Friday, September 30, 2011

The Scarlet Letter

I wasn't much of a reader when I was a kid. I liked to play. I grew up by a lake so most days I was out and about running around catching tadpoles, playing football with the neighborhood kids, playing cops and robbers, etc. I didn't read much as a kid, and if I've been regretful of anything from my childhood, it would be that I wasn't very much exposed to the classics. Part of the problem was that I was raised by immigrant parents who were not as familiar with the American classics, but most of the problem was that I hardly ever met a book I liked (unless it was written by my good friend "Cliff"). My wife Tanya, on the other hand, consumed the classics. So I picked up Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter recently- I asked Tanya if she remembered having read the book, and of course she had as a little girl.

Many of you are probably familiar with the storyline: Hester Prynne, believing her husband from England has perished on the treacherous seas traveling from England to the New England colonies, in her loneliness has an adulterous affair with the local minister Arthur Dimmesdale. She conceives a child named Pearl and, refusing to disclose the name of her lover, is forced by the Puritan community to wear a Scarlet Letter "A" signifying her adultery and hidden shame. Her child Pearl is her delight, yet thought of in her unruliness as a child of the Devil, product of sin, etc. Pearl grows up in that little New England Puritan town settlement as Prynne supports the two of them as a seamstress. Meanwhile, the minister Dimmesdale suffers terrible physical ailments, not to mention psychological torment as one who lives with a dark, undisclosed secret. Prynne's husband is discovered to have survived the sea voyage and arrives now with a new name Roger Chillingsworth. Chillingsworth is a physician with a vengeful spirit, wanting to see the one who has committed adultery with his former wife, suffer; suspicious of Dimmesdale he moves in with Dimmesdale "to take care of him." Eventually Dimmesdale and Prynne forge a plan to run off together to England, but beforehand Dimmesdale finally confesses his "hidden sin" before the townspeople and falls dead. Before long, Prynne moves with her daughter to England and later returns to the same New England Puritan settlement with the letter "A" on her chest once again; Prynne continues her charitable acts and quiet life and when she passes away, she is buried with Dimmesdale both with the letter "A" inscribed over their graves.

I had mixed feelings upon finishing the book. I know what a rich heritage the Puritans left us as devout followers of Christ, yet the lasting impression of the Puritans in our corporate memory is from accounts like Hawthorne's work. Hawthorne was descended from the Puritans of Salem, MA and always had a great discomfort with that heritage; he had very little good to say about Puritanism as a religious establishment. Of course when The Scarlet Letter came out, it received much criticism as being "fanciful fiction" rather than speaking about weightier matters, also it was generally thought to misrepresent much of the Church's message (probably a fair criticism). Yet, Hawthorne's book endures as a great American classic, while his critics do not so much. The ability to write a narrative, with such compelling figures as the feisty and charitable Hester Prynne (a much-loved woman in American literary history), the vengeful Roger Chillingsworth and the tormented Arthur Dimmesdale, for good or for ill, will continue to draw readers of new generations and shape our corporate memory (again, for good or for ill) regarding the legacy of the Puritans.

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