Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Reading "The Scarlet Letter"

Hawthorne's style
I consider Hawthorne one of the masters of the short story form, and his style in The Scarlet Letter is mostly the same. Yet a style that serves so well for 20 pages or so becomes a bit much over 200 or so.

Still, Hawthorne masterfully portrays the emotional, psychological, spiritual state of his main characters. Reading the book, I felt personally overwhelmed, weighed down. I felt the burden of the scarlet letter for Hester Prynne, the overbearing, heavy guilt and shame of Arthur Dimmesdale, and the spiritual hatred and corruption of Roger Chillingworth. In the text itself, Hawthorne portrays introspective oppression. I wanted to rip off the letter. I wanted Dimmesdale to throw off his burden and confess his actions. I wanted to run outside in the bright sunshine and move freely about.

Religion and Christ
The Scarlet Letter is much about religion, with much explicit religious discussion by the author and characters. Yet about half-way through the book, I became conscious that there had not been, and would not be, any direct mention of Jesus Christ. Which makes sense: the Puritan religion Hawthorne portrays in the book is a particularly oppressive, sin-obsessed, judgmental, unforgiving pseudo-christianity. There are many more references to the Old Testament than the New, and there are many references to judgment and Judgment. The story is in many ways about redemption and forgiveness, but in the society Hawthorne describes, such concepts are pushed to the background.

Roger Chillingworth
When I say I am a "moral reader," it is not because I think that it is the only way to read literature, nor that I think all readers should read this way (far from it). I only mean that when I read, there is a certain level of moral edification involved. I rarely read without being inspired to thought and consideration, not just of the text itself, but of how the text applies in my living life. I suppose that one could read a book like Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello and not consider the issues of animal rights that are explicitly discussed in the novel; I, however, wouldn't want to. I read for direct engagement, and what I read causes me to think of myself and the world.

In Roger Chillingworth, I see a moral. He reminds me of the spiritual corruption that comes from unforgiving hatred. A challenge of a Christian pacifist is to be peaceable, to be forgiving, to actually let things go. The presence of a vengeful man like Roger Chillingworth does not provide me with a new idea; it does, however, provide me with a concrete reminder. To seek vengeance, to hold grudges, to refuse to try and forgive, is to corrupt oneself. To nurse a hatred, a perceived wrong, to feed it and build it, ruins oneself as much as it can ever ruin an enemy.

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