I sat down to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne about two months ago.
It has taken that long for many reasons. I wasn’t that excited about it. Hawthorne’s writing was extremely long and descriptive just to cover the simplest action. I guess he thought paragraphs were a sin. And ultimately because the subject matter bore me; it was lacking in explosions and gunfights.
But I read it anyway.
For those who don’t know, or don’t care to remember, the tale revolves around single mother Hester Prynne. Condemned to wear the scarlet letter, a mark of adulterous shame, she refuses to give the name of the father of her daughter, Pearl. Things take a slight turn when her legal husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns to haunt her and vows to find the identity of her lover.
I’d call the next part a spoiler, but the story was published in 1850.
Hester’s lover turns out to be Arthur Dimmesdale, the local preacher. Far from a condemning man, Arthur is physically weakened and eventually dies from the very guilt he feels for his actions and leaving Hester to suffer alone.
Now in light of modern politically charged themes, there’s a few things to really consider and think about. Most people focus on the hypocrisy of the situation, how the spiritual leader of the town is half the cause of its shame. Of course, Cracked recently came out with an article which discussed Puritan sex historically. Number four. It puts things in perspective, but doesn’t necessarily contradict the story.
But they might miss out on the other questions to consider. Political and modern questions.
First is the mixing of church and state. Today, such a thing would quickly be revolted against. For the U.S. these two organizations are segregated by our first amendment. But this book takes place during a time long before the Constitution came into existence. The collusion of government and the church is common here, and the laws reflect the church’s strongly defined set of morals.
There is also the government’s involvement in the family. Today, the involvement of the state in child rearing has grown considerably. Between the ages of 6 to 18, many children spend eight hours a day, five days a week in publicly provided schooling. Thus it appears that the state’s involvement is considerably less in the book than what it is today. But the Governor does see fit to question whether Hester is truly a proper role model for her daughter Pearl, and whether Pearl should be taken from her.
It creates a lot of food for thought when applied to modern political debates.
I really wonder what the line is between general fiction and the classics that we are all forced to read in high school. Is the message in The Scarlet Letter important? Definitely. Did it take so many words to tell? No. I feel as though one of the reasons so many teachers drag their students through these longer-than-they-must-be novels is a sense of “reward” we’re supposed to feel after completing it. There’s a fine line between when description becomes overbearing and long and when it’s just right.
Is that it? Do we just read these classics to feel some sense of accomplishment? I’m fortunate in that a lot of my teachers instead used anthologies of various short stories to convey the lessons and ideas. Short stories do not have much time for fluff, so they tend to deliver just the right about of description and get on with it instead of filling their reader’s minds with “descriptive riddles.”