Saturday, May 25, 2013

The Scarlet Letter: B

I'm giving The Scarlet Letter a B--an embroidered B, gules, on a sable field.1 I was sedulous2 keeping to my commitment to re-read the book, though I wotted3 not whether I would find my adolescent animadversions4 justified. To my great joy, once I had slogged past the ponderous Introductory, I discovered the language to be readable and oftentimes even pleasant. Nonetheless, nugatory5 I now believe it is, to expect high schoolers to enjoy immersing themselves in Hawthorne's lucubrations6--though enjoyment be not necessarily the point. Of this book, perhaps in a U.S. History class, one wherein are studious youth needing to contemplate the strange and distant Puritanism of Old Boston, where arrived a crop of England's first Americans (their women less beautiful than would become subsequent generations of New Englanders, for not yet tempered were their visages by deprivation and rugged Atlantic weather,7 nor yet purged of joy through community shunning and self-denial)--or youth desiring, or merely instructed by pedagogical authority, to contemplate the sarcastic literary wanderings of the bored and apparently bitter descendants of those early settlers--yes, of this book in such a class (and not in freshman or sophomore English) perhaps more enjoyment and instructive use would be found.8

My recommendations: skip the Introductory (propose reading it as part of a possible book report project) and cut straight to the main story. Judge the Puritans harshly, forgive them if you will, and remind high schoolers to use protection when they engage in sexual intercourse if they want to avoid making babies.

1"[A simple slab of slate] 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:— 'ON A FIELD, SABLE, THE LETTER A, GULES'"
2" She wondered what sort of herbs they were which the old man was so sedulous to gather."
3"Without taking overmuch upon myself my good word will go far towards gaining any strange gentleman a fair reception from yonder potentate you wot of."
4"[It] excited neither surprise nor animadversion when so reputable a citizen as old Roger Chillingworth, the physician, was seen to enter the market-place in close and familiar talk with the commander of the questionable vessel."
5"According to these highly-respectable witnesses, the minister, conscious that he was dying—conscious, also, that the reverence of the multitude placed him already among saints and angels—had desired, by yielding up his breath in the arms of that fallen woman, to express to the world how utterly nugatory is the choicest of man's own righteousness."
6"With his own ghostly voice he had exhorted me, on the sacred consideration of my filial duty and reverence towards him—who might reasonably regard himself as my official ancestor—to bring his mouldy and moth-eaten lucubrations before the public."
7"Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not character of less force and solidity than her own. The women who were now standing about the prison-door stood within less than half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen: and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone."
8This sentence is only 118 words long. I don't know that I could get it up to 139, but I think I did a decent job of delaying the verb until the very end.

1 comment:

JLPP said...

Frankly, given the choice of reading you or Hawthorne, I'd choose you every time!