The Scarlet Letter is an ambitious American classic that wants to work within multiple paradigms. The two most significant are a European literary tradition and a Puritan system of morality. This is not necessarily a fun book and is certainly not easy in its style and at times its plotting. Yet by the end, Hawthorne has created an accomplished moment of realization in the main characters that demonstrates its worthwhile cohesiveness.
As I said, Hawthorne wanted, like Blake and many writers, to create a style of writing and therefore thinking that reflects a different system of values to Europe. As a strong Christian himself, he defied papacy yet felt Puritan society was also flawed in its dispensation of moral judgment and justice. Understanding the context of these tensions, and the heightened perception and attention that they stimulate, is essential in enjoying this text. Whilst the expositions and reflections were difficult at times, the pacing of interactions was brisk and purposeful. It seems, reading on Goodreads, that many people, including high school teachers, disiked the style of this book: the pacing is admittedly not modern, but the set pieces are to be enjoyed and quite short. A book like this really requires the kind of teaching encouraged by Doug Lemov in Reading Reconsidered in order to truly enjoy; if a teacher has to work extra jobs in order to survive (as I understand is monstrously the case in some parts of America), then that kind of lesson planning is not really possible.
In terms of critiquing the density of description, I am reminded of some of my reading Woolf, and how she terms this kind of description ‘male’. It does feel, at times, that the attempt to capture everything obscures the pith of a scene. Meanwhile, in the same era we have French writers like Flaubert who desired to capture perception with a more dynamic narrative style (free indirect). Yet if we are to take Hawthorne on his terms, his style (purposefully archaic) reflects the tensions and perceptions of the environment in which he is writing.
Such perceptions require a fairly regular and reflexive philosophizing of events and feelings. I thought of The Crucible often with this, and of the tensions between personal passion and social integrity. It is clear which of these has won in 2018 Western society, at least in film form (break the rules, get the prize…). Similarly, this idea of forgiveness, both personal and social and canonical, is a very real tension that might be dimmed now but is still a potent undercurrent in any society. More to the point, the importance of being good with both personal and social moralities is a battle that is difficult to frame well: I feel Hawthrone does this pleasingly.
Another great theme Hawthorne raises, pertinent in America and worth understanding everywhere, is how some aspects of human nature need to be regulated in order to run a successful society. I read this book alongside HerLand and a book about policing in the UK (both texts on distinct sides of the political spectrum, one from a privileged intellectual and the other from a front-line policeman), and thought Hawthorne raises interesting questions about crime and punishment:
The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.
That people will sin in invariable, and that society needs to control personal will and the desire to sin is essential. All the great modern European thinkers and questioners – Kant, Montaigne, Foucault – wrote passionately about the need to be good with institutions. And these were people who questioned reality itself. Question ourselves, and question our immediate interactions, but accept those things that seek to civilize us and curb our more base and dangerous desires and individual agendas. I was particularly struck by this observation about crime:
Crime is for the iron-nerved, who have their choice either to endure it, or, if it press too hard, to exert their fierce and savage strength for a good purpose, and fling it off at once! This feeble and most sensitive of spirits could do neither, yet continually did one thing or another, which intertwined, in the same inextricable knot, the agony of heaven-defying guilt and vain repentance.
For some reason, I am particularly irked these days by the continual representation of American society as one in which the subversion of social expectation always leads to personal gain with little negative consequence. This neoliberalist philosophy, that people should be free to do what they want economically and with therefore pretty much everything else, is attractive. It seems to promise much to the everyday person. The truth, of course, is that the most capable and established enjoy the same freedom and are in a better position to exert their will over the everyman. Placing the above vacillation against later existentialist philosophies that decry ‘slave morality’ and call upon people to define themselves by their own claims to virtue enhances our reading of this book. Nietzsche and Sartre do not ask us to run away from that which galls us, but rather to accept definition by them, and then to negotiate a simultaneous definition for ourselves. That is a thread of living considered since Marcus Aurelius.
The Scarlet Letter, in its own way, seems to be able to do this.
The characters are portrayed well, with Hester a strong female character who both defines and defies through her motherhood, although at great personal cost. Her independence in a society that will eventually come to prize independence above social justice is tremendous, and her mental health seems to stay strong enough. Her eloped partner, Dimmersdale, is unable to reject his given position and duties in this society, and in doing so seems to adopt the kind of responsibility that any patriarchy in a Republic should: his search for his heart comes at the kind of personal cost that great leaders should suffer, despire his named weakness. That it is the child, a new life and a new way of living, that stimulates this strength to both defy and accept difficult convention is well-chosen:
“I have a strange fancy,” observed the sensitive minister, “that this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again. Or is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream? Pray hasten her, for this delay has already imparted a tremor to my nerves.”
It is this battle between doing what we want and what we should that forms the inner-power of The Scarlet Letter, for me at least. It is this that colours and fills the characters. The idea of pursuing revenge as a course of action is one where our sentience is wasteful, and ultimately fruitless:
It is a curious subject of observation and inquiry, whether hatred and love be not the same thing at bottom. Each, in its utmost development, supposes a high degree of intimacy and heart-knowledge; each renders one individual dependent for the food of his affections and spiritual fife upon another: each leaves the passionate lover, or the no less passionate hater, forlorn and desolate by the withdrawal of his subject.
It should be a Christian thing to ultimately become indifferent to our enemies inasmuch as we should not define ourselves through criticism of others, but rather in the promotion of personal virtue. That the term ‘virtue signaling’ is gaining popularity (amongst use in some figures in education I respect, too) is worrying. However, I suppose to define active virtue as that which gains social acceptance risks such virtue becoming too extrinsic. For most people, however, the positive reinforcement of social opinion is essential to encourage socially beneficial behavior. Without that, society is a poorer place. Therefore, relying upon everyone to do the right thing is as naïve as not building cemeteries and prisons in our settlements.
A final observation made in the framing of our unnamed framed narrator – a literary concept that, like in Frankenstein, makes the text dynamic but requires clear explaining and possibly visualization from a teacher – is in the amusing criticism of bureaucracy. The slow and inefficient business of the Charter-House, an essential institution in a colony, is presented as the need for social action to benefit the person as much as society:
So, with lightsome hearts and the happy consciousness of being usefully employed—in their own behalf at least, if not for our beloved country—these good old gentlemen went through the various formalities of office.
This observation and others are well made. That the moral leaders of Hester’s society are presented as explicitly lacking vision is tempered by their powerful intractability. In a world of increasingly complex moral uncertainties, of social and economic forces, where corporations are becoming more influential and less accountable than countries, the appeal of leaders who apply some level of moral principle is necessary, even if not always desired. A great read.