Posts Tagged ‘American Classics’
Be forewarned: This essay contains references to masturbation and other sexual acts. Once again by assignment, I examine the social impact of a controversial book first published over forty years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution. I’ve noticed a trend among most of the short stories and books that we have considered this year in our American Literature classes: many of them contain material that would be considered to be shocking or offensive to more conservative readers. Portnoy’s Complaint is no exception. In fact, if Ginsberg hadn’t broken the indecency barrier with his poem Howl a decade earlier, I am certain that Philip Roth would have been charged with breaking some sort of obscenity law. As it was, attempts were made to prohibit the distribution of the book in some countries and many U.S. libraries banned the book as too vulgar. Of course that was in 1969. Today it is considered an American classic.
I would like to address in this essay just what it is that makes Portnoy’s Complaint such an American classic, to discuss its universal appeal beyond the context of the Jewish culture in which the story takes place and to delve into the very important theme of religious influence on sexual thought, development and behavior. I can’t think of any two subjects that are more a part of our American literature tradition than religion and sex. Put them together in the same paper or book and you introduce conflict. Make them one in your treatise and you have broken a taboo. Roth’s book was a bestseller because he did just that. If you aren’t familiar with the novel, it was Portnoy’s Complaint that he could not enjoy sex because of the guilt that he felt from his religious culture. It is my thesis that the majority of American literature addressing this theme is faulty because of an incorrect understanding of the place of sex in religion. In fact, it is my contention that Portnoy’s Complaint is deeply flawed because of the focus on guilt as a direct result of religious culture and upbringing. But then, that’s what makes it so very American.
Alexander Portnoy understood the principle of guilt. He was an expert at guilt. In fact, he was a slave to it. He lived with it day in and day out. And where did he get it? He tells us that it came from his parents. After providing numerous examples he exclaims, “Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! They render it from me like fat from a chicken!” (p39) Did they do it on purpose? Are they to blame? Perhaps this later observation from Alex makes it clearer. “Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years?” (p40) In other words, he did not necessarily blame his parents for the guilt he felt; he blamed his religion. He equated Jewish suffering, and in particular, his own guilt, upon his cultural religious history.
At the age of fourteen, coincidentally about the age that most boys are in the midst of puberty, Alex decided that he would no longer participate in the traditional religious practices of his parents. He told them that he would no longer go to the synagogue with them. Since Alex has been masturbating, he has been experiencing guilt. It is clear that he attributes this guilt to his religious culture. In Jewish tradition, masturbation is prohibited, as are impure thoughts and sexual relations before marriage. In the midst of a long-winded diatribe directed at his father but more generally directed at his people, he says, “… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen ever to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the saga of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves … It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!” (p84) But he could not get away from the guilt he continued to experience because of his ongoing sexual activities.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not just a novel about masturbation or the sexual activities of a young Jewish man. It is really a very Catholic book, which means that the subject matter has universal and widespread appeal. Every young man goes through puberty, and if we are to believe the statistics, the majority of them (90% by some accounts) will have masturbated at least once by the time they are 18, with 60% masturbating regularly during their adolescent years. In America, the land of porn, we have the unique distinction of also being a very religious country. According to recent statistics, 83% of Americans claim to belong to a religious organization even though less than 40% formally participate by attending church regularly. Do you see my point? If the majority of young men masturbate and the majority of people in America have some sort of religious tradition in their lives, then this really is an American conflict that Roth has brought to our attention in such an entertaining manner. It is a characteristically American problem.
Portnoy’s answer to his complaint of guilt was to disassociate himself with his religious practices, a common solution for many young men in America who experience their own crisis of faith. In his case, he continued to have a very difficult time with guilt because being Jewish is more than just a religion. It is also his cultural heritage. He simply could not get away from the terrible feelings of shame and remorse he experienced even though he had renounced his faith. As he so eloquently exclaimed, “Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” (p 40) Even many years after his vow of non-participation, he still felt like he had to be a nice Jewish boy to please his parents. Even though he had graduated first in his law school class and was a very successful government lawyer, he could not free himself from the control of his parent’s beliefs, especially his mother’s ability to manipulate his feelings after so many years.
That was the wrong answer. Instead of rejecting his faith, maybe he should have listened to his father and embraced it, or at least the good parts of it. Alex went to Israel in a spontaneous attempt to find himself, his roots and some peace to his predicament. Unfortunately, he did not approach his quest with the right attitude. To him, it was purely an intellectual exercise. “I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why I still read with a pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?) So, I studied maps in my bed, bought historical and archeological texts and read them with my meals, hired guides, rented cars—doggedly in that sweltering heat, I searched out and saw everything I could.” (pp284-285) In the middle of his travels, he hits up on the local Israeli girls but finds that he has suddenly become impotent.
Alex concludes that he has been cursed by God, or at least by some sort of all-powerful judge because of the way he treated the women in his life. He resolves nothing and returns to America to a long session with his psychoanalyst, which results in the book we have read. Of course this is a fictional account but it so aptly describes the typical intellectual approach of some to finding answers to the really big questions in life – like how to be free of guilt. I have read the writings of a good rabbi who advocates the need to feel remorse and make amends. If Alex had looked deeper into his faith, I am convinced that he could have found an intelligent way to eliminate guilt that is both rational and practical. Guilt is a universal part of the human condition. It is something that we all feel when we have done something that goes against our own moral beliefs. In Alex’s case, he knew that it was wrong to masturbate, or at least to take it to the level that he did. He also knew that he had hurt each of the women he introduced us to in the book. If he had studied his own religion even just a little bit (how did he ever get through his own Bar Mitzvah?), he just might have learned the true meaning of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the year for his people.
To me, guilt is an indication that you still care about something that you once valued. If Alex didn’t care about these girls and their feelings, why did he keep bringing them up? If he didn’t really believe deep down in his heart that masturbation was wrong, then why did he feel so guilty after all these years? Alex was a good man, an intelligent man, but a confused man. He was confused by the idea that sex was something only meant for personal pleasure. If he would have considered that maybe, just maybe, what his faith taught about sex was worth considering, then maybe he could also have accepted the idea that he could be forgiven for whatever he has done that has caused him so much guilt. In Judaism, sex is reserved for marriage. It is intended to draw the married couple close to one another and to bind them as partners in their family. It is not just Judaism that believes this, so again this is a very catholic book with universal appeal. Alex did not want to get married, because to him, marriage was all about lust.
“Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me. How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women?” (p114) That’s pretty shallow. People do get old. Bodies change. Yet they stay married. Why? Because they are comfortable and happy together. It’s not all about sex. Marriage is more about a relationship, helping each other find happiness, learning and growing together. It’s not an experiment. It’s a commitment to one another. “I have affairs that last as long as a year, a year and a half, months and months of love, both tender and voluptuous, but in the end-it is as inevitable as death-time marches on and lust peters out. In the end, I just cannot take that step into marriage. But why should I? Why? Is there a law saying Alex Portnoy has to be somebody’s husband and father? I simply cannot, I simply will not, enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days.” (p116)
No, Alex, there’s no law, but you are missing out on wonderful things that come from marriage and in no other way: a sense of security and belonging that lasts. People get married because they love each other. They get married for love. And because you love another person you agree to be faithful to them and to do all you can to help them want to be faithful to you. But he continues, “For love? What love? Is that what binds all these couples we know together– the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far, far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” (p117)
No Alex, love isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, but then you’ve admitted that you know nothing about love. You don’t understand that love involves sacrifice and giving and caring. Actually, Alex, love is not convenient at all, it is often very inconvenient. Love is the opposite of fear, it is faith. One doesn’t enter into a marriage relationship at the end of a long series of exhausting sexual escapades, but at the beginning, when sex is a novelty to be discovered together by two people who are committed to each other and want to please each other for a lifetime. I think we can safely conclude that Alex is against marriage. He does not want to be married. He does not want to be faithful to one woman. He seems to think that a marriage will only work as long as there is a strong lust element. Yet, he also complains over and over that he is not satisfied with his lustful, perverted life.
He won’t marry because he doesn’t believe he can or will be faithful. He justifies dumping these girls because he says he knows that he will just tire of them and that he doesn’t want to cause them grief or pain down the road. He tells us that he knows he will have a mistress a few years into the marriage, and asks why “… my devoted wife, who has made me such a lovely home, et cetera, bravely suffers her loneliness and rejection? How could I face her terrible tears? I couldn’t. How could I face my adoring children? And then the divorce, right? The child support. The alimony. The visitation rights. Wonderful prospect, just wonderful.” (p117) He’s already decided that marriage will never work for him. He does not want to get married and probably never will. He does not see that it brings him anything that he is not already getting, because apparently all he wants is sex. Oh Alex, that is such a small part of marriage. You have no clue, you have no idea what joy can be found in a marriage relationship that does not involve the bedroom. You idiot! You’re so smart, but you’re such a schmuck! Grow up!
Get rid of that guilt by forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself and getting on with your life. Decide that you’re going to change your approach to sex and marriage into something much more wholesome. Get a clue from your religion. Talk to your rabbis again. Maybe you should study your theology and discover what it really teaches about how to overcome guilt. You’re not the first person to ever experience this you know. And Alex, thanks for the entertaining novel and for contributing greatly to this very American literary tradition of religion and sex in such a unique way. But couldn’t you have done it without so much obscenity and vulgarity?
Roth, Phillip, Portnoy’s Complaint, New York: Bantam Books,1969
Walt Whitman left a legacy as an American poet that cannot be ignored. Yet, nearly 120 years after his death, polarization of opinion about his work and his influence is still strong. It seems that you either love him or you hate him, and in most cases that view depends upon your moral convictions. There is no doubt that his work was controversial in his day, evidenced by the labels of “obscene” and “pornographic” given by some reviewers. For those who have seriously studied his work, the general consensus of opinion is that Walt Whitman was a great American poet and in fact, is considered the first great poet of America. However, to many in this great nation, instead of singing the body electric, Whitman’s poetry demeans and degrades the human spirit. And while his works may have shocked the sensitivities of some readers in his day, it is tame by today’s standards, giving us an early preview of America as the land of porn.
A Short Biography
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in New York and died in 1892 in New Jersey at age 72. He was the second of eight surviving children in a poor family struggling to barely subsist, both physically and emotionally. Biographers have surmised that his father was probably an alcoholic. There was some mental instability in his family among his brothers and sisters. Although his formal education ended at age 11, Whitman was a very successful autodidact, a self-educated man. He worked for a time in the newspaper industry as a journalist, editor and printer. He tried his hand at teaching for a few years but did not enjoy it and quit abruptly, with some speculating that it was due to an unwanted romantic advance toward one of his young male students.
Leaves of Grass
Returning to journalism at age thirty, he began what became his life’s work: Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry written in a distinctly American style using free verse and a cadence based on the Bible. He self-published his book in 1855 and published multiple editions in his lifetime. The book was and is powerful, abandoning traditional verse for free verse poetry. It was also deemed by some to be controversial as they found his repeated sexual imagery content to be offensive. When he presented copies to his family, his own brother said it not worth reading. Although he did not list himself as the author, he did include a now-famous portrait of himself facing the title page, with an open-neck shirt, jaunty hat and one hand on hip. In the body of the text he identified himself as, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist…” He was, in all respects, a natural man.
O Captain, My Captain
Whitman’s sexual orientation is generally assumed to be homosexual or bisexual. He never married but had several long-term intimate relationships with other men in his lifetime. Whitman achieved international recognition and worked tirelessly to promote his book. He obviously lived during the Civil War and that was a big influence in his life. He travelled to Washington looking for his brother who he had heard had been killed, but was only wounded. He spent time on the battlefields and in hospitals caring for the sick and the wounded. He came to greatly admire Lincoln and was deeply affected by his assassination. His most famous poem, O Captain, My Captain was about Lincoln and he gave many lectures on the president’s life. He suffered serious health problems in his later years, surviving three paralyzing strokes.
America’s National Poet
Walt Whitman answered Emerson’s call for poets to expound the new world of the United States. There is no doubt that he did this powerfully, uniquely and in a highly acclaimed manner. He was considered America’s national poet, at first more by Europeans than by his fellow Americans, at least in his own day. Using free verse, Whitman created a new style of writing that was uniquely American. He used natural voice and diction to imitate the natural flow of thought and feeling. He had a grand vision of speaking for America and explaining what it was all about. He saw and described scenes that leave you feeling like you were also there with him. He was innocent enough to believe that there really was such a job as a national poet.
An Epic to Celebrate America
Whitman was on the forefront of the American literary scene and was well prepared to promote it. His language was uniquely American, not British or European; powerfully American. His language had fewer rules; it was looser, courser, rougher and more promiscuous. He felt he was actively involved in the struggle for democracy with Leaves of Grass. He also said that he hoped his book would heal the nation and even prevent Civil War. He wanted to inspire and stir people with his work. He viewed his book as a true epic. What would an epic be like? It would celebrate America, the American self, the “I.” In fact, he sings of America throughout the book.
The Great Equalizer
Before Leaves of Grass he wrote editorials but he saw that they were mostly ineffective so he created a more profound work through his free-verse writings. He addressed the soul and the psyche of the nation, to create a real sense of community. He threw his book out there with a lot of hope for a nation that would soon divide apart. Whitman wanted his book to be written by the nation and for the nation using his voice. In his preface he says that the poet is the great equalizer and the one who is in balance. He obviously had a great ego and assumed a lot, but believed in his age and his country. He felt that he had a national mission to fulfill because he could see and tell of a world of experience in a way that nobody else could or did. He wanted to preserve the Union, to hold things together and yet maintain our unique identity. The many contradictions and differences of our nation did not bother him. He wanted us to accept them and him and was truly puzzled by those who could not or would not accept either.
Legacy of Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman’s personal literary journey of national significance. His desire was to sing of the new country with a new voice and he felt the time was ripe. There is no doubt that Whitman’s vision and ego helped him produce his masterwork. His profound vision created a tremendous contribution to American literary history. Numerous poets have tried to place themselves in his wake or have reacted violently to him. There is no getting around him. He was a celebrity in his day and is celebrated today. He had disciples that surrounded him in his later years and still has a large following today. But why is he so important? It is because he stirred up such controversy and got people talking. More importantly, he broke the boundaries of poetic form and elevated common people through his portrayals of American life.
A Religious Skeptic
Leaves of Grass had a major impact on the literary world; His work cannot be ignored. His poetry has been set to music and inspired musicians, both classical and popular. Europeans said that you couldn’t really understand America without Walt Whitman. Some modern poets have said that Whitman is not just America’s poet, but he is America. Whitman considered himself to be a messiah-like figure in poetry; so did his admirers. His vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the beat movement as well as by anti-war poets. He took what Emerson and Thoreau started with the transcendentalist movement, thoroughly Americanized it and then set it free to enjoy a new life through his free-verse poetry. His style speaks to many people who think as he did and do not live within the constraints of limitations imposed by moral boundaries of religious America. Though he was born to a Quaker family, it would be more proper to classify Whitman as a man of spirituality and not a man of religion. He as deeply influenced by Deism and denied that any one faith was more important than another. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, who was also a religious skeptic, he embraced all religions equally. And though he accepted all churches, he believed in none. It is safe to say that Whitman’s religion was like his verse: free and easy.
A Mass of Stupid Filth
But it is his forays into eroticism that elicited such strong responses from his critics. They said that his poetry was “a mass of stupid filth” and that Whitman was like a pig “rooting among the rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.” For example, in section 11 of Song of Myself, Whitman warned us that he was going to celebrate himself, get bawdy and lusty and otherwise embrace the passion, pulse and power of life. The 29th bather is a powerful example of how he makes that happen. In section 3 of Song of Myself he had already exposed us to the urge of sex, and now he sprays us with a beach orgy. Section 11 is famously known as the 29th bather, a fantasy that starts from a female narrative and ends with a homoerotic shocker. It caused one reviewer to exclaim that he was guilty of violating “the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian civilization.” Another accused him in Latin of homosexual behavior.
While some biographers are certain in their declarations that there was never any evidence of homosexual activity, what is certain is that he used the imagery of raw sexuality liberally throughout Leaves of Grass. “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world…always sex” are found along with scenes of “hugging and loving bedfellows. He takes on an all-knowing and condescending spirit that tells us to forget about “creeds and schools,” religion and education, and just listen to what wisdom he is about to belch forth. With arrogance he states that “what I assume, you shall assume,” as if to say that our views could only possibly be his views. He is going to introduce us to the common laborers of America, the average people who are cheerfully and skillfully working to build the great American dream.
I Celebrate Myself
Throughout his work we will witness numerous vignettes of life in the America of Walt Whitman’s day, not life in halls of congress or places of business, but in homes and gathering places. And through it all, we are to be subjected to the lusty, bawdy, fleshy side of life that Whitman, or his muse, wants us to see, hear and experience. With Walt, we will hear the delicious singing, the “party of young fellows, robust and friendly, singing with mouths open their strong melodious songs.” He is positively giddy. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself… undisguised and naked…mad to be in contact with” the sensual nature of this physical and worldly existence. We will soon be reading biography, sermon and poetic meditation of this muse all lustily embracing the fleshy body as it expresses itself through the life of Whitman.
The 29th Bather
In Leaves of Grass, Walt writes of getting “undisguised and naked,” and sensually urges his readers to “Undrape! You are not guilty to me,” but “stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical.” But these words and phrases are nothing compared to the scene that unfolds in the 29th bather. The young lady lets her imagination take her to the beach to join the crowd of young men, describing the beards of the young men glistening with wet that ran from their long hair, little streams that passed all over their bodies. “An unseen hand also passed over their bodies; it descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.” And then the action turns decidedly homoerotic as actions are performed on the young men by whom – the unseen 29th bather or by each other? If Whitman intended to shock the sensibilities of his readers, he wildly succeeded. But then, this is nothing compared to sex-soaked erotic content of a more modern classic such as Portnoy’s Complaint, which dwells on the lusty subject of masturbation.
The Good Gray Poet
How this erotic and sexually dissident poet was adopted as America’s national bard and anointed “the Good Gray Poet” is hard to understand. He never did reach the common people but was celebrated by the intellectuals of the day, especially from other countries. Did Whitman presage the view of America as the land of porn? If not, then he certainly did contribute a fair share for his day. The real work in analyzing and appreciating Whitman’s poetry is in looking past the celebration of the natural man and seeing in it the celebration of America, the great land of opportunity and the dream that all can succeed and that anything can be created and promoted. All it takes is the kind of confidence and belief in oneself that Walt Whitman had in abundance. In that respect, Walt Whitman was truly an American genius of a rock-star caliber for his day. If Whitman could successfully promote and sell out every edition of his book each time it went to press, in spite of the moral constraints of his day, just think what we should be able to do today!
Of course I’m not suggesting that we rush out to write a bunch of pornographic prose as he did, but I am saying that, like Whitman, we should celebrate this great nation for the freedoms of expression that we enjoy and that can really be found in no other nation of this world today. And, like Whitman, if we embrace the spirit of controversy and promotion of something unique, as was his free-verse style, then we should be able to reach out to millions of people through the modern leaves of grass – the Internet. Isn’t that what many of today’s bloggers are hoping to accomplish? They are the Walt Whitman’s of our day, bypassing the established norms of book publishing for the new media of the Internet. And they succeed because of their controversial content and endless self-promotion. If only what they promoted was uplifting to the human spirit. Controversial content is what drives the readers to the blogs and websites where they want to express their own opinions in the comments. Walt Whitman knew what would sell and he knew how to sell it. Just think of what he could have done if he lived in the Internet age!
As created by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, the character of Hester Prynne is a powerful woman. She interacts impressively with those around her in the epoch that the story takes place – Puritan America of the 1640’s. If she had lived in the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) it is certain that she would also be looked upon as an influential woman of that time. In fact, if she had lived in our day, there is no doubt that she would be a leader among women in our society.
The source of Hester’s power is her moral integrity. Now, that may be a fantastic claim for the main character of a novel that addresses adultery. But I am confident that you will at least understand the thesis, if not agree with it, once the evidence is presented and considered.
We will first review the social structure that prevailed in Puritan America, including the roles of men and women. We will observe how Hester related to the male hierarchy and especially how she dealt with the austere consequences of her choice that were thrust upon her. The strength of Hester’s moral character will become apparent as she remains true to promises made to other key characters in the story. Her power will clearly be made manifest in a few final scenes in which it is obvious that she is the real pillar of the most important relationships in her life.
Hester Prynne rises above the events that mold her life, and demonstrates how embracing her identity and especially her sexuality allow her to be a powerful influence for good among all those who know her. Through Hester, Hawthorne helps us see the personal power of a woman, in this case a woman of deep passion who is forced by a cold society to subdue and master that passion, which is so evident in her youth, beauty and spirit.
Hester Makes Her Appearance
We are introduced to Hester as she comes out of the jail where she had been incarcerated ostensibly for adultery and presumably where she gave birth to her daughter, Pearl a few months previously. She had come to this land ahead of a husband, who was apparently lost at sea. We are not certain if she is a member of the Puritan faith, but it is certain that she now lives among their society. Looking for direction in her time of recent loss, she seeks guidance and comfort from the local minister. Comfort turns to passion and the result is now borne in her arms.
She emerges to “a people amongst whom religion and law are almost identical” (Hawthorne, 45). The crime of adultery could have been punished by death or by public flogging, but in this case, Hester is required to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her bosom as a sign to all of her crime. Being good with the needle, she has made it into a beautiful emblem, and embroidered it with a gold thread.
Some of the people are surprised, but show no sympathy. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead,” (Hawthorne 47), proclaims one of the women in the market-place where Hester is brought forth for public ridicule. “This woman has brought shame upon us all and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book” (Hawthorne 47).
The magistrates of the community are no more compassionate than the gaggle of gossiping women as they interrogate her publically and once again ask her to reveal the father of the child. They even have the Reverend Dimmesdale implore her with passionate speech to name her lover. Looking directly into his eyes, she refuses and expresses the desire that she “might endure his agony, as well as mine” (Hawthorne 63). This is a clear indication of the moral strength of this woman. She knows what it will do to the minister if she names him. But she is willing to sacrifice herself that he might continue on in his office. That is impressive! But he cannot hide from the torment of his own guilt and shame.
The Long-Lost Husband Appears
A major character in the story makes his appearance in the market place and witnesses what is taking place without revealing who he really is – Hester’s long lost husband who had been delayed by both shipwreck and falling among savages. Hester had recognized him but they did not speak until later when he comes to visit her and the child in the jail. He is a scholar and a chemist and treats the distraught pair that they may be at peace. A conversation ensues in which we come to know that theirs was a loveless marriage. He also asks her to name her lover but she continues to refuse.
He then swears her to secrecy regarding his identity. “I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” (Hawthorne 71) said Hester. And she took the oath. Once again, we see that Hester is a woman of moral integrity as she never reveals who he is until much later in the story and only then after getting his permission. She wonders what his purpose is at the time but it becomes obvious later that he is out for revenge. He promises that he will discover her lover and destroy him, which he proceeds to do by becoming close to him over time.
Hester Learns From Her Punishment
Hester accepts her punishment, wears the scarlet “A,” becomes an outcast from society and yet finds a way to provide for herself and Pearl by her skills with the needle as a seamstress. At one point, hearing talk that the magistrates are considering her fitness as a mother, she goes to the governor to deliver a pair of gloves and to discuss with him the welfare of the child. She is told that she may not see his worship now. “Nevertheless, I will enter,” (Hawthorne 96) she answered as she pushes past the servant and makes her way into the house to find the governor. By this one simple action we sense the dignity and power of this woman. She cannot be deterred when she has a mission to perform.
She has heard aright, they have been considering the child’s welfare and ask her mother what she can do for her. “I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this,” (Hawthorne 102) and lays her finger on the scarlet letter. She has obviously already become a wiser woman as she emphasizes the lessons are for Pearl’s good. They address Pearl directly and ask her who made her, hoping to determine if she has learned from her mother some basic Christian doctrine. Pearl replies that she has been plucked by her mother off the wild rose bushes that grew by the prison door.
Hester Defends Herself With Passion
It doesn’t look good for Hester but she passionately defends herself by proclaiming, “God gave me the child! He gave her in requital of all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness—she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” (Hawthorne 104) Wow! What passion!
She then turns to Reverend Dimmesdale and says, “Speak thou for me! Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest—for thou hast sympathies which these men lack—thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!” (Hawthorne 105)
She knows what she is doing. Here is the father and she knows that he must defend her rights as the mother or risk exposure himself. Once again, the moral courage of Hester shines forth as she courageously defends herself by virtue of her position as a woman and mother, in spite of the control of the male-dominated system. Her influence upon Dimmesdale is obviously very powerful as he is able to convince the governor that Pearl should remain with Hester, for both their sakes. The mission for which Pearl was born has not yet been fulfilled.
Hester gets Permission to Break Her Oath
Space does not permit numerous other examples that demonstrate the power of this woman so we will consider the two most obvious. Let us skip forward to the forest scene where the Reverend Dimmsdale is returning from a visit to a friend. It is Hester’s intention to reveal to her lover the true identity of the man who is seeking to destroy him. As was noted earlier, she obtained permission to break her oath after confronting her husband and demanding that he release her from her bond.
She can no longer stand what her husband has been doing to her lover with his slow torture, both emotional and probably chemical. She convinces the old man with her eloquent and passionate speech that the Reverend needs to know the truth. Relenting to her persuasion, he says “It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may! Now, go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man” (Hawthorne 163).
The Famous Forest Encounter
She waits for the Reverend on the forest path. She calls his name and they begin their first private conversation in seven years since the night of their passion. His pain is almost palpable to Hester. He is so miserable because of the lie he has been living for so long. She reveals the true identity of the doctor; that he was once her husband and that he has been taking his revenge out on the Reverend for all these years. She begs his forgiveness. He refuses.
“Oh, Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame!—the indelicacy!—the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this!—I cannot forgive thee!” (Hawthorne 183) And then, with the power that only a woman has, and in what is arguably the best scene in the book,
…with sudden and desperate tenderness she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom, little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her—for seven long years had it frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear, and live! (Hawthorne 183)
The Power of a Passionate Woman
He cannot resist the power of this passionate embrace and so forgives her and asks God to forgive them both. Now for only a brief moment in the forest, we are privileged to witness once again the awesome power of this woman as they make plans to leave and go away together to England. “If this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain—so tender to soothe!” (Hawthorne 190) Hester then
undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves. The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of the stream … The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair, and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour (Hawthorne 191).
This scene is so powerful because it illustrates the influence of one woman upon a man whom she loves. Such was “the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly-born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (Hawthorne 192) Trite as it may seem, and overused as the phrase may be, Hester’s personal power was the power of love – a love that heals and that binds two souls together. And Hester was blessed with an overabundance of this powerful gift.
We must conclude this essay demonstrating the power of this woman by considering the last scene. After delivering an emotional election-day speech, the minister comes forth from the church and goes to where Hester and Pearl have been waiting for him at the scaffold, the same place where she was publically ridiculed for her crime seven years earlier. He has resolved that he is too sick to live much longer and decides that running away is not the best thing to do. He extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
“Hester Prynne … in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! … Come, Hester—come! Support me up yonder scaffold” (Hawthorne 237).
Drawing obvious strength from Hester as she supports him with her arm about him, he makes public confession of his part in the crime of passion that brought forth little Pearl. Speaking in the third person, “He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! (Hawthorne 240) Baring his breast, he shows the multitude the he too bears the mark of his sin, even though it is not described in detail.
“Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom.” (Hawthorne 240). He acknowledges Pearl as his child and she kisses him. She has been waiting for this day for so long. At last, her earthly father has acknowledged her as his. “A spell was broken … Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled” (Hawthorne 240). The minister dies after his confession, now believing that his soul is saved and attributing it to the torture of Hester’s husband and the ignominy of his confession before the people of his crime and in hiding his sin all those years.
Although it seems such a sad and unfulfilling ending, think about what has just happened, all because Hester Prynne endured her punishment with courage and strength of character. She did not give up. She loved Pearl and raised her as best she could. She turned a deplorable and unfair situation into a triumph because of her determination to see that things were set right in the end. She suffered public humiliation and ignominy for seven years while it appeared that the man who was her partner in crime got away, adored by others.
And yet, because of her love for this man, she was able to cause him to confess his crime, acknowledge his child and perhaps, even help to redeem his soul. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!” (Hawthorne 241) Nathaniel Hawthorne left us with the dying words of the Reverend expressing doubt that he and Hester could ever be together in the hereafter. “I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion” (Hawthorne 241).
But love knows no bounds, including time and space. Who is to say, if these were real characters, that they couldn’t be together in the world to come, bound by the power of the love demonstrated by Hester Prynne? Hester lived on, quietly, and became something of a legend in the community of Boston. The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace because of her suffering. She continued to wear the scarlet letter to the end of her days, but she wore it as a symbol of her power. This is a power that no man could ever wield. Such a power belonged only to a woman with the courage and strength of moral character like that of Hester Prynne.
Source: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850.
New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.