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Brand Names

I love to find connections to other literature in our classics.  But this one from the beginning of Chapter 9 surprised me.

Because of the tattered soldier’s question he now felt that his shame could be viewed.  He was continually casting sidelong glances to see if the men were contemplating the letters of quilt he felt burned into his brow.

Did you see them there?  Arthur and Hester?  What do you think Henry’s letters were?  D for deserter?  R for run?  Or perhaps like the original duo, an A, but this time for abandoner?

Based on Crane’s use of color, I’m guessing it was definitely scarlet.

 

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Choose Your Own Romance Novel

As much as I detested the awful Demi Moore movie named The Scarlet Letter, (notice I didn’t say it was The Scarlet Letter) it did give me something to think about:

How did the relationship between Hester and Arthur develop?

I certainly think the clumsy, lusty way that the movie depicted it with it’s built in “Roger is dead, so it’s okay” excuse was not the way it worked.  But what did happen between the two Puritans to lead them down this treacherous path?

What little we can guess about a prequel must be based in what we already know:

  • Hester would not give up Arthur’s identity.  She protected him with a fierce tenacity that seems to speak of a dedication and love for him that overrides any selfish desire for revenge.
  • Neither party attempted a rekindling of their romance during the seven years from the beginning of the novel to their ultimate meeting.  This could be for several reasons, obviously, as stated before Hester didn’t want to compromise Aurthur.  Fear on both parts also could have been the motivating factor.  Or, shame towards each other could have kept them apart.
  • When they finally meet after seven years in the woods, their reconnection grows modestly, and through words, not actions.
  • Hester never loved Roger.  She reminds him of this when he visits her in the jail cell, and he does not hold that against her, but admits that he “betrayed her budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay.”

Here’s my, admittedly over-romantic, guess:  Hester and Arthur developed a relationship first out of her respect for him and his willingness to assist her in her need (because I don’t know about you, but if your old, ugly, husband that you didn’t love sent you to live in a foreign land and didn’t come along, you might be happy to receive a hand from a friend every once in a while.)  I think it grew to mutual admiration and love.  Yes, love.

More importantly, here’s why I don’t think it was some overly-passionate, lust-filled tromp in the woods:  If that had been the case there would be no reason for Hester to remain quiet about his identity.  Rash actions lead to mare rash actions, and her deliberate silence was certainly well-pondered.  Also, neither character, despite how they changed throughout the novel, ever seemed the type to act on impulse, but instead showed a quiet, methodical, careful, and steadfast manner in their decisions.

Not that I condone their decision.  No, no, no.  Neither love, nor lust can defend them against the wrong they chose.  But this novel has left me thinking more about the “what happened before page 1” than most novels leave me with “what happened after p. 264.”

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter

 

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Change is for the Better? (The End)

The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is our third major changing character in The Scarlet Letter.   Does anyone else have a hard time imagining AD initiating an affair?   He seems so otherworldly and unmindful of “earthly” things as Hawthorne pictures him.   (Of course, that may also be part of the change he has undergone before the novel even begins.)   I still imagine that it was Hester who “got the novel rolling,” so to speak.

If we stick to changes that we are able to observe from the novel, AD’s changes are less dramatic (at least on the surface).   He starts out the story as a young, yet highly respected, almost adored, minister.  At the end of the novel, he is even more venerated.   Everyone hangs on his every word.  The major change that we see happening is in the area of his health.   Despite the “efforts” of his personal “physician,” Dimmesdale’s health goes from bad to worse.   Because everyone thinks he will die any day, his congregation practically gives him sainthood status, believing that his “health had severely suffered, of late, by his too unreserved self-sacrifice to the labors and duties of the pastoral relation.”

Well, readers, we know the truth, don’t we?   Dimmesdale is being literally eaten alive from guilt.   He wants to confess, and yet he doesn’t, which makes him hate himself even more.   Although he doesn’t share Hester’s visible suffering due to the scarlet letter, he suffers just as much, or more, from the inward pain.   The frequent placing of his hand over his heart to “hide” the invisible mark that he shares is only noticed by the perceptive Pearl.   Dimmesdale can not hide from his sin, at least not in the eyes of the One who sees all; the One that truly matters to Dimmesdale himself.

*Spoiler alert*  –  Don’t continue reading unless you’ve finished the novel!

So, the stigmata that is revealed at the end of the novel shows us that Dimmesdale has borne his own scarlet letter – traced in blood on his bosom.   Was it put there by Chilly’s black arts, or was this an outward manifestation of guilt and sin literally eating it’s way to the surface?   I think Hester might have had the more peaceful life and better outcome.

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter

 

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A is for . . .

Christine read a beautiful alphabet book to my children the other morning.  They were shown a portion of a picture and had to guess what animal would appear on the following page beginning with the letter shown.

The picture on the right is a link.  “Look Inside” if you like.

The Scarlet Letter is like an alphabet book where Hester wears the first page on her chest, and as we turn the pages of our novel, the creature depicted by the A is ever shifting.  Let’s flip through a few pages.

As we begin, Hester is holding a newborn Pearl on the pillary and we know that . . .

A is for Adultery.

Hester becomes the town’s aid, help, sympathizer and womanly strength.  They began to say that . . .

A is for Able.

As Rev. Dimmesdale serves his own penance on the pillary he is passed by Rev. Wilson, joined by Hester and Pearl, and seen by Chillingworth, all on their way home from the deathbed of Governor Winthrop.  A large zenith appears overhead, and those unaware of the family assembled under the cloak of darkness assume that it means that in his death, Gov. Winthrop has changed into a heavenly being, and that . . .

A is for Angel.

Hester reunites with her lover in the woods, her dedication to him remains after all these years.  For her . . .

A is for Arthur.

Hawthorne’s overt references to the 17th century Boston theoloian could mean that . . .

A is for Ann Hutchinson.

Ann was the proponent of a belief that the Puritans were putting too much emphasis on works and therefore denying salvation by grace alone.  She, and her followers held that believers were saved by the Holy Spirit’s power alone, regardless of works.  This historical movement could mean that . . .

A is for Antinomian Controversy.

And sadly, although Hester freely repented of her sin, I don’t remember her ever mentioning reliance in her Savior’s forgiveness.  Instead, she and Arthur both make reference to standing hand in hand before their Heavenly Father on Judgment Day with little hope.  In the woods Hester even takes that job away from her Creator when she says to Dimmesdale, “Let God punish!  Thou shalt forgive!”  Oh Hester, let God forgive.  Please let the . . .

A be for Absolved.

What other things does A mean or what do you wish it could mean?

 
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Posted by on March 11, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter

 

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Change is For the Better? (Part 1)

There is a whole lot of changing going on in this novel!   The three main characters change significantly during the course of the novel.   Considering the main chunk of the novel takes place over quite a few years – seven, I think – one would expect small changes, but these characters are profoundly changed.   One of the important things to ponder when a character undergoes a significant change is the factor(s) that caused the transformation, which may lead you to understand more of what the writer feels important.  Here are a few changes I noted.  Feel free to add more if you like!

(Warning:   I’m mentioning material from chapters 12-14, so if you haven’t read this far, feel free to come back later.)

Let’s begin with Hester.  In the beginning of this novel, Hester is young and beautiful as she stands on the pillory holding the token of her shame, the baby Pearl.   Despite her youth, she is resolute in her decision not to give up the father of the child.  She hides in the outskirts of the village, quietly living with her shame and busily sewing to earn a living.   She is the object of derision and scorn.  Everyone avoids her.

In Chapter 13, appropriately titled, “Another View of Hester,” we get a rather different picture.   People speak of her as “the town’s own,” and exclaim over how “kind to the poor, helpful to the sick, and comfortable to the afflicted” she has become.  The scarlet letter is referred to as a cross or a “symbol of sacredness.”  Her attractiveness has faded to an almost un-womanly form, one in which there was no longer “any thing … for Love to dwell upon…nothing in (her) bosom to make it ever again the pillow of Affection.”   Ouch!  A “before and after” photo might be handy here.  (Maybe the before might be similar to the photo of Demi Moore on the cover of the movie version here.

In other types of changes, Hawthorne says Hester has turned from passion and feeling to thought.   In fact, he suggests that, were it not for the presence of Pearl to tie her down a bit, she may have become a prophetess or the founder of a religious sect due to all of her solitary thinking.   She is even ready to comfort Dimmesdale and confront Chillingworth.   She “has climbed her way … to a higher point.”

What causes these changes?   Hawthorne suggests that solitude and the absence of tenderness, passion and compassion (from others)  in her life contribute to the changes, all of which are due to the presence of the scarlet letter.   And, of course, the presence of the scarlet letter is due to her sin and insistence upon bearing the associated guilt and shame among the community for so many years as her act of penance.

Will there be even more changes in Hester’s character?   Keep reading and you’ll see!

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter

 

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Concerning Chapter Titles

In the WEM‘s section titled “How to Read A Novel,” readers are asked to pay attention to the table of contents of each book.  Susan Wise Bauer explains that it makes a difference whether a novel has chapter titles or not.

Don Quixote has many short chapters; the chapter titles (“The prophesying ape,” “The puppet show,” “The braying adventure,” “Concerning a squire’s wages”) tell you that the story will unfold as a series of separate, brief events.  The chapter titles of The Scarlet Letter (“Hester and the Physician,” “Hester and Pearl,” “The Minister in a Maze”) introduce you to the story’s main characters.  In both cases the chapter titles tell you how to approach the book.  Don Quixote is an episodic adventure; The Scarlet Letter is an examination of character.

My copy of The Scarlet Letter does not have a table of contents, but the chapters do have titles.  Chapter three is called “Recognition.”  Hester stands on the scaffold, holding infant Pearl.  She notices a stranger.  Hawthorne paints a description of the character without revealing his name.  Hester does not need the narrator to name this man she immediately (as the chapter aptly says) recognizes.  It is such as shock to her that she “presses her infant to her bosom with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain.”

The other instance of recognition in this chapter comes toward the end when the man shouts out from the crowd, “Speak; and give you child a father!”  Here, Hawthorne tells us Hester recognized the man’s voice.

Tell me, first-time-readers, who did you suspect this man was when you reached chapter three?

 
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Posted by on March 6, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter

 

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HP vs. BVM

What's behind that chubby little baby hand?

It’s quite a match-up, don’t you think?  Hester Prynne versus the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And at first glance one would think that the Mother of God has this competition sewn up, but then again, Hester knows her way around a needle, so we should probably examine this head-to-head more closely.

In Chapter II Hawthorne starts the comparison for us.  His intent, of course, is a study in contrasts.  While both women stand seemingly alone with their children clutched to their bosoms, one is radiant with the purity she carries in her arms and the other bares both the child and mark of iniquity.

Despite these stark differences, the parallels between the young women are also worthy of a look.

  • We know that Mary, like Hester, was a sinner, hence her need to sing that her “spirit rejoices in God, [her] Savior.”
  • Despite Mary’s virgin status, her pregnancy probably brought on a fair amount of public shame.  She and Hester both stood tall, and quiet against their tormentors.
  • Both women were spared a more severe treatment for their role as an unwed mother.  Joseph could have left his betrothed wife, and the Puritans could have hanged Hester for her adulterous actions.
  • Both Pearl and Jesus are considered to have fathers not of this world.  And although we know this is untrue for Pearl, her “unearthly” father is a common topic for both the town’s discussion, and her own.
  • Post-shame, -child, and -embroidered A, Hester leads a life as a celibate servant of her neighbors.  In Chapter XIII we even learn that some men sometimes thought, “the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom.”  While the jury is still out on Mary’s virginity (I will not be partaking in any discussion about the topic here, so save those comments for some other blog) she is revered with this same saintly view.
  • Both women are blessed with children that give them much to ponder in their hearts.  Every irregular action and word is cause for pause.  But then again, maybe that is the plight of every mother.

Don’t get me wrong, I won’t be saying a “Hail, Hester” any time soon, but for that matter I’ve never been known to say a “Hail, Mary,” either.  It is an interesting literary connection that Hawthorne opens up for discussion, though.  So, are there others?

 
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Posted by on March 1, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter

 

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