The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.

 

letteraTechnically this is a reread. However, all these many years since high school have dimmed my memories of the details. The first being the Introduction to the book or autobiographical essay that Hawthorne uses to show that the story he tells is true; that one day during his job as the Surveyor in the Custom House in the city of Salem, Massachusetts he explores the old building and discovers a room filled with old documents belonging to his predecessors. Upon opening a package wrapped with red tape, he finds a tattered piece of material with a faded letter “A” embroidered on it. Also enclosed are documents containing interviews with townspeople enabling him to piece together the story of Hester Prynne the adulteress, who bore a child, refused to name the father and lived life as a recluse.

The story takes place during the mid 17th century in the first few years of the Puritan city’s founding. Hester Prynne has been convicted of adultery and must live for the rest of her life with the shame branded on her in the form of an elaborately embroidered scarlet letter ‘A’ sewn into the bodice of her dress. She lives her life on the outskirts of town, raising her daughter and eking out an existence by sewing and embroidery. The man complicit in the liaison is identified to the reader as the Reverend Dimmesdale, though he does not acknowledge any involvement in Hester’s plight or responsibility for Pearl.

We learn Hester comes to Salem from England awaiting her husband who has not yet arrived and is feared to have died at sea. However, on the day Hester is released from prison and paraded through the crowd of townspeople to the platform from where she will be displayed for the day, he appears though he makes no move to rescue Hester, to forgive her or reveal their relationship to the authorities. He disguises himself as an itinerant doctor and changes his name to Chillingworth.

As the pious and well-loved minister of the town, Dimmesdale’s conscience gets the better of him and as the years go by his guilt begins to literally eat away at him. Dr. Chillingworth moves in to his home presumably to care for him, but he knows Didmmesdale’s connection to Hester and it is not clear how honestly is his medical advice.

Dimmesdale dies after a brilliant last sermon and soon after so does Chillingworth, himself a victim of guilt-related wasting disease. Hester and Pearl leave for several years and when Hester returns to Salem she is alone living once more on the edge of town bearing her sentence with quiet humility until she dies.

Some Things that Strike Me: The Supernatural,  Corporate Sin

Hawthorne is at his best when he blends the normal with the supernatural as he does in The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance and which he does here. In fact, there is a constant sense of evil and malevolent forces at work throughout; of the men in Hester’s life who act in fiendish ways, including her husband whose guilt has ‘transformed him into a devil;” a meteor that lights up the night sky and is observed as a foreboding sign; the rumored dance of witches with the Black Man [Satan] of the forest; little Pearl “born of sin” whose soul seems to fight the forces of good and evil. And finally, the scarlet letter which has a life of its own.

In the Introduction, as Hawthorne sifts through the documents pertaining to Hester Prynne, the remnant of the scarlet letter falls on his chest.

It seemed to me,—the reader may smile, but must not doubt my word,—it seemed to me, then, that I experienced a sensation not altogether physical, yet almost so, of a burning heat; and as if the letter were not of red cloth, but red-hot iron. I shuddered and involuntarily let it fall upon the floor.

The scarlet letter is also of curious interest to the infant Pearl who notices the lettera2glimmering gold embroidery “with a decided gleam that gave her face the look of a much older child,”  causing Hester to never feel safe. This look is described as elfish, almost fiendish, an evil-spirit possession of the child mocking her mother.

When Dimmesdale dies it is in the presence of his congregation at the conclusion of what turns out to be his last sermon. Hester is near and comforts him. He confesses his guilt to her and hopes his suffering in life is sufficient penance to reach Heaven. Many of the spectators testify to seeing a scarlet letter A visible on his chest. Some say it was put there as the penance he took on when Hester first appeared to the public to show his flock we are all sinners. Others believe it was placed there through the work of Chillingworth, by necromancy and magic.

I find Pearl to be a striking character who is thought of as both the sin of her parents as well as a magical creature, full of airy light who is a wild woodland elf. The stain of her mother precludes the town’s children from associating with her so her playmates are the trees, brooks and animals of the forest and her fantasy life. But she scares Hester almost from the beginning.

The child’s own nature had something wrong in it, which continually betokened that she had been born amiss, –the effluence of her mother’s lawless passion, — had often impelled Hester to ask, in bitterness of heart, whether it were for ill or good that the poor little creature had been born at all.

Pearl refuses to obey rules and is described as a disordered and peculiar child whose character, Hester believes, was formed while she was giving in to her illicit passion which was transmitted into her child. As Pearl was “imbibing her soul from the spiritual world…the warfare of Hester’s spirit was perpetuated in Pearl.”

How unfair for a child to be so burdened by society’s strictures and grievous religious dogma through no fault of its own and without ever having recourse.

I also found it unusual that Hester’s accuser is not her husband, but the townspeople, the governors and magistrates, the clergy. At that time, religion and its enforced morality had a hold on one’s personal life and was policed by neighbors. Transgressions were brought to the clergy and punishment was strong to set an example.

It occurs to me how different a scenario is the accusation of adultery during the colonial times compared to our own. We leave adultery to the couple involved to sort it out as they will and while one or the other might make accusations against each other it is not a criminal offense affecting the entire town. It reminds me of the witch trials of Salem, this belief that what you do as an individual your community has something to say about it and everyone must toe the same line.

As the years pass though Hester continues to wear the scarlet letter, many in the town have either forgiven her or are unsure of her past. She becomes known for her good deeds to the poor and sick and comforting and consoling to any young women thought wronged in some accusation or another. In fact, many choose to see in her exemplary life the letter representing not her shame, but her penance. “They said that it meant Able.

And how does this all end for Hester Prynne and her little woodland elf of a daughter? Quite nicely as it turns out. The old devil Chillingworth died a rich man and bequeathed his fortune to Pearl who became the richest heiress of her day. Mother and daughter leave the country for many years until one day Hester arrives back at her simple cottage and attaches to her dress the scarlet letter continuing the punishment of her own free will. It is speculated that Pearl, being of marriageable age, has found a husband across the sea and would not be joining her mother.

To the townspeople who observe packages and letters coming into Hester’s home bearing seals of unknown English heraldry, they know someone from afar, is it Pearl?, is caring for her. This is confirmed the day Hester is seen embroidering a baby garment….

Such an intense tale of passion and mystery! Made up or based on reality? Whether the Introduction is true about the package with the faded fabric or not, a story of great magnitude is the result.

________________________

Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1850
Pages: 238
Full plot summary

 

Challenges: Classics Club, Back to the Classics, Victorian Reading Challenge

Summer, Edith Wharton (1917)

My Edition:summer
Title: Summer
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Bantam
Device: Mass Market Paperback
Year: 1917
Pages: 205
For a plot summary

 

“She loved the roughness of the dry mountain grass under her palms, the smell of the thyme into which she crushed her face, the fingering of the wind in her hair and through her cotton blouse, and the creak of the larches as they swayed to it.”[i]

 
Charity Royall was born into extreme poverty on the wrong side of the tracks, or in this case, Mountain, from which she is “brought down” by Lawyer Royall to be a companion for his wife. When she dies, he eyes Charity for his next wife. She is told she should always be grateful that Royall rescued her but she is smart, rebellious and itching to get out of this very small town. To that end, she secures a part time job in the town’s library, though she has no heart for it and spends most of her days bored and angry.

When a young man wanders into the library one afternoon, the course of her life is changed. Lucius Harney is the cousin of the town’s matriarch, Miss Hatchard, with whom he is staying while conducting an architectural survey on old buildings in the vicinity. Since Charity knows the area well, she volunteers to guide him to various dwellings. As the weeks of exploration go by, they fall into a sexual relationship and pledge their future life to each other. At the same time Royall is pressuring Charity to marry him and one frightening night Charity has to physically restrain him from forcing his way into her bedroom.

Throughout Charity’s life, the Mountain has constantly loomed in her thoughts. And she is plagued, too, by the fact she never knew her mother, who may still be alive. When she becomes pregnant, she cannot tell anyone and in a fit of resignation believes the Mountain is her fate, so she goes in search of her mother and her “true life.” When she arrives she discovers her mother has just died. She sees the devastating poverty of the family. There is so little food, children are in torn clothes, everyone sleeps in the same room, the filth is pervasive and the suggestion of violence permeates the air. Afterwards, as she lays down on the stone floor Mr. Royall’s words come to mind, “Yes, there was a mother; but she was glad to have the child go. She’d have given her to anybody…”[ii]

Charity does not tell Harney she is pregnant, but in this small town their closeness has been noticed and to diffuse the situation he leaves, though he swears he will come back and marry her. But there is no communication on his part and his marriage to someone else is announced.

Pregnant and with no money, Charity has no financial future with which to make choices for her life and once pregnancy enters the picture her chance to leave North Dormer or have any sort of independence is diminished. Royall’s pressure to marry him wears her down and in fact, though she doesn’t realize it at the time, he knows she is pregnant with Harney’s child. In his desire to save Charity’s reputation (and his own, as she is his ward) and to have her for his wife, he is not deterred. Charity and Royall marry.

 

My thoughts:

Charity’s relationship with Harney develops realistically without fear or guilt, just pure attraction and affection. When Summer was released in 1917, though nothing explicit is described, the subject matter concerning a young woman’s sexual experiences caused quite a stir. Critics say the book was somewhat autobiographical in portraying Wharton’s own sexual awakening at 43 after a long and loveless marriage.

Wharton lived in France when Summer was written coinciding with her involvement with the war effort during WWI. She organized seamstresses to sew for soldiers, established day care centers, visited the front lines, toured hospitals, and raised money for war-related works. During a break in the action she wrote, Summer “at a high pitch of creative joy, but amid a thousand interruptions, while the rest of my being was steeped in the tragic realities of war; yet I do not remember ever visualizing with more intensity the inner scene, or the creatures peopling it.”[iii]

It has been a long time since I pulled so hard for a character to overcome their circumstances and change their life! While I admit to wishing things worked out differently for Charity, Wharton’s realistic portrayal of her plight has an impact even though she does not give her a ‘happy ending.’ She gives Charity a solution and she must make of it what she will; that society is unfair to the poor and to women in minimizing their choices is for the reader to decide.

 

[i] P. 12.
[ii] P. 184.
[iii] P. vi.

This book qualifies for the Reading New England Challenge and my Classics Club list.