The A of Societal Shame

I remember in secondary school English class we were assigned The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I still remember what the teacher said, “Check with your parents to see if they have any objections to you reading this book.  If so, please let me know.

I glanced around at my classmates.  Most of us had been together on this education journey from the beginning.

I thought, as did many of them, why would our parents object to a book written in 1850 by one of America’s greatest novelists?  Unfortunately, the answer was simple yet confusing.

In our mountain hamlet there were those who sought to influence the literary repast offered by English teachers.  In most cases these well-meaning but post-scripted individuals had not even read the books they wanted to keep from their children, especially the teenagers.

They had deferred their intellectual and reasoning abilities to the ramblings of their Saturday or Sunday preacher or their reading of their religious affiliation’s journal or what they heard on the radio or television.  I had devout people tell me that novels and such things would destroy one’s mind and one would find themselves outside the gates of heaven.

Growing up I often wondered—why does Heaven have gates?  Are they made to keep people in or keep people out?  Anyway, I digress.

The Scarlet Letter is set in 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts which was dominated and controlled by the Puritans.  The Puritans had left England to practice their religion as they saw fit in the New World.

The story centers around Hester Prynne, a young woman who bore a child out of wedlock.  Her punishment was to wear a scarlet A on her black dress to tell everyone, especially the men, that she was an adulterous woman.  By bearing this mark of societal shame for her crime, she was ostracized from her society.

The mercy and passion showed to women in the Gospels by the Nazarene Teacher was sadly lacking in Hester’s treatment.  Of course many women have found little compassion and understanding over the millennia of time from their male counterparts.

Hester’s treatment by the fathers of Salem was harsh and unmerciful.  They wanted her to reveal who the baby’s father is so he could be punished.  Hester would not reveal her secret lover.

She and her daughter, Pearl, lived on the outer rim of the community in a small house.  Hester patiently rebuilt her reputation as a seamstress, but Pearl was a child of secrets and behaved as such, to the horror of the staunch Puritans.

As the story unfolds, the man who was the father of Pearl is revealed.  He was none other than the most right Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.  Shortly before his untimely death caused by his hidden guilt, he acknowledged his love for Hester and Pearl before the townspeople.

Hester and Pearl leave.  Eventually, Hester returns to her small house to live out her life.  Pearl marries into the European court.

The Scarlet Letter has been on a number of “banned” or “forbidden” lists since it was published 162 years ago. It still sparks controversy today.

The story has been lived and relived myriad times on this planet traversing the cosmos. Men and women are frail biological organisms with a host of perplexities.  How they fit into the human drama of survival depends on the society into which they are born and live.

The conclusion of the book says,

So said Hester Prynne, and glanced her sad eyes downward at the scarlet letter. And, after many, many years, a new grave was delved, near an old and sunken one, in that burial-ground beside which King’s Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tomb-stone served for both. All around, there were monuments carved with armorial bearings; and on this simple slab of slate—as the curious investigator may still discern, and perplex himself with the purport—there appeared the semblance of an engraved escutcheon. It bore a device, a herald’s wording of which may serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow: —


G. D. Williams       © 2012

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