With the Herman Cain and Penn State cover-up scandals dominating the news this last week, I couldn’t help but think of that greatest of all American tales of sexual shame, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, his first novel, published in 1850. It happens that one of my book clubs reread this classic earlier this year. I was of two minds about the novel at that time.
On the one hand, Hawthorne writes a clunky, over-elaborated prose that punishes a reader the way I imagine sitting through a sermon by Jonathan Edwards would. For a long time in our fiction, writers have been admonished “to show” rather than tell. Well, Hawthorne likes to paint you an extended word picture of scene, and then he’ll tell you what it all means, usually three or four times, in painfully archaic prose.
Here’s Hawthorne’s narrator in the scene where it dawns on Hester Prynne that her wild-child daughter Pearl, who’s always shown an impish interest in that scarlet A sewn on her mother’s chest, could be someone to share in her sorrows and maybe be a form of solace for her.
Pearl’s inevitable tendency to hover about the enigma of the scarlet letter seemed an innate quality of her being. From the earliest epoch of her conscious life, she had entered upon this as her appointed mission. Hester had often fancied that Providence had a design of justice and retribution, in endowing the child with this marked propensity; but never, until now, had she bethought herself to ask, whether, linked with that design, there might not be likewise a purpose of mercy and beneficence. If little Pearl were entertained with faith and trust, as a spirit-messenger no less than an earthly child, might it not be her errand to soothe away the sorrow that lay cold in her mother’s heart and converted it into a tomb? – and to help her overcome the passion, once so wild, and even yet neither dead nor asleep, but only imprisoned within the same tomb-like heart?
Hawthorne rolls along in this vein for another page, but I’ll have mercy on you readers and quote no more. The novelist John Crowley once said about a different book of Hawthorne’s: ”I believe I dislike The House of Seven Gables because in the first chapters the prose is so fatuously intense: that striving for effect that makes it the ancestor of all horror-novel writing.” I know exactly what he means, but the astonishing thing about The Scarlet Letter for me is that the power of the story and the characters redeem the frequently cringe-inducing writing style.
It’s always risky to mine literature for tips on ethics, but it would seem that Hawthorne’s treatment of a sin-obsessed society could shed light on current cycles of sex, shame, and secrets.
The novel begins in Puritan Boston in the early days of the colony, with Hester Prynne being released from prison. Her crime: adultery. Its visible signs are the babe in her arms and the scarlet A on her chest. Hester, one of those grand rebel individualists of American literature, knows she’s sinned, but she has the strength to accept her “crime” and look the murmuring crowd in the eye. She will bear the public shame alone because the father of the child, equally culpable, has chosen not to come forward. What’s more, Hester stays loyal to her lover by refusing to reveal his identity, a fact the local magistrates find most irksome.
What strikes me in this scene is the harshness of the finger-pointing Puritan matrons as they debate the sentence they would give Hester:
“What do we talk of marks and brands whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead?” cried another female, the ugliest as well as the most pitiless of these self-constituted judges. “This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scriptures and in the statute-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thank themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!”
Over the course of the novel as the years pass, Hester, forced to live alone with her child outside the village, will achieve a kind of redemption through her public shame, her suffering, and her good works. Her isolation gives Hester an empathy for the woes of others that the average toe-the-line member of the community has no conception of.
Then there’s the young minister, the Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, the golden lad of that community, a preacher renowned for his eloquence, intellect, and virtue. Dimmesdale, of course, turns out to be Pearl’s secret father, Hester’s partner in sin. But he cannot bring himself to reveal this to the crowd.
Dimmesdale has a conscience, though, and it eats away at him from within. Consumed by his guilt, he develops a mysterious wasting ailment and, after laying the truth before the townspeople – seven years after Hester’s public shame – he dies, still exultant from his confession.
Another illuminating case is that of Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s much older, long-absent husband. When he appears in Boston, in disguise after Hester’s prison scene, he becomes obsessed with discovering who Hester’s lover was. An intellectual, Chillingworth soon suspects Dimmesdale, and wheedles his way into the clergyman’s confidence. His efforts to pry the secret out of the minister assume an aspect of mental torture. As Dimmesdale is consumed by his guilt, Chillingworth is consumed by his hatred, and by novel’s end he’s become a de facto disciple of the Devil.
What a tour de force of secret guilt and public redemption. You might say Hawthorne’s best practices for sex-scandal crisis management would go something like this:
- Be strong. Accept your guilt, in public. Painful as this is, in the long run you will be better off.
- Confession is good for your soul.
- Beware of turning into a self-constituted judge.
- Never presume that your own heart is pure.