Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:
The Scarlet Letter – by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This was another one of those “had to read” books in high school that I yowled my way thru in protest. The hi-falutin’ language … the bleakness, the foreignness of that world (at least to my naive eyes) – Bah, what a mess!! The Crud (teacher) did his best with it – and I still remember his lecture on the symbolism thruout. Even though I found the book soooo boring, he – with his clues of what to look for – helped us through it. He helped us crack the code of symbols, and that’s all I really remember of the book.
In 2001, I launched my “let’s go back and read all those books from high school” project. I started with The Scarlet Letter. And, naturally, was amazed by the book – reading it as an adult. His writing! The flashes of insight. Also, the development of the characters! Hester is not just some boring symbol (although she is that as well). She’s also a real live person – with stubbornness, gumption … she came to life for me. The Scarlet Letter – unlike Tess of the D’Urbervilles – contains a real possibility of redemption. Redemption through sacrifice and suffering, a la Dostoevsky. And Hawthorne, in his writing, lets us know that this is not meant to be a literal tale, not really. The last sentence of the book contains the word “legend”. So this is meant to seem like a tale passed down through generations … one that has taken on mythic or legendary status. As in: “so once upon a time there was a woman named Hester Prynne … and here is what happened to her …” That style really works perfectly. Even in the descriptions of nature – and the townsfolk – and the red beams of sunset – all of that combine to create an IMAGE of a world, almost like a postcard, or a medieval painting. We are not meant to be IN that world … we look at it, in wonder and compassion … we see all the elements, it is an incredibly detailed portrait … but we are meant to maintain our distance from it, just a bit. It is, at its heart, a STORY – and it is meant to be SEEN as one.
I’ll always remember this second reading of the book because I finished it while sitting in the dirt in line in Central Park, 7 hours into my wait. Story here, if you haven’t read it.
Here’s an excerpt. The line about “borrowing from the future” startles me in its brilliance and insight. But then – most every page of this remarkable book has some kind of sentence like that one. Astonishing.
EXCERPT FROM The Scarlet Letter – by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hester Prynne’s term of confinement was now at an end. Her prison-door was thrown open, and she came forth into the sunshine, which, falling on all alike, seemed to her sick and morbid heart, as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast. Perhaps there was a more real torture in her first unattended footsteps from the threshhold of the prison, than even in the procession and spectacle that have been described, where she was made the common infamy, at which all mankind was summoned to point its finger. Then, she was supported by an unnatureal tension of the nerves, and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert the scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover, a separate and insulted event, to occur but once in her lifetime, and to meet which, therefore, reckless of econmy, she might call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many quiet years. The very law that condemned her – a giant of stern features, but with vigor to support, as well as to annihilate, in his iron arm – had held her up, through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy. But now, with this unattended walk from her prison-door, began the daily custom; and she must either sustain and carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her nature, or sink beneath it. She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief. To-morrow would brings its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next; each its own trial, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably grievous to be borne. The days of the far-off future would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days, and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame. Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, — at her, the child of honorable parents, — at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, — at her, who had once been innocent, — as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.
It may seem marvellous, that, with the world before her, — kept by no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure, — free to return to her birthplace, or to any other European land, and there hide her character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another state of being, — and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her, — it may seem marvellous that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghostlike, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil. It was as if a new birth, with stronger assimilations than the first, had converted the forest-land, still so uncongenial to every other pilgrim and wanderer, into Hester Prynne’s wild and dreary, but life-long home. All other scenes of earth – even that village of rural England, where happy infancy and stainless maidenhood seemed yet to be in her mother’s keeping, like garments put off long ago – were foreign to her, in comparison. The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken.
It might be, too, — doubtless it ws so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hold, — it mgiht be that another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trod the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and over again, the temper of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester’s contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she had seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe – what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England — was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saintlike, because the result of martyrdom.
Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee.