Scarlet Letters

I had to read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school. I didn’t enjoy it. The premise sounded interesting and a bit sexy but the novel didn’t hit me in either way. I wasn’t ready for it. (There were several TV and movie versions of the novel. One starred Demi Moore as Hester. That might be the version I was hoping for in high school.

I read it again in a college course and it made more sense.  It is a truly American novel. It has strong men and women characters. Even if you never read it, you might know the basic story. It is set in Puritan Boston in 1642-1649 and tells the story of Hester Prynne. She had an affair and got pregnant and has to wear the scarlet letter A to show she is an adulterer. That situation still doesn’t sit well with American society but in the 17th century, it was almost inconceivably unacceptable. Lots of sin and guilt.

One of my favorite novelists is John Updike. He wrote a kind of trilogy of novels that bring aspects of The Scarlet Letter into modern times.

His A Month of Sundays is about a clergyman gone bad. Reverend Tom Marshfield is a Puritan Arthur Dimmesdale who is sexually disgraced and gets sent away from his parish to a desert retreat for some spiritual renewal.

The novel is a collection of his weekly journal entries about a variety of topics including his wife (the daughter of his ethics professor) and the organist he had an affair with at the parish. While in the desert, he finds himself desiring the woman who runs the retreat –  Ms. Prynne.

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered
as to which may be the true.”  –  Hawthorne

In Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, Roger Lambert is a middle-aged dignity. professor of divinity and Roger’s version of the story is a modern version of Roger Chillingworth’s version of the love triangle from Hawthorne.

Roger, the modern cuckold, is battling a computer scientist named Dale who believes he is gathering evidence of God’s existence. Professor Roger debates Dale and is determined to disprove Dale’s evidence.

Being it is an Updike novel and related to Hawthorne, Roger’s much younger wife, Esther, ends up having an affair with Dale.

Like A Month of Sundays, there is humor and allegory here and a battle of faith and reason with a shot of revenge,

HawthorneBefore I get to Updike’s third novel, you need a bit of background. In 1841, Hawthorne became a charter member of Brook Farm, an agricultural collective founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley. It was near Boston and Hawthorne thought this farm life would give him some inspiration and time to write. It didn’t work out that way.

This transcendental sort-of-utopian commune had him cutting straw, milking cows, and shoveling manure. He left after just a few months, but he did use the experience in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance.

Updike’s comparable version is simply called S. He plays off both Hester’s story and some of the idealism of Blithedale which falls apart as egos clash and the idyll proves unsatisfying.

The “S”  is Sarah Worth. She is a descendent of Hester and a native New Englander.  Sarah leaves her husband and children and heads to a commune of Buddhists led by a mystic called the Arhat. At this ashram in Arizona, she tries to find salvation.

Updike’s form for the novel is Sarah’s letters and tapes that she sends to her husband, daughter, brother, dentist, hairdresser, and psychiatrist.

Updike completes his trilogy with this Hester Prynne version of the story. I liked this book but I wasn’t happy with the parodies of the spiritual pilgrims, Buddhists and enlightenment. Then again, Hawthorne also satirized the people of Blithedale, so I suppose it fits.

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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