Pondering Hester Prynne While at my Needle
Before I read The Scarlet Letter, I made assumptions about it. First, I assumed that it was a novel designed to draw the reader into a position of sympathy for adultery. Second, I thought that if a woman was condemned to wear a letter "A" sewn to the bodice of her gown and made to live as an outcast for the rest of her life, it would make no sense for her to stay around town.
As for my first assumption -- well, I needn't have worried. Regardless of whatever liberties screenwriters may have taken in depicting this American classic for the masses, there is not a hint of impropriety to be found in Hawthorne's words. It was also a relief to note that Hester Prynne was not quite the blatant adulteress that I expected her to be -- her husband was presumed dead when her indiscretion occurred.
And for my second assumption -- the question keeps coming up among my blog-friends, "Why did Hester stay?" Jeannette, at A Classic Case of Madness, wrote a thought-provoking post on it. You can read it here. I think it is a very good question. If you can't answer that question, The Scarlet Letter would be pointless. The plot would dissolve the instant she walked away.
Of course, she didn't walk away. She stayed.
I came to The Scarlet Letter expecting a novel about shame or "ignominy" as Hawthorne liked to call it; what I got was a novel about fortitude. Hester Prynne was the kind of woman who could have taken lemons and made lemonade. She took that letter "A" which was supposed to stand for "adultery" and over time, turned it into "A" for "able."
In chapter three, "The Recognition," we find a scene rife with conflict. The tension is coming from every direction: the sanctimonious townspeople, stern officials, the "figure on the outskirts of town," the crying baby, the "unadulterated sunshine," the ambivalent minister, and Hester's own conscience.
Suddenly Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale is the one questioning Hester about the identity of the baby's father. (The reader already knows -- he is the father!) It's a tangled web. I was wondering, What in the world is this man going to say? Yet Hawthorne pulls the scene off brilliantly.
I'm not going to disclose all of the dialogue that ensues. It's the one scene in the book that brought me to tears. (Perhaps it was also all that tension mounting; I was bound to cry at some point.) He ends his interrogation of Hester with this:
Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman's heart! She will not speak!
After pondering the novel for a few days, what I keep coming back to is this: "She will not speak!" Perhaps she would not speak for the same reason that she would not leave: love.
Yes I know that in our culture we've got love and lust all mixed up, saying "love" when we really mean "lust." And yes, some lust did occur in this tale about twelve months before the novel begins. But the fact is: I read a novel about adultery and it didn't make me feel dirty. Somewhere along the way -- perhaps in the prison cell where one would expect the seeds of bitterness to grow -- at some point she began to love him. Understand I mean agape love and not eros. Agape expects nothing in return:
My child must seek a Heavenly father, for she will not know an earthly one!
She expected nothing from Arthur, yet she chose to remain near him.
I remember something my aunt once said to me when I was in my teens: "When you become physically intimate with someone, you create a bond -- a rope-- that's very difficult to break; when you have a child with someone, the rope becomes an iron chain." It's interesting that Hawthorne used this same metaphor:
The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken.-spoiler alert-
Hester does eventually leave. But not until after Arthur has died. Several times in the novel she asserts that she has remained true to him.
And as for her scarlet letter -- she wore it as proudly as a bride would have worn her wedding band.
Have you ever come to a novel with preconceived ideas which turned out to be false?
Do you have another opinion of Hester Prynne? Why do you think she stayed?