleypas novels and even while I was reading them, I knew, there was absolutely nothing in them vis-à-vis intellectual nourishment and though I know many people enjoy her works and I cannot say they are bad (remember I devoured two of them in one go)…they are not me! Yet the only thing my mind could have processed last night were such novels!! Why do you think that happens? Do you have such “interesting” read days?

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