I think I was in my junior year in high school when I first read the Scarlet Letter. I remember I drove a 1976 red Volkswagen Rabbit with a hole in the floor that allowed the car to flood every time it rained. My copy of the Scarlet Letter happened to be on the floor of the backseat of my car one day during a downpour. I found the novel, bloated with water-logged pages, in a shrinking pool of water a few days later. I had to pay the school for the copy I “destroyed,” much to my protestation. I definitely learned the consequences of not caring properly for things that have been entrusted to me.
I learned a few other things during this initial exposure to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, and since I promised you I would tell you about some of the things I learned from my high school reading list, I’ll get started.
Endings are not always happy.
Nor do they need to be. While unsatisfying, I found Hawthorne’s ending appropriate. It’s unrealistic for everything to always work out in the end, and despite writing in the romance genre, Hawthorne wasn’t swayed by the enchanted happily-ever-after ending. Thanks to Hawthorne, I realized that an ending doesn’t have to be the stuff of dreams.
Sometimes situations end in ways we don’t want, and that’s ok, because we can and should, like Hester Prynne, move on.
Romanticism doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.
When my teacher said Hawthorne was part of the romantic movement, I pictured something completely different than the world of the Scarlet Letter. At the time, I didn’t know much about romance novels, but I knew enough to understand they were supposed to be about infatuation, resolved tensions, and sublime endings. Those things are nice, but the Scarlet Letter certainly isn’t about them. Well, I will say Hawthorne fulfilled my expectations with intense emotions – just not the emotions I was anticipating. Instead of a classic love story, I realized romanticism will use a story of love to reveal religious foibles, moral degradation, and idealized individualism.
I learned it’s good to have your preconceived notions flipped upside down and your expectations shaken up. Experiencing that opened me up to delving into what Hawthorne accomplished instead of cruising along blindly consuming what I thought he should accomplish.
19th Century American literature is compelling.
I enjoyed reading the Scarlet Letter. That didn’t seem unusual to me at first. I have always enjoyed reading a wide variety of texts, so Hawthorne’s work was just another in a litany of books I had enjoyed. But then my friends started talking about how much they hated it. I joined in (I was in high school; cut me some slack), but my heart knew the truth. I found the book intriguing.
I clearly developed a love for 19th Century American literature at some point in my life. I got a whole degree in it, and I sporadically bore people with it at parties and on my blog, so I suppose that evidences my proclivity for the time period. I think this love affair might have begun with reading about Hester Prynne and her fancy pants big red A. What’s not to love about a woman whom society has shamed and forced to put a huge A on all of her clothing, but who does so with style and panache?
Female characters in 19th Century American literature knew how to buck the system from within. I have learned a lot from them.
Society is consistently cruel to women and children.
It doesn’t matter if it’s 1850, 1950, 1980, or any other time, cruelty will inevitably be enacted upon women and children.
Like the woman in the biblical story who got caught in the act of adultery, Hester Prynne faced her accusers alone. Hester couldn’t hide her adultery, because the fruit of it, her daughter Pearl, remained a constant reminder to herself and her community. She faced shame and loneliness while the long unnamed partner remained unscathed by society. Hester and Pearl both suffered, and the society of novel seemed just fine with that.
Back in high school, that seemed wrong to me, but it also seemed entirely accurate. Not much has changed.
Some things will never be explained.
And that’s ok. How did Dimmesdale get that mark on his chest? What even is the mark on Dimmesdale’s chest? You don’t know either? Oftentimes, the best literature leaves us guessing.
In life, as in literature, uncertainty happens constantly, Uncertainty can be a roadblock or it can be an avenue of discovery. We get to choose.