Hester Prynne: A Bridge Over Two Centuries and Continents

Ştefanovici Smaranda, senior lecturer, “Petru Maior” University of Tg. Mureş, Romania

CREATIVE TEACHING is predicated upon the ability of the teacher to motivate students by arousing their interest in the material to be studied. However, this is not always an easy task. Such teaching demands a lively imagination, ability to analyze and anticipate student needs, and a willingness to experiment.

Among WAYS TO MOTIVATE STUDENTS the following can be mentioned:

  1. to show the relevance of ideas found in their reading to their own lives;
  2. to create in them a desire to extract greater meaning from what they read;
  3. to guide them to discover major points by which they can judge the relative importance of the ideas they encounter.

As a GENERAL METHODOLOGY used in teaching literature creatively, our teachers:

  1. Make constant use of examples in explaining complex sentence structures;
  2. Explain the nuances, range of meaning, and special references of a new word rather than a single lexical meaning;
  3. Draw parallels in the students’ own culture to clarify the meaning of idiomatic expressions;
  4. Give ample background explanation of new facts not within the students’ experience;
  5. Encourage the students to deduce the meaning of new words from their relationship to familiar words in the sentence or paragraph;
  6. Make frequent use of paraphrases to help the student organize his ideas and relate them to those of the author. The paraphrase is useful both for oral and writing practice.

Taking the above as a springboard for plunging into the interpretative process of The Scarlet Letter in a modern way, the paper is meant to demonstrate a paradox: many of the moral issues and stigmas of Puritan society are still grappled with today (a bridge over 4 centuries and two continents: 17th century setting, 19th century romancer, 20th century reader; America and Europe )

Students minoring in English were asked to think of possible contemporary issues found while reading the romance. The list with their findings was presented to the class and the interpretation given by them to each issue was recorded.

CONTEMPORARY ISSUES

  • Baby born out of marriage
  • Deceived husband
  • Husband taking revenge
  • Cowardly lover
  • Teenage pregnancy
  • Sex and adultery
  • Woman’s pride
  • Community reaction (isolation)
  • Feminism
  • Consumer society (free to choose her own destiny)
  • Child in need of both parents
  • Child desiring  ‘right’ moral behavior
  • Economic, sexual and psychological freedom
  • Emancipation Vs Hypocrisy
  • Woman morally superior to man

The seminar discussions, which resulted in a challenging and most rewarding experience for both the teacher and the students were registered and are summarized in the following lines.

The way Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote made his stories seem almost modern.  He raised interesting issues in his romances that are still relevant to today’s readers. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter , although written in the Puritan age of  1860 America, deals with several issues which are mirrored in our modern society, more than one hundred years after Hawthorne created his masterpiece.  Today’s readers can thus identify with the characters and their circumstances; their souls are touched, their imagination is captured.

The story of The Scarlet Letter traces the consequences of a deadly sin committed by Arthur Dimmesdale, a godly minister, beloved and revered, almost idolized by his people as a model of human excellence. Hester Prynne, the erring but heroic woman, her strange child, Pearl, and her wronged but malicious and horribly vengeful husband, Chillingworh, are the other main characters of the romance.

A baby out of wedlock.  Single parent.  Working mother.  Rebellious daughter.  Sadistic, avenging husband.  Cowardly lover.  These are some of today’s challenging issues that are mirrored in this powerful story, sensitively written by a 19th century author, in a 17th century setting.

The book explores the conflicts between private truth and public appearances and the choice between sin and salvation.  From unwed mother to sex and adultery, many of the moral issues and stigmas of Puritan society still exist in our own.

Hawthorne is relevant today both in theme and attitude.  The connection between sexuality and womanhood is an important theme in The Scarlet Letter.  Sex, however, is nowhere mentioned in The Scarlet Letter, and the narrator tries to distance Hester from her act by presenting her as dignified and overcome by feelings of guilt.  Her behavior when she is in the forest, however, proves that Hester does not feel as guilty as she appears to be:

The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit.  O exquisite relief!  She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom!  By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features.  There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood.” (p 202)

The Scarlet Letter clearly needs explaining to understand its pertinence to our lives.  This leads to a comparison of the two societies (the Puritan society of the 17th century, and the Democratic present day society), with direct reference to the extent to which society accepts Hester’s immoral love affair with the reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, and her illegitimate child, Pearl.  The results will reveal astounding similarities despite the long span of time (three centuries) and the conspicuous difference in meaning between the adjectives “puritan” and “democratic”.

The Puritan society was a society composed of successful hypocrites, contending against a minority of discovered criminals.  This is the narrative context in which Hester chooses to live her passion, to have a child out of wedlock which makes her stronger, reliant on her own decisions to choose her own moral system, which, in a consumer society is just as good as anyone else’s.  Her moral system is not based on the rejection of all Puritan authority.  The authority she does not adhere to is male authority and the laws made by men.  In the long run, Hester does not submit to anyone or anything but her inner laws.

This can be seen as the realization of true emancipation.  There is, however, some ambiguity in the way Hester appears to react.  On the one hand, as Hawthorne writes:  “Had Hester sinned alone?”, of the sinners – all suffer – yet it is Hester alone who survives.  Still, despite the ties she has to her society, she is never controlled by it; she is far from being hypocritical as the other Puritans are.  Hester is not afraid of the consequences of her act of adultery.  Love transforms her into a non-conformist, much superior to her fellow beings.  She actually chooses to stay in Boston rather than leave after her initial confinement; she, in a sense, chooses her own retribution and destiny; we think Hawthorne is far more condemning of Dimmesdale’s weakness, duplicity and hypocrisy.  Hester never has the chance to hide her sin, but even if she had the opportunity, we doubt she would.  On the other hand, the narrator presents Hester as submissive and well aware of her guilt when accepting her punishment.  However, the act of adultery itself, the scene in the governor’s hall where she stands up for herself and her right to raise Pearl, and the forest-scene are evidence to the contrary.  In the end “the world’s law was no law for her mind”(p 164)

The story of Hester’s personal liberation is also the flight toward economic, sexual and psychological freedom of today’s self-reliant women, who, although few, being endowed with a strong sense of sacrifice, do not have to have men validate their actions before a society built on an amoral code of behavior, in which gross misconceptions can lead to severe, even fatal errors of superficial appreciation.

Hester’s marriage obviously could not bring her fulfillment, but neither can her relationship with Dimmesdale. Only Pearl, her daughter can do that.  Pearl is Hester’s constant reminder of her sin.  Hester chooses to stress this fact by dressing Pearl in red; thus, Pearl becomes a loving representation of the scarlet letter.  The name “Pearl” represents the great price Hester has paid for her and the fact that Pearl is her “ only treasure”.

Pearl also mirrors nature’s changeability and disregard for civilization’s precepts.  In the 1690’s, the witchcraft issue was one of the hot topics among small Puritan towns such as the one in The Scarlet Letter.  In that period when the Salem Witch Trials were taking place, Pearl’s actions are those of a strange, almost demonic child.  We wonder whether this portrayal might not show that Hawthorne thought the child would act this way because it was a “bastard” child, a thing unheard of in those times.  Another explanation, which can account for her behavior and also be taken under discussion, especially with reference to present-day children out of wedlock which is so often the case.  Pearl really wants her family; she needs a whole family, both parents.  It is one of the tragic results of Hester and Dimmesdale’s adultery that Pearl is deprived of a “normal” family.  Hawthorne expresses the common ideas of his time which are so applicable to our society, as well.  Pearl is a paradox, both wild and amoral, and also desiring “right” moral behavior in her parents.  William Wordsworth once said in a poem of his: “The child is the Father of the Man”.  It seems to us that this quotation mirrors Pearl’s role in the novel  (i.e. the role of reprimanding and leading Hester).  She acts and speaks with so much insight.  At the age of 3 (three) she was saying things like: “my mother picked me off of a wild rose bush”.

The ending of the romance is bewildering.  Pearl only achieves “wholeness” when Dimmesdale acknowledges his paternity.  The duality of Pearl, as illustrated in the scene at the brook can only be reconciled when Dimmesdale tells all of Boston of his sin and its consequences. Is Hawthorne saying that single women are incapable of raising “whole” children?   That for a child to be complete he or she must be raised in a “nuclear” family?  Society today is still grappling with the answers.

One can see the romance as a clear attack on the hypocrisy of society then and today.  Adultery was and is still considered today, a worse crime for a woman that it is for a man.  Moreover, when a woman gets pregnant, it is a physical sign that makes the promiscuity a known fact.  Men are not connected to the act in any visible way.  Hester pays a different price because she is a woman.  Hester, as a woman, takes all the blame, while Dimmesdale, as a man, does not get punished, at least not by man-made law.  This illustrates the inequality between the two.  Hester is not only the stronger one, (e.g. she is the one who decides they will leave Boston, and she is the one who is going to make all necessary arrangements); she is also the morally better one.  This connects to nineteenth, as well as twentieth centuries’ ideas about women as morally superior to men.

Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth proved to be a fake from the very beginning, because of the difference in age between the two.  Chillingworth thought to make up for that by giving her his deep love:  “And so, Hester, I drew thee into my heart, into the innermost chamber, and sought to warm thee by the warmth which thy presence made there!”(p 74).  The relationship was not only unequal, but Chillingworth also married Hester under false pretences:   “mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and unnatural relation with my decay”. (p 74-74)

The greatness of The Scarlet Letter lies in the character of Hester Prynne.  Because she dared to trust herself and to believe in the possibility of a new morality in the new world, she achieved spiritual greatness in spite of her own human weakness, in spite of the prejudices of her Puritan society, and, finally, in spite of the prejudices of her creator himself.  For the human weakness which made her deceive her lover in order to protect him maker her seem only the more real.  The calm steadfastness with which she endures the ostracism of society makes her heroic.  And the clear purpose, which she follows, despite the denigration of Hawthorne, makes her almost ideal!

Hester, almost in spite of Hawthorne, envisions the transcendental ideal of positive freedom, instead of the romantic ideal of mere escape.  She urges her lover to create a new life with her in the wilderness:  “Doth the universe lie within the compass of yonder  town?  Whither leads yonder forest track?”  And she seeks to arouse him to a pragmatic idealism equal to the task:  “Exchange this false life of thine for a true one!  . . .   Preach!  Write!  Act!  Do anything save to lie down and die!” (p 215)  What Hawthorne wants to tell us by Hester’s mouth is that, if he had less of that external morality and decorum, his case would be less desperate; and often failure to maintain them can lead to real conversion to truth and holiness.  As long as we maintain our self-complacency, are satisfied with ourselves, and feel that we have outraged none of the decencies of life, no argument can reach us, no admonition can startle us, no exhortation can move us.  Proud of our supposed virtue, free from all self reproach, we are as placid as a summer morning, pass through life without a cloud to mar our serenity, and die as gently and as sweetly as the infant falling asleep in its mother’s arms.  We have often met with these people, and tried to waken them to a sense of their actual condition, to see that pride is the root of all sin, while humility and genuine repentance which springs from humility is the root of all virtue.

Thus Hester Prynne embodies the authentic American dream of a new life in the wilderness of the New World, and of self-reliant action to realize that ideal.  In the Puritan age in which he lived, and in Hawthorne’s own our modern society with its more liberal laws, Hester Prynne might hope to live happily with her lover, after winning divorce from her cruel and vengeful husband.  But in every century her tragedy would be the same.  It would result from her own deception and from the conflicting moral belief of her lover.  But it would not result from her won sense of guilt or shame.

In The Scarlet Letter alone, among his novels, Hawthorne succeeded in realizing a character embodying the authentic American dream of freedom and independence in the New World.

The Puritan asceticism and rigidity fixed the scarlet letter to the breast of Hester Prynne, and drove Arthur Dimmesdale into a life of cowardly and selfish meanness, that added tenfold disgrace and ignominy to his original crime.  In any form of society hitherto known, the sanctity of the devoted relation between the sexes has constituted the most certain foundation of all purity and all social safety.  It is no pleasant matter to contemplate what is called the guilt of Hester Prynne; but it may be instructive, nevertheless.  We naturally shrink from any apparent violation of virtue and chastity, and are very ready to forget, in our eager condemnation, how much that is beautiful and holy may  be involved in it.  We forget that what society calls chastity is often far the reverse, and that a violation of this perverted virtue may be a sad, sorrowful and tearful beauty, which we would silently and reverently contemplate,  – silently, lest a harsh word of the law wound our hearts, – reverently, as we would listen to the fervent prayer.  While we dread that moral hardness, let us not forget that holy love that purifies one’s soul.  Man’s heart recognizes this, whether society will or will not.  The struggle and the sacrifice, which the latter calls a crime, the former receives as an exhilarating air of virtue.

We would not condemn the vigilance of society, were it really a tribute paid to the true sanctity of virtue.  But is that the case?  Is there no violation of social law more radical and threatening than any wayward (i.e. disobedient) act of passion can be?  We make so many compromises in life, more or less under the mask of the superficiality the social law creates.  We see in the lives of Hester Prynne  and Arthur Dimmesdale that the severity of puritanical law and morals could not keep them form violation; and we see, too, that this very severity drove them both into a state of moral insanity.  And does any benefit arise from such a sacrifice?  There can hardly be any at all.  Severity and unforgiveness was the social atmosphere which surrounded them.  Who has not at least once in his life “obeyed” the unwritten law and banished that whom society has taken for a sinner, whereas, in our deep soul we acknowledged being on the wrong side.  We sin every hour and still, in most cases, do not dare to open our soul to the dearest ones dreading their reactions.  Just like in the case of the father, the mother and the child in The Scarlet Letter – the whole trinity of love – for whom the world has done nothing, so we are waiting today for a “divine, still human” recognition and forgiveness of our weaknesses.  Only an open confession of our weaknesses and hypocritical nature can bring us strength.  The romance is but a shadow of the realities which daily occur around us.  The opportunities for opening our hearts to the gentle teachings of tender error and crushed virtue lie all along our pathway, and we pass by on the other side.  The flattering self-assurance that we pursue virtue with conscientious diligence, never enables us to reach what we pursue what we are striving for.  There is no more fatal error than moral ignorance and hypocrisy.  Vice and virtue are not at opposite poles, they are part of our everyday lives; as long as we do not approve of that, we cannot understand Hester’s moral superiority, who, in her long hours of suffering and loneliness, through love, the great parent of all power and virtue, the guardian of the tree of good and evil, became sweeter and better that all the world beside, by the cause in which she suffered.  To those who would gladly learn the confidence, and power, and patient endurance, and deep fervor, which love can create in the human heart, we would present the life of this woman, true representative of both puritan and democratic worlds.

As a follow-up, the students were asked to do further research on the following

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

  • What is Hawthorne’s answer to the question on which the story (romance) hinges: would we live our lives differently if we could live them over? Do you agree with his conclusion? What value is there in speculating on a situation that could not happen in actual life?
  • How does Hawthorne achieve skill as a writer? Does he compare favorably with any writer of our national literature in style and subject matter? Give examples.
  • Did you think the story had to end as it does? Could another outcome have been possible? Explain your answer.

The interpretation tried to oppose and, at the same time, find similarities between two opposing cultures (American and Romanian): the former as creator of Hester and the latter, as receiver. The social contexts in which the character was created, and under what conditions she was read and interpreted by a different people, from another continent, 150 years later were also subject to discussion. The conclusions would show how Hester transgressed the alleged boundary both between the 17th century and 20th century America, and between America and Romania. We have still been waiting for our sinful nature to be acknowledged. Just like in the case of the father, the mother and the child in The Scarlet Letter – the whole trinity of love – for whom the world has done nothing, so we are waiting today for a “divine, still human” recognition and forgiveness of our weaknesses. This is what will make us self-confident, true, and real.

Through Hester, Hawthorne brought to point interesting, ever-lasting issues such as teenage pregnancy, babies born out of marriage, sex and adultery, woman pride, society rejection and consequent isolation, woman’s role to freely choose her own destiny in a consumer society. Hester managed to bridge across two continents, with two different cultures and conventions. She is still an apostle of a would-be world; she is still waiting for justice through economic, sexual and psychological freedom.

References

[1] Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. A Romance. Ohio State University Press, Penguin Books, 1986.
[2] Highlights of American Literature. A Course in American Literature for the Advanced Study of English. Washington, D.C.: English Teaching Division, Information Center Service, United States Information Agency, 1970.
[3] White, R.V. Process Writing. London & N.York: Longman Group UK Limited, 1991.
[4] White, R.V. Teaching Written English. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1990.

Tags: , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.