Perhaps a novel written a hundred and fifty years ago about fictitious events that happened more than two hundred and fifty years earlier might seem irrelevant in our times. We have escaped our Puritan founding, haven’t we? But as I read The Scarlet Letter, I realized that it was not only still relevant, but also it was topical. Isn’t Rush Limbaugh, in his lambasting of Sandra Fluke, just a modern day Roger Chillingworth? There is something very human about using public shame to discourage behaviors we find objectionable. Though motivated by politics rather than religious zeal, Limbaugh chose this tactic, and it was the tactic used against him by those who supported Fluke and felt offended by Limbaugh’s words. Public vilification, Mr. Limbaugh, is a sword that cuts both ways.
I thought I knew this story, especially since I had read the novel once before, but in rereading it, I learned that I had forgotten most of what happens. Perhaps my memory was corrupted by the Demi Moore movie that shares the title, the character names, and not much else. It was such a lousy adaptation that after seeing it, I vowed never again to watch a movie of a novel I love and respect. I had read a quotation by Moore in which she justified changing the plot, because so few people had read the book. Perhaps that’s the saddest fact of it all. We live in a time when people are more likely to know our national literature through movie adaptations than by reading the pages themselves. So much is lost!
The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a woman who had yielded to passion with a man not her husband. The Puritan leaders of the day, Governor Bellingham and Minister John Wilson, decided that her punishment for this adultery will be to wear a scarlet letter A on her chest for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Hester harbors two secrets, the identities of two men, one her husband, the other her illicit lover. Of course, it’s a story of hypocrisy, of drawing attention to the sins of others in order to mask your own sins. But it is more than this. It is also a story of personal redemption, of recovering from past mistakes, of gaining personal strength.
This is a novel I believe every American should read, but especially anyone who studies American literature. What is American literature and what distinguishes it from the literature of other nations? It’s a complex question, but part of the answer lies in this truism: America defines itself, in part, through its literature. The Scarlet Letter, more than any other novel I know of, connects us to our Puritan founding. It reminds us that the first colonists came here to create an utopia where religion and government were one in the same. The politics of The Scarlet Letter is very personal; it’s aimed at one woman who had sinned. But in this individual punishment, we are forced to examine the boundaries between religion and government, between morality and law. Where does church end? Where does state begin? These are questions that still haunts our politics.