Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Swan Song III--The Scarlet Letter

I finished Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter for the umpteenth time last night, the last time, just as perplexed as ever.  It's a romance, people say; and even though you wouldn't find it amid that genre at Barnes and Noble, it's not without its frantic breathing, its heaving chests.  

Maybe it's not strange that Edgar Allen Poe liked only Hawthorne of all the mid-19th century greats.  The two of them were both loners, and there's probably as much heart-rending guilt in Arthur Dimmesdale as there is in that lunatic narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart."  And how about this?  Did that "A" appear in the sky at the end of SL, was that some ghastly apparition or simply a projection of the dirty rotten guilt of all kinds of self-righteous Puritans?  There's a touch of magic realism in Hawthorne, enough, I suppose, to enchant Mr. Poe.

Some profs like to say they "taught" Scarlet Letter, or whatever other piece of literature.  I've said it myself, I'm sure.  But there's a kind of mathematical certainty to what that phrase claims, as if SL, for instance, is little more than a direct object one passes along, like a family bible.  Look at that cover shot--Hester and daughter like the Madonna and child.  Hawthorne says as much himself--how some thought the two of them looked like Mary and the Babe.  That's preposterous, isn't it?  Maybe.

When it comes down to it, nothing's for sure in SL.  

After umpteen readings, I still don't know that I understand that complex love triangle well enough to "teach" it, well enough simply to hand it to my students as if it were a series of propositions they have to memorize for the test.  It's not.  It's a puzzle of deliberate ambiguity.

Is Hester Prynne a great hero or a holy fool?  What what about her lover, Dimmesdale?  When finally he does his big public confession on the pillory, does he become the hero?  Or is he just wretchedly pitiable?  Does Hawthorne hate the Puritans, his own lineage?  Or is he captive to it and its penchant for the horrors of sin?  Is he more Puritan than he himself ever knew?  And why on earth is this cuckolded Roger Chillingworth such a dark villain anyway?  He got sinned against, for pity sake.

When Hester reminds her lover/pastor, dark in the deepest wilderness, that what they'd done together on one hot and steamy night had a consecration of its own, as if it were its own kind of communion, does Hawthorne agree with her?  Or is she yet a darker sinner for uttering such sacrilege?  

And the answer is?  

"Wouldn't you like to know?" Hawthorne says, belching that wicked laugh his  most damned characters always do.

Yes, we would like to know, dang it. 

But we won't, because Hawthorne isn't sure himself.  Some claim SL to be the first modern novel in American literature because of its infernal ambiguity, its doubt, its playful juggling of what we like to think of as truth, its insistence on toying the way it does with the verities of the human heart.

He's exasperating--that man Hawthorne.  But goodness knows, he understands sin.  

Even though I've been through the novel a hundred times, it remains a puzzle to me.  I don't "get it," but then, I'm not sure I'm supposed to.  

It's not a novel that preaches, that tells us the truth.  Instead it opens up our hearts and pokes around, explores the secret territories within, not unlike Roger Chillingworth, really, the villain.  

That's an awful thought, really.  And it's an awful novel.  It doesn't just make us think; it makes us wonder.  I know this--it's more, much more, than I've ever "taught."

And this too--it's been a joy.  A mystery too, but a joy.    

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