Thursday, February 5, 2009

A life in the Scarlet Letter

For the first time since I joined this book club, this was not the first time that I had read this book.  It was actually my third time.  But luckily I've always liked it.

Here are some of the points that struck me as I read this time around.

I was very struck with the lifestyle of the Puritans.  "Law and religion were one in the same.", it said, and in theory that sounds like a good idea.  How much less crime and sin would there be if when caught we had to pay our due to society and wear it like a badge for everyone to see.  I know that would make me think twice about decisions.  However, they took it so far and forgiveness never seemed to be realized and that made me sad.  

I was also struck with how serious they felt they had to be.  The children weren't allowed to have fun without being thought to be possessed by spirits.

And it hit me that "law and religion" were one in the same, yet those that had to deal with the law, (Governor etc.) were what provided Hester with a living.  The way she could so greatly decorate with a needle would have been considered a sin to wear in everyday life.  It would have been showing pride, however those high in society weren't held up to that standard and they utilized Hesters talents so much, her child never went hungry.  It seems that government officials thinking they are above the law isn't such a new concept after all.

I am a believer that no man should be punished for another mans mistakes and the way that Pearl was considered a tyrant because of the circumstances surrounding her birth (at times even by her own mother) made me incredibly sad and there was more than once I wanted to jump in the book and slap some people upside the head.

I didn't find Pearl to be the little elf that everyone else did.  I saw her as a normal, slightly undisciplined, little girl.  As a baby, when I read about the first thing she noticed was the scarlet letter, it made sense, we know now that babies are attracted to contrasting colors, like red and gold.  Every child wants to ask questions, play make-believe and tease their parents every once in a while.

I loved when Hester would remember that she was a blessing though.  She was her "Pearl of Great Price" bought at a major price, yet a true blessing which helped, or at least should have, to prove that the Lord did want her to have some happiness in life.  His forgiveness is immediate, unlike the rest of us.

I also laughed every time the women called themselves gossips.  It was so incredibly true, yet they didn't realize that gossip and judging others are evils as well. 

The surprise about the Reverend Dimmesdale as the father wasn't there this time, however, I noticed this time through how much I saw his inner torment through out the whole story and not just the end of the book.

Believe it or not, I had somehow forgotten that Roger Chillingsworth, (the husband) had stayed in the town and become a big part of the story.  I watched his every move very closely this time.  It seems like the first time I thought him to be a forgiving, yet didn't want to be a part of it, nice guy.  This time I saw him as much more calculating, and revengeful.  True, he took care of Hester and Pearl in their times of illness, which is to his credit. (I do think that stemmed from the love he once had for her and that he did have enough self-esteem issues -which he spoke of in the prison- so that he really did put part of her blame on himself.) But he was not the forgiving sort and I think he was really out for blood while looking for the other man.  In the end I feel that we learned how much revenge will consume your life and at times even noticeable to others.  Hester noticed at times how much he looked more disfigured than he had before.  And while half the town thought he was a God-send to the Reverend while the other half thought he looked evil and feared for his safety.  We as readers saw how evil his intentions really were.

I am always reminded of the lesson in forgiveness.  Not just that we need to forgive others, ( I still read in awe, how the others in the community treated not just Hester, but her poor Pearl who had nothing to do with her mothers sins.) but most in forgiving ones self.  It became quite obvious that even though Hester had to deal with complete humiliation, she didn't have to suffer half as much as what Reverend Dimmesdale put himself through.
Hester was able to find peace, to learn to love her fellow men and do good for others.  While even in his service to God, Dimmesdale found misery.  Each speech from the pulpit wasn't really meant for the people that he did help, it was meant to torment himself.
Sin, or really the guilt there from, really can take over your life, it can affect your health, your personality, every aspect of your life, if you let it consume you.

What did you think or learn from the book this month?


Anonymous said...

Like Shimmy Mom, I've read this book before and really, it's the difference in the two readings that I found most interesting - the mark of how much I've changed in 30 YEARS!!

I first read The Scarlet Letter in Mrs. Denny's 8th Grade English class and I loved it! I had always enjoyed reading but came from a rather non-reading family so my bookshelf consisted of left-over Dr. Suess books, a collection of Fairy Tales and Myths, and Little Women. So Hawthorne was really the first excellent writer I was exposed to...and I was such a naive reader! Honestly on my first read I don't believe I knew Dimmesdale was Pearl's father until the forest scene!! I was accustomed to being told things explicitly. I think that's why this time I found many of Hawthornes sentences so very clever. For example, here's a sentence from Ch.8, The Elf-Child and The Minister, that I underlined: "Behind the Governor and Mr. Wilson came two other guests; one, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, whom the reader may remember, as having taken a brief and reluctant part in the scene of Hester Prynne's disgrace; and, in close companionship with him, Old Roger Chillingworth, a person of great skill in physic, who, for two or three years past, had been settled in the town." I love how Hawthorne joins Dimmesdale with Hester's disgrace with a double-meaning even AND joins Chillingworth, the known avenger, with Dimmesdale...without explicitly telling me anything about how intimately they are all connected! Just fantastic!

Also, back in those Junior High years, though I understood Hester and Dimmesdale had sinned, I wanted a "happy" ending, which meant I wanted Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl to escape together and live as a family. I'm guessing I found Chapter 23, The Revelation of the Scarlet Letter, depressing or a "sad" ending then but this time I found it immensely satisfying. On the scaffold himself, Dimmesdale triumphs in his confession, the Devil-Chillingworth is overcome, and Pearl experiences the grief that her mother had hoped for her, to "humanize" her. A happy ending? Maybe not, but certainly victorious, and as an adult I now see that though Hester and Pearl could have lived with Dimmesdale, he could never have lived with himself in that false role as husband.

Sadly, I think Dimmesdale reflects the way in which many of us exist within our respective churches to this day. We dress up and smile and perform our traditional ritual services before others while inside we are struggling with incredible guilt and shame over addiction or sexual sin or whatever. Like both Hester and Dimmesdale, a keen awareness of our own sinfulness may make us better servants, more compassionate of others yet still estranged from our fellow men and from God. We still have a tough time believing that God loves us!

Also like ShimmyMom, I thought Pearl marvelously creative, intuitive, and honest...all despite the less than ideal upbringing and the constant negative thoughts others had of her.

Chapter 13, Another View of Hester, just raised a bunch of questions for me. Hawthorne alludes to something, but what? Did anybody read the Cliff Notes? (HaHa) What "freedom of speculation" did Hester assume? What is Hawthorne saying about womanhood? He seems to come to it again at the very end where we find Hester assuring her fellow women that "in Heaven's own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." Is this about equality of voice and/or is this about the role of women in society, that is the work they MUST do and the work they are NOT permitted to do? Or something else altogether? Any thoughts?

And some words that hit me personally just because of current circumstances as I'm homeschooling my son and daughter, entering into counseling with my son for help in living with his Asperger's Syndrome, and being the primary helper for my 85yo grandmother, and doing all the other regular wife and mom stuff: Ch. 5, "giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol" and in Ch. 7, about the reflection of the scarlet letter in the armor, "In truth, she seemed absolutely hidden behind it." I was reading along, thinking about the story, about Hester, and then BOOM! I encountered these words that seemed to strangle me as I identified with disappearing as a person and becoming...just hands and feet with work to do. I don't mean to be a downer here, and some days are much better than others, but I think this is what good literature does. To really last, it has to resonate in a truthful way with our lives.

Sharon in KY

Amy said...

For some reason I have had a hard time trying to figure out what I want to say about The Scarlet Letter. I enjoyed the book and didn't find it difficult to read, but it's not one of my favorites.

I think my big issue is that I am a forgiving person, and I want people to find happiness and overcome their trials. I believe that people can repent of their mistakes and move on with their lives. Hester was more successful at doing that, but it was very difficult for me to see Dimmsdale so miserable. I was also frustrated that Hester had to marry someone she didn't care for in the first place.

I guess my real issue is with the time period. I think it's safe to say that I am really glad that I didn't live during the Puritan times. Don't get me wrong, I'm a religious person, and the idea of having a government that is connected with the church and strongly encourages moral behavior seems like a good idea. But they were obviously going a little bit overboard. Hawthorne says that "a penalty which in our days would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself." Dimmsdale was afraid to admit his crime, probably because a death sentence would be waiting for him.

Obviously Hester and Arthur did something that was wrong, but I also have a problem with the whole public shaming thing. I suppose it was done so that others could see the embarrassment that can come from committing a sin, but as one of the women said "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart." Even without the "A" on her chest, Hester would always remember her crime, and the consequences it brought. I believe that repentance is something that should be between a person and their God - "the physician of the soul". The religious leader and the people wronged may need to be included, but I really finding it appalling that the Puritans felt it necessary to publicly administer punishment for every crime.

I found it interesting that Hester developed a "sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts". Every one of is a sinner, in some degree or another. Hester could see it in other peoples countenances, yet she was the one who has to endure public shame. I feel like this whole system of government simply compelled people to hide all their faults and mistakes because there was no chance for forgiveness or retribution. The only time Dimmsdale was willing to publicly admit his crime, was when he knew he was going to die anyway.

I'm glad Hester was able to obtain strength through her years, her crime and the letter actually seemed to give her more freedom. "The world's law was no law for her mind." She had already broken the law, so she wasn't restricted by it anymore. She was free to think about things "such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England". I took that to mean that she wasn't bound by her cultural and religious beliefs. She felt free to think about other options, and had no qualms about running away with Dimmesdale and living together as a family.

Chillingworth is an interesting character. He is so set on revenge, that it alters who he is. He showed "striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil's office." All we have to do is one evil deed, and the devil can take root in our hearts. His hatred had "transformed a wise and just man to a fiend", and his revenge was even darker than Dimmesdale's sin. As Hester was rising above her shame, Chillingworth was lowering himself in his evil designs. It was interesting though that he seemed to feel no anger towards Hester. He felt that they were both to blame, and that when they married he should have known this would be the eventual result. At the beginning of the book, when he meets Hester in the prison, he tells her that "thou and thine, Hester Prynne, belong to me." And he does end up leaving his possessions to Pearl, which I guess is the one good thing he did.

It's interesting that the letter seems to change meaning over time. The people see all the good deeds that Hester is doing, and see that she really is a good person. So, in a way, she found her forgiveness, but she still felt the need to wear the scarlet letter. The people see her as a strength and an example. I was also surprised that she returned to New England after Pearl was grown up. New England was her home though, and the place where she knew her sin and her sorrow. The other women in the community come to her for advice and comfort, and I like that she tries to assure them that some day in the future "a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." I am so grateful that we have gotten to that point. That women are able to choose who they marry, and are able to have equal happiness with their husbands. If anything, this book just made me very appreciative of the life and freedom I have.

Amy said...

Shimmy Mom,

I also found it interesting that the people were supposed to be serious and plan, yet the leaders of the society could live in nice houses and have fancy clothes. It's pretty hypocritical.


I think the whole freedom of speculation thing is just that Hester was able to think more about her role as a woman, and even the role of the government and the church. She wasn't bound by those laws anymore and it gave her freedom to think outside the box, which probably wasn't really allowed in her society.

I like the way you described the ending on the scaffold. I wasn't quite as satisfied when I read it, but after you pointed out all the things that were resolved, I guess it was pretty good after all. :)

Mr. Mordecai said...

Unlike Shimmy Mom and Sharon, this is the first time I’ve read this book. It has been on my “to-read” list for quite a while, so I was excited to have some good motivation to actually get going. Once I started reading, I finished the book in about five days. I thought the story was phenomenal.

A few years ago I mentioned my intentions to read The Scarlet Letter with an extremely conservative friend of mine. “Do you know what that book is about?” He asked with a concerned air – clearly worrying that reading about adultery might damage my moral fiber. Now, having read it, I would argue that he was mistaken; I would say that it is much less about adultery than it is about forgiveness, faith, conscience, vengeance, and pain (as other have already noted).

While reading, it’s easy to be critical of the puritan society for their unwillingness to forgive. After all, is it really appropriate to brand someone for life for mistakes they made in the past? It’s clear to the reader that, no, it isn’t. And yet, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that we still do things that are very similar today. Take, for example, the registered sex offender list. Combine that with other stories being published where teenagers are being required to register on that list for having received inappropriate photos on their cell phones. Quickly, you have a situation where someone’s past actions will haunt them forever, regardless of whether they have truly repented or not.

It seems that it really is much more difficult to forgive than we often let on. Today, as in the past, we track those sorts of things so that we can protect those we care about. We’re always quick to judge and slow to forget.

I don’t mean to imply that I’m perfect in that regard. I would certainly be concerned if I found out that a neighbor of mine had a history of violent crime. So, how can we truly find the spirit of forgiveness? And not just for trivial matters, but for the big ones as well?

Amy mentioned that it might seem unusual for Hester to have moved back to New England after being away with her daughter for so many years. Personally, I don’t think it’s very strange at all. First, I believe that she really did love Rev. Dimmsdale. I can only imagine she would want to be near the place of his rest. Second – where else could she really find the forgiveness she sought? In society today, for example, if you were marked with a public taint on your past, but finally found a group of people who knew about it, and yet accepted you (in their own way) all the same, would you really want to leave?

On a final note, I didn’t really like the ending. Personally, I would have been much more content if they had been able to run away together. I spent two years living in a country (Chile) where divorce was prohibited by the state. It broke my heart every time I met someone who had been living faithfully with someone for the past 25 years, but couldn’t be married to them because of an action in their past that could not be reversed. Chillingsworth committed many crimes, in my view. One of the greatest was not owning up to who he was and formally divorcing Hester so that she could have at least found a new life for herself.

Magali said...

My name is Magali McCarty, and I am a friend of Sharon Hull. I love History and I am an avid reader. When she told me about this club, I asked if I could join, and here I am, if you'll allow me the priviledge of been a part of it.
I was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and most of my education (the formal part) happened there. I've lived there longer than I've been here in USA.
I read Moby Dick when I was in Middle School in the (of course) portuguese language. Back then, I was not concerned with the quality of a translation, or weather it was unabridged or not. I have seen some condensed books of Moby Dick, and I do recall my brazilian book been longer, though. The fact is, when I tried last year to read the English version, I was surprised with the complexity of the paragraphs and intricacy of the language. I did not pursue it for lack of time, but it is a chalange I want to take. Other than that, I recall very little of the book (it has been about 30 years), except for the feeling of sadness and loneliness that would come over me at times as I was reading it.
I realize I am in the page for comments in a diferent book, but I am not sure how the " Leave your comment" works as far as as the means of introducing onself.

Thank you for this oportunity

Mr. Mordecai said...


Welcome! It's always nice to have more people reading along.

Shimmy Mom said...

Magali, Welcome to the group. Not only are you welcome to join, but we are glad to have you. Feel free to leave comments whenever and where ever you like. We are pretty easy going around here.

I have a good friend from Sao Paulo, in fact she just returned from a month long trip home with her family. Her name is Silmara. It's a small world isn't it.

Thanks for joining and your thoughts.
Shimmy Mom