Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne--Don't Be Instructed by the Uninstructed

Photo: (Top) Title page of the First Edition, 1850, from the book's Wikipedia page.
Photo: First Editions, from flavorwire.com.

I have a lot of little things to say about this--about its plot, themes, images, metaphors and writing--so let's just bullet them:

--There was a stretch of fifteen pages (in my book, pages 66-81) of straight narration, with no dialogue at all.  And there were many other shorter stretches of straight narration as well.  This simply wouldn't happen in a book today, unless it was by a magic realist like Salman Rushdie, or someone working within an arcane specialty.  Certainly not by a popular novelist, which Hawthorne was in his day.  Literary agents and publishers would insist, perhaps correctly, that it simply wouldn't hold the reader's attention.

--Considering this, the book is remarkably well-written.  Though it did take me quite awhile to read it because of this fireplace-narration style, it was still well done.  Just hard to get through.  Some of the sentences are brilliant, such as: "...the children of the Puritans looked up from their play,--or what passed for play with those sombre little urchins..."

--Hawthorne was not a lover of Puritans, or of their children.  It comes across as an amusing bias in the book.  You get such straight-laced and sincere narration with such an author-reading voice, then he springs a sentence like the last one on you.  Tolkein did the same, but in more sleep-inducing ways.

--His descriptions and details are ingenious.  I missed them in a glazed stupor because of the blocks of narration, but then one hit me as I read it, and then I went back to see what else I'd missed in my reading doze.  Often, it was a lot.  Describing Pearl's clothing as a purposeful, fiery, living representation of the scarlet letter was a strong idea: "So much strength of coloring...was admirably adapted to Pearl's beauty, and made her the very brightest little jet of flame that ever danced upon the earth."  That's good writing.

--The narration as it unfolds is more or less a series of vignettes starring Hester Prynne.  As such, this would make a good Tarantino film, with a few flourishes, of course.  And you'd have to give her an Uzi.

--Arthur Dimmesdale>Hester Prynne>Pearl = Thomas Jefferson>Sally Hemmings>their descendants, if you follow the drift of the hypocrisy (though, in fairness, Jefferson--as far as I know--didn't give long racist rants).  You could go there with today's conservative, gay-bashing Republicans and their male lovers as well.  The Scarlet Letter is a political novel, too, because the religious leaders of the day were also the political leaders of the day.  That's one of the points of the book: separation of Church and State, after all.

--Art imitates life.  Read the last two sentences above again, and then consider the reasons politicians say they oppose gay marriage, or any number of other societal things.  Anytime you invoke God to pass, or to not pass, legislation, you're violating the most simple and most powerful tenet of this, or of any other, democracy: Separation of Church and State.

--Emma Stone as a child would've made a perfect, intelligent, sassy and fiery Pearl, just as she did as a quasi-Hester Prynne in Easy A.

--Hawthorne went out of his way to pile on the hypocrisy.  The real Governor Bellingham, for example, served in office for just one year before his Puritan constituents threw him out.  His crime?  He married a woman who had been betrothed to a friend of his.  (Notice that the woman's preference mattered little.)

--There's a remarkable benefit of having to wear the scarlet letter.  Since everyone will think badly of you anyway, why not behave as boldly as you wish, all the time?  The need to impress others won't exist.

--And no one will not tell you to behave this way, since you're too sinful to be spoken to anyway.

--Hawthorne had no love for the clergy, of any time.  When Hester visits the Governor, he's in a meeting with a few ministers, and the servant (an enslaved and bonded freeman, but that's another point) says to her: "Yea, his honorable worship is within.  But he hath a godly minister or two with him, and likewise a leech."  The leech turns out to be her worthy husband, Roger Chillingworth.  Dimmesdale is representative of Hawthorne's attitude towards the clergy--when he was in a positive mood.

--Speaking of Dimmesdale, his speech imploring Hester to reveal the name of the father, in front of the populace in the beginning of the book, is an ingenious scene of dichotomy.  Forced by his superior to pull the name from her, he's 100% hoping she will say it, and, of course, 100% hoping she won't, at the same time.

--Her husband was indeed chilling, and her lover was, in fact, a bit dim: "Then, after long search into the minister's dim interior..." (107).  I wrote that observation long before I read that quote; good to know I don't just pull this stuff out of the air.

--"On the wall hung a row of portraits...All were characterized by the sternness and severity which old portraits so invariably put on; as if they were the ghosts, rather than the pictures, of departed worthies, and were gazing with harsh and intolerant criticism at the pursuits and enjoyments of living men."  There are dozens of great passages like this.  Genius.

--The image of the armor acting like a funhouse mirror and making the A of gigantic proportion on her, as if "...she seemed hidden behind it" was another great touch in a book filled with such written flourishes.

--The home that the two men shared with the old woman was adorned with tapestry depicting the story of David and Bathsheba.  Again going out of his way to pile on the metaphors and symbols of guilt and hypocrisy, Hawthorne gives us the famous biblical story of the great man who slept with a minor man's wife, hanging in the house of the man who did the same.

--"When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived" (105).  Indeed.  For everyone who fervently believe that most (or, any) of the 9/11 hijackers came from Iraq, or that Obama isn't an American citizen, or that he is Islamic, or a socialist, pay heed.  Don't be instructed by the uninstructed.

--Birthers.  Please.

--Speaking of that, when Romney blurted something Birther recently, it told me he knew he was a rat on a sinking ship.  McCain, for all his faults, was a good, moral man who refused (unlike his pretty but empty VP) to run a campaign based on purposeful misinformation and outright lies.  He even told an audience that Obama was a good, kind man, and not a terrorist.  Mitt should pay heed.  The blind leading the blind, there.

--Mitt.  Please.  At least Clinton didn't actually ask to be called Bubba.  Even a reference to baseball can't save this guy in my eyes.

More to come.  A truly great novel, worth the effort.

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