Monday, June 24, 2013

Monday Classic: The Scarlet Letter

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre: Utter, miserable crap
Original Pub. Date: 1850

For the seven people in the western hemisphere who remain blissfully unaware of this pernicious work of student-torturing literature, The Scarlet Letter is about adultery, mystical signs in the sky, and a nasty little demon child who exists only to add another layer of metaphor to the novel.

The depressing and unedifying plot: Hester Prynne, who is married and not living with her husband, but assumed to be single by her Boston neighbors, sleeps with one of the local ministers, gets pregnant, bears a daughter, and then is publicly shamed with a scarlet "A" for "adultery" that she has to wear sewn to her clothes. She refuses to name her lover, and the useless coward lets her suffer alone -- probably because he's a spineless douchebag, although other interpretations doubtless exist. Hester's nasty, one-dimensional doctor husband shows up and blackmails her into not revealing who he is; he then spends the rest of the book taunting her and trying to figure out the identity of Hester's lover.

This is, allow me to note, the one and only point in The Scarlet Letter at which anyone does anything with which a normal person could sympathize. Of course the betrayed husband wants to know who slept with his wife. And, sensibly, he thinks the jerk ought to be punished just like Hester is. After this brief moment of clarity, the novel meanders on to the next crazy person . . .

Pearl, the baby daughter, who grows into a psychopath child. When the authorities try to take her away from Hester, you'd think this would be a relief, but for some reason Hester fights to keep the horrible little yelling creature with her, and the story goes on. There's some more blackmail and taunting, and pointless wandering in the woods. That fills up most of the middle of the book. Finally, because even the more literary editors of the nineteenth century had to be telling Hawthorne, at this point, that something had better happen sometime or the publication deal was off, Hester and her lover agree to run away together and start over in England.

Scarlet As appear on the lover's chest, and in the sky, and for all I know in the whole of Boston's Puritan breakfast gruel, and then the lover and the husband both die. Not, mind you, in any kind of exciting way -- a duel, aliens, an invasion of the French, etc. -- but just because they're both sick and lame. One of the two, I think the gross husband, leaves Pearl enough money that she gets to go to Europe and live happily ever after; meanwhile, Hester lives a dull and A-emblazoned life until she dies too, at which point she's buried next to her lover under a tombstone with, you got it, a dumb scarlet A on it. Why? Because nothing in this novel gets to be vowel-free.

Other questions include: Why didn't they just go to England in the first place and live happily ever after? Why didn't Hester go somewhere else with her baby before her horrid husband tracked her down and/or she was publicly shamed? Why did Arthur, the stupid lover, not act like half a man and step up? (He was feeling guilty, you see, so that absolved him of doing anything practical like supporting the woman he loved or taking care of their child. Makes sense.) Why didn't Hawthorne just take some damn anti-depressants before he wrote the third most* purposeless, demoralizing novel of all time? And what is the deal with that crackhead Pearl, seriously?

So few of these questions have answers. Maybe most of the above are covered by "Hawthorne was being paid by the word"? Four stars for the author's beautiful writing, clever use of symbolism, and philosophical, ethical, and theological scholarship; two stars for using those in place of logic, sympathetic characters, and/or a plot in which something happens about which someone gives a damn.

* 1) The Grapes of Wrath and 2) The Sun Also Rises (see the two-haiku reviews of these for more details).

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