“Timing is everything, in education as in many other fields. It’s not enough to teach well. You have to teach well to kids who are ready to learn, kids who are developmentally ‘ripe’ for learning.”
- Boys Adrift by Leonard Sax

Thursday, February 5, 2009

RTH: The Scarlet Letter

For some reason I have had a hard time trying to figure out what I want to say about The Scarlet Letter. I enjoyed the book and didn't find it difficult to read, but it's not one of my favorites.

I think my big issue is that I am a forgiving person, and I want people to find happiness and overcome their trials. I believe that people can repent of their mistakes and move on with their lives. Hester was more successful at doing that, but it was very difficult for me to see Dimmsdale so miserable. I was also frustrated that Hester had to marry someone she didn't care for in the first place.

I guess my real issue is with the time period. I think it's safe to say that I am really glad that I didn't live during the Puritan times. Don't get me wrong, I'm a religious person, and the idea of having a government that is connected with the church and strongly encourages moral behavior seems like a good idea. But they were obviously going a little bit overboard. Hawthorne says that "a penalty which in our days would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself." Dimmsdale was afraid to admit his crime, probably because a death sentence would be waiting for him.

Obviously Hester and Arthur did something that was wrong, but I also have a problem with the whole public shaming thing. I suppose it was done so that others could see the embarrassment that can come from committing a sin, but as one of the women said "let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart." Even without the "A" on her chest, Hester would always remember her crime, and the consequences it brought. I believe that repentance is something that should be between a person and their God - "the physician of the soul". The religious leader and the people wronged may need to be included, but I really finding it appalling that the Puritans felt it necessary to publicly administer punishment for every crime.

I found it interesting that Hester developed a "sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts". Every one of is a sinner, in some degree or another. Hester could see it in other peoples countenances, yet she was the one who has to endure public shame. I feel like this whole system of government simply compelled people to hide all their faults and mistakes because there was no chance for forgiveness or retribution. The only time Dimmsdale was willing to publicly admit his crime, was when he knew he was going to die anyway.

I'm glad Hester was able to obtain strength through her years, her crime and the letter actually seemed to give her more freedom. "The world's law was no law for her mind." She had already broken the law, so she wasn't restricted by it anymore. She was free to think about things "such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England". I took that to mean that she wasn't bound by her cultural and religious beliefs. She felt free to think about other options, and had no qualms about running away with Dimmesdale and living together as a family.

Chillingworth is an interesting character. He is so set on revenge, that it alters who he is. He showed "striking evidence of man's faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil's office." All we have to do is one evil deed, and the devil can take root in our hearts. His hatred had "transformed a wise and just man to a fiend", and his revenge was even darker than Dimmesdale's sin. As Hester was rising above her shame, Chillingworth was lowering himself in his evil designs. It was interesting though that he seemed to feel no anger towards Hester. He felt that they were both to blame, and that when they married he should have known this would be the eventual result. At the beginning of the book, when he meets Hester in the prison, he tells her that "thou and thine, Hester Prynne, belong to me." And he does end up leaving his possessions to Pearl, which I guess is the one good thing he did.

It's interesting that the letter seems to change meaning over time. The people see all the good deeds that Hester is doing, and see that she really is a good person. So, in a way, she found her forgiveness, but she still felt the need to wear the scarlet letter. The people see her as a strength and an example. I was also surprised that she returned to New England after Pearl was grown up. New England was her home though, and the place where she knew her sin and her sorrow. The other women in the community come to her for advice and comfort, and I like that she tries to assure them that some day in the future "a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness." I am so grateful that we have gotten to that point. That women are able to choose who they marry, and are able to have equal happiness with their husbands. If anything, this book just made me very appreciative of the life and freedom I have.

Next month we are going to discuss Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Feel free to join us, at the Reading Through History Book Club.

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