lust in the shadows behind her: eternal remorse

D.H. Lawrence once described Nathaniel Hawthorne as the man that “knew disagreeable things in his inner soul.” But does it really matter if he gave us The Scarlet Letter? …

What gives The Scarlet Letter its bite and terror is not the sexuality from which the action proceeds but the unremitting series of consequences that follow on adultery. Already, as the story opens and Hester Prynne steps from the prison with her bastard child in her arms and a fantastically embroidered gold-and-scarlet A on her breast, the circumstances of lust are in the shadows behind her. Nor will they be shown to the reader by flashback and recollection: “… the infant and the shame were real… all else had vanished.”

---Considering that religious puritans (and their politically correct cohorts) continue to plague the world at the beginning of the third millennium, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter remains as relevant today as when it was first published in 1850. This evening, Turner Classic Movies is presenting MGM’s 1926 film version of Hawthorne’s story about sex, love, and the evils of religious fanaticism and social intolerance. It’s a must.---Read More:

Of course we learn the primary facts of hester’s girlhood in England and of her marriage to the old man of science who now calls himself Roger Chillingworth. And in a burst of defiance and hope just before the last darkness comes on them, she reminds the weak minister who made her pregnant, “What we did had a consecration of desire there may once have been, and whether the illegitimate union with Arthur Dimmersdale was indeed a truer marriage that her union with the sterile old man, nothing abides except the fact of their transgression.

The virtue of their amorous time is not even denied. It doesn’t have to be. It is simply thrown into permanent oblivion by the proliferating falsehoods to which they are now committed. Hawthorne seems to say that the sexual act was, by itself, indifferent. Or, if the romantic mind would rather see it this way, it was a natural good to which nature bade them help themselves. But in the human sphere, he says, such an act is never morally isolated. In its various contexts it disrupts all truths by which the spirit must live.

---Readers soon realize that the baby-daddy is this hypocritical Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (easy way to remember - he stays "dim" or out of the limelight of being the town adulterer). This guy is all afflicted internally, but gets none of the external shame that Hester has to deal with. There's also Hester's legal husband, Roger Chillingworth (he's "chilling" because he's evil). He secretly comes to America during this whole scandal. Chillingworth is all about torturing Dimmesdale and chastising Hester.--- Read More:

Hester says, “Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast.” Truth is taken from her by her generous wish to protect Dimmesdale from exposure, and this deception delivers him into the power of the wronged husband. The scarlet letter she is condemned to wear cannot even be a simple emblem of confession and repentance but only the symbol of eternal remorse.

Dimmesdale envies her the privilege of wearing her badge of shame in public. “Even this much of truth would save me! But, now, it is all falsehood!-all emptiness!-all death!” When, after seven years of inner torment, Dimmesdale makes a public confession from the scaffold pf the pillory on which Hester was humiliated before the town, Chillingworth says, “there was…no high place nor lowly place, where thou couldst have escaped me-save on this very scaffold!” There the exhausted Dimmesdale falls and dies without hope of a “pure reunion” with Hester. At last he says “The law we broke! – the sin here so awfully revealed! -let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear!

No American novel concludes more sternly, or more strictly. This is a lamentation, not tragedy, a wail of grief, not a prophecy of renewal. From the “dusty midst” of his life Hawthorne saw a universal field of blackness “relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow. ”

Here is justification for D.H. Lawrence’s comment, “That blue-eyed darling Nathaniel knew disagreeable things in his inner soul. He was careful to send them out in disguise.”

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Anthony Trollope:But through all this intensity of suffering, through this blackness of narrative, there is ever running a vein of drollery. As Hawthorne himself says, “a lively sense of the humorous again stole in among the solemn phantoms of her thought.” He is always laughing at something with his weird, mocking spirit. The very children when they see Hester in the streets are supposed to speak of her in this wise, “Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter. Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at her.” Of some religious book he says, “It must have been a work of vast ability in the somniferous school of literature.” “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest,” says even the sad mother to her child. Through it all there is a touch of burlesque — not as to the suffering of the sufferers, but as to the great question whether it signifies much in what way we suffer, whether by crushing sorrows or little stings. Who would not sooner be Prometheus than yesterday’s tipsy man with this morning’s sick-headache? In this way Hawthorne seems to ridicule the very woes which he expands himself in depicting. Read More:

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