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!!