Read the Resistance, July 2017: The Scarlet Letter
For the inaugural month of Read the Resistance, an online book club that highlights written works of and about resistance, we asked literary power team Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster to recommend a book that exemplifies resistance to them. Their pick? The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a particularly timely choice for July 4, which marks both American Independence Day and Hawthorne’s birthday.
“The first book that came to us was The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne,” said Hustvedt. “It is a great novel of resistance by a woman who opposes the patriarchy, hypocrisy, and misogyny of her world with stubborn, mute, but unbending insistence. The complex sexual underground of power relations is also explored, which makes the book topical in relation to the current administration. Resistance is a particular stance, at once social and psychological. Any political novel won’t do.”
The Future is Female
“Women too had troubled New England since its founding; they claimed the starring roles as heretics and rebels… Beginning with Anne Hutchinson, the charismatic religious leader who encouraged women to walk out of sermons and who disputed church doctrine, [women] had been speaking their minds, otherwise known as disturbing the peace.”—Stacy Schiff, The Witches: Salem, 1692
Many suggest that the defiant Hester was drawn from the real-life Anne Hutchinson, who makes no physical appearance in the novel, but whose name appears twice. Hutchinson, like the fictional Hester, was a woman who dared to question the standards of behavior imposed upon her by a patriarchal Puritan society.
Much of The Scarlet Letter explores the demands society places on women, and the ways in which Hester defies those demands. Beyond decorum alone, the book asks what it means to be a woman in Hester’s society—and suggests that Hester, with her loss of tenderness, has lost that “attribute…which had been essential to keep her a woman.”
As The Scarlet Letter was originally intended as a short story, each chapter might be treated as a different radical act made by a woman under patriarchal control: Hester refuses to reveal the name of her lover; Hester refuses to obey her estranged husband; Hester maintains a livelihood in a dignified manner, selling fine needlepoint to wealthy men for their dress clothes. Her rejection of expected decorum—and her insistence on economic self-sufficiency—are based in principles that have resonated across centuries of feminine resistance, from Anne Hutchinson to Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, Ella Baker, and beyond.
Women continue to be a driving force behind contemporary resistance efforts, exemplified by the Women’s March, the winner of this year’s PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. And unfortunately, their core issues today would feel very familiar to Hawthorne and Hutchinson: economic independence and wage equity, freedom from gender-based violence and oppression, and the right to make our own decisions about our bodies.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- What does it mean to be a “woman” in Hester’s society? When the narrator refers to Hester as “she who had once been a woman,” what does that suggest about the community’s understanding of gender?
- How have women-led resistance efforts influenced and been influenced by adjacent movements? Where have there been histories and opportunities for coalition?
- What are the connections between women-led resistance happening at different scales—locally, nationally, and globally—within community spaces, through business decisions, and at various levels of government?
- Was Nathaniel Hawthorne a feminist?
“She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain … but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it? Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for punishment?” -Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
In the Scarlet Letter, Hester chooses to embrace her inflicted label, showcasing her letter “A” in fashionable embroidery to promote her craft and business. But even as Hester attempts to reclaim her dignity, the gossips—what we might nowadays call bullies—call her a “brazen hussy.”
That’s the thing about labels: they’re sticky.
But with Hester, we see an example of a woman whose label does not entirely define her, for while many see the “A” in the way it was initially intended, there are others who begin to see it as something different: Able. Hester refuses to be destroyed by the burden of her label—as Hawthorne writes, “The world’s law was no law for her mind.”
For many, our first encounter with Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter took place in high school, an experience that, for many, didn’t feel so different from Hester’s. Shame and the labels used to perpetuate it—”nerd,” “jock,” “slut”—threatened to become an identity.
But by upending the terms of public humiliation in her punishment, Hester indicts the moral foundation of her community. There is a long tradition of reclaiming and transforming symbols in public space to powerful effect. In one recent and notable example, Emma Sulkowicz carried a mattress around Columbia University’s campus to protest the college’s handling of her rape allegation, in which no punitive action was taken or criminal charges filed. And just last month, an Asian-American band won a major First Amendment victory in the Supreme Court allowing them to trademark and reclaim their name: The Slants.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- What are some of the labels given to citizens in The Scarlet Letter?
- How do attitudes—both Hester’s and the townspeople’s—toward the scarlet letter shift throughout the novel?
- What can members of a movement do to reclaim symbols and language together?
- How can we account for the different relationship each individual holds with a reclaimed object?
Crime & Punishment
“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.” -Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter
The Puritans of The Scarlet Letter made a priority of building both a prison and a cemetery in their new community—as if crime and punishment were as inevitable as death. But what is the goal of punishment in this Puritan society?
If the scarlet letter is meant to compel Hester to repent for her “sin,” it appears to fail: Hester repents her adultery far less than she regrets marrying her husband. And if its aim is to hold Hester up as a warning to others, then the townspeople’s willingness to interpret the brilliant red “A” as “Able” suggests that it fails as a deterrent, as well.
The Scarlet Letter surfaces some persistently American thinking about criminality—attitudes that crime is socially inevitable, that certain behaviors must be policed and made examples of, that criminals innately possess qualities that require reform. What we conceptualize as crime—and the attendant insistence on justice—have resulted in a uniquely devastating system of mass incarceration in the U.S. A 2016 report from the Prison Policy Initiative indicates that U.S. incarceration rates are the highest in the world, and that former U.S. convicts face some of the steepest barriers to employment, voting, and participation in civic life.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
- How do the citizens of The Scarlet Letter treat its criminals? How is this different—or similar—from how we treat those who’ve broken the law today?
- How do binary notions of good and evil uphold oppressive policies, institutions, and administrations of justice, both in the Scarlet letter and today?
- What narratives of criminality have historically been projected onto certain groups—including women—and how are these assumptions expressed in our day-to-day interactions with one another?
About Siri Hustvedt
Siri Hustvedt was born and raised in Minnesota. Her first novel, The Blindfold (1992) was translated into 17 languages. Since then, Hustvedt has published a number of novels including the internationally best-selling What I Loved and The Summer Without Men, and a range of nonfiction titles, including The Shaking Woman, a neurological memoir which is both a personal account of Hustvedt’s experience as a patient and an exploration of the ambiguities of diagnosis. In 2012, she was awarded the International Gabarron Prize for Thought and Humanities, and in 2014 she won the Los Angeles Book Prize for Fiction and was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for The Blazing World. Her latest collection of essays A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women: Essays on Art, Sex, and the Mind was a finalist for the 2017 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay. Hustvedt holds a PhD in English literature and is lecturer in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College.
About Paul Auster
Paul Auster is the bestselling author of Winter Journal, Sunset Park, Invisible, The Book of Illusions, and The New York Trilogy, among many other works. His latest book, 4 3 2 1: A Novel, was released in February 2017 and is long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. He has been awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, the Prix Médicis étranger, an Independent Spirit Award, and the Premio Napoli. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
About Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Unless people are more than commonly disagreeable, it is my foolish habit to contract a kindness for them.” —Nathaniel Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804. He was a private man. After graduating alongside Longfellow from Maine’s Bowdoin College in 1825, Hawthorne returned to Boston to take a job at the Custom-House—like the one at which The Scarlet Letter’s introduction begins. Hawthorne’s ancestors were one of the oldest Puritan families in Salem; among his relatives was the most merciless judge in the Salem Witch Trials.
The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 and was one of the first mass-produced books in the United States. It was an immediate success despite Hawthorne’s own doubts. It went on to be admired by such literary greats as George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and Henry James.
Hawthorne died in 1864 at the age of 59.