The Scarlet Letter (and the Literary Canon)
Reviewed by Heidi Boudro
While reading classic literature at my age--mid 40's--it has struck me how much easier it is to understand than when I was in high school and college. Now I have more patience, more experience with literary conventions, more knowledge of historical context, and most important, more maturity. Literature has become not just easier but more rewarding.
There have been some surprises. I am now the same (probable) age as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath! In high school, The Old Man and the Sea just made me uncomfortable, but now I find it deeply moving. I can't pin down why The Great Gatsby was so puzzling to me in high school, other than that it was evidently sufficiently outside my experience, and, crucially, not written for sixteen-year-olds.
This month I read, for the first time, The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne (originally published in 1850). I was aware that the novel is often read in high schools. I found it to be a compelling page-turner, but that is because I am an adult.
The story, racy for its time, concerns the ostracism of an "adulteress" and her illegitimate child, in Puritan New England; the woman's refusal to name the child's father; and the father's fear of execution as well as disgrace. It appeared to me that the novel was not intended to be realistic, but more of a parable; this would be consistent with Hawthorne's conception of a "romance" rather than a "novel." In my opinion, The Scarlet Letter's real purpose was to provoke thought about the value and consequences of honesty, how hypocrisy damages a community, and repentance in the religious sense.
The ornate language and old-fashioned level of detail mean that inexperienced readers are going to be unhappy, at best. In addition, the reader is expected to read "in between the lines" to understand the plot, as no nineteenth-century author was going to write directly and explicitly about an affair. Interesting as it might be to lead a discussion with teenagers on the novel's content, overall I felt it was one of the least suitable, and most impractical, novels I could think of for high school students.
I began to think about the literary "canon" and when we usually encounter it.
- There is a serious lack of context in literature classes, as if isolated works fell out of the sky. (We can, in part, thank academic fashions such as the New Criticism for this.)
- What is the purpose of literature in high school? In college? Is it too much to ask an English department to define its own purpose? I've always felt that if I were teaching a class, the first lecture topic would always address Why should anyone study this?
- How can our culture enable classic literature to find its true audience, that is, grown-ups?
Reader's Advisory: The Scarlet Letter begins with a tedious, irrelevant prologue, "The Custom-House," that largely consists of Hawthorne's complaints about having to work in U.S. Customs. I skipped it (reading it later for completism) to go directly into The Scarlet Letter and I suggest that you do the same.
Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro