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Big Books (The Scarlet Letter) Forum

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Welcome to a conversation about The Scarlet Letter
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-02-18 14:59:59
Link to this Comment: 4657

In this forum, I invite you to record your initial responses to The Scarlet Letter. Any/all of your thoughts are welcome; if you need a "nudge" or two to get you going, you might think about what contemporary events (public OR private!) you think of that seem to you analogous to what takes place in the novel. Or mull a bit about who the protagonist of the novel is (who do you care the most for? who most concerns you? who is the most dynamic?) Or: what would happen if you began thinking about this as a psychological novel of the divided self? What roles would Chillingworth, Dimmesdale and Hester each play in that sort of reading? What's Pearl's role in the novel? Do you think the book takes a particular stand (if so: what is that stand?) on the question of adultery? Does Hawthorne seem to you Puritanical, Transcendentalist, skeptic, ironist? Etc, etc. etc.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts outloud-- Anne

Scrarlet Letter
Name: ngoc
Date: 2003-02-20 12:30:02
Link to this Comment: 4701

I remember reading the Scarlet Letter for the first time in high school for American Literature class. Both in class discussion and our responses were as dramatic by the whole event as Hester Pryne herself. The nature of morality was not, however, inherent in our discussion. It was almost like we all have accepted moral codes embeded in the text and therefore what we are left for the discussion with only questions, interactions, outcomes, and consequences of the event.

On the second reading, my perception of novel completely change. I cannot dive into the turmoil, the drama that Hawthorne painted as I did on the first reading. This time, too, unlike before, we are questioning the nature of morality in the novel. Morality is, of course, a very complex idea. The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether we allow morality to shape ourlives or allow ourlives to shape morality. When I have these questions in mind, I wonder what they say about my own moral...will answering these questions reshape, redefine morality? Or is it morality is truly inate and will not be altered by any means?

Name: kathy
Date: 2003-02-20 12:44:04
Link to this Comment: 4702

I meant to bring this up in class discussion, but forget... I'm not sure I really understand Pearl's clothes. Why does Hester dress her so differently from the Puritan standards? I just don't understand where Hester stands. It seems that she tries to uphold the Puritan way of life, but then again there is her scarlet letter that obviously disproves this. So I guess I'm confused as to why she makes these clothes for Pearl to make her stand out and be different.

Guilt and Shame
Name: Anne Dalke
Date: 2003-02-20 18:06:01
Link to this Comment: 4716

By the time I arrived in the midst of The Scarlet Letter discussion today, the group had pretty much covered their own experiences of and identification w/ guilt and shame...which led us into a discussion of the ongoing effect of Puritan morality in our culture today, to queries about the "exclusivity" and "eternity" of marriage vows, to an examination of Chillingworth's blaming of himself for his wife's infidelity--followed by his (curious?) insistance that, though their crimes against each other cancelled one another out, there was still someone needing punishment. Why? Is this scapegoating? Projection? Gender stereotyping (=only men have agency, esp. sexual agency)?

When we stopped, I mentioned that Hawthorne's novel is often read as a description of the divided self, with
Chillingworth as super-ego/conscience/community/ intellect/ evil
Dimmesdale as ego/consious self / soul/divided self &
Hester as id/instinct/primitive impulse/ heart goodness.

What that schema leaves out is the character Kathy mentions above: what is the function of Pearl in the novel (whether you read it psychologically or otherwise)?

Pyschological Novel
Name: Margaret R
Date: 2003-02-20 23:54:58
Link to this Comment: 4738

While reading "The Scarlet Letter" I have been intruiged by the amount of material there is to digest, which is refreshing due to the contrast between Stowe's novel and Hawthorne's style of writing. I found the book leaving me to question and confront how much society's role, including religion, govens my life. And, I have always felt that adultery was morally wrong, yet once I had started to read this book again, I questioned why I felt this way.
In our class discusson we spoke of marriage as a contract, and I commented that it is a way to protect oneself from fears about loniliness and not being able to have eternal companionship. So are we naive when we believe that "we" (society) sign a marriage contract to protect us? And, if everyone ultimatly does what is best for him/herself, and decides to break it, are they really guilty? In fact, then, what I am also asking is: is adultery, although it is an actual action, really legitimate when we are seeking something that the married cannot give, and we then can fulfill that need?
I am now questioningwhere I stand on adultery, because in my heart I still feel Hester was wrong....

Morality and Society
Name: Taka Kawan
Date: 2003-02-21 01:53:49
Link to this Comment: 4739

I guess I tend to read all the books in English class in attempt to draw take home message for understanding American society of past and present. I don't really care about what each character's "personal" emotion; rather I do care more about how the environment (society, religion, etc.) affected his/her emotion. When I read this first half of the book, I was automatically interested in the structure of society that made Hester wearing Scarlet Letter. With some information about the "manliness" of the society in early Massachusetts in mind, my interpretation for her treatment is another form of prosecution, like the one I gave in the class, to maintain the hierarchical structure of male society; not by putting in jail and physically torture her, but by presenting her to other women with apparent mark of "shame" on her and saying "never ditch your husband". Here, morality is primarily conveyed from religious sense that married couple should be faithful to each other, and men adroitly put this into social framework to take advantage over women. While morality may originate from religion, I think that it is further supplemented, enhanced, and modified by society to best control the public.
I didn't bring this into class discussion after all, but I was thinking about how Hester was viewed by women. While they viewed her as sinner on one hand, but on the other, didn't they have some "envious" thought in the romantic factor of this affair, considering the social and domestic "oppression" by their husband? And aren't their husbands trying to conceal this factor by marking with scarlet letter, to distract their wives' attention?
Well, maybe I am focusing on certain topics. Thank you all for those who participated in the discussion today.

scarlet letter thoughts
Name: Maggie
Date: 2003-02-22 09:25:35
Link to this Comment: 4746

In class on Thursday we were talking about to what extent The Scarlet Letter is religious, and the effect of religion on our society today. Are all of our morals today based in Christianity? Some arguments were made for this in class, saying that Christian morals have influenced everyone, even atheists, Buddhists, etc. I think the problem with this argument is that people are assuming that because these morals are included in the Christian religion, they must have originated from it. Most cultures don't condone murdering, whether they have ever been exposed to Christianity or not. I think it is more likely that Christianity adopted morals that were already cultural in order to encourage more people to become Christians (in the same way that all of Christianity's holidays coincide with the pagan religion holidays). So while Buddhists, atheists and Christians may all share the same morals, I think it is very presumptuous to say that they all originated from Christianity, or even from religion at all.

Back to the marriage contract issue... I really think that people look at marriage contracts as a way to get what they need from their partner out of a relationship, not what they need for themselves. The larger question then may be why do we demand monogamy? What has made us as a society so jealous, or controlling? How many of us in this class would accept a partner who wanted to have an open relationship? I also have always felt that adultery is wrong, but I can't help but feel sympathetic to Hester... I think that the difference is that her hsuband was believed to be dead.

And last, in response to what Taka said about men putting religion into a social framework to have control over women... Of course, it was easy to say that it was against God and the law for either gender to have sex outside of marriage, but it was a hell of a lot easier to catch women than men... What if Hester had pointed to the Governor when she was asked who had been her lover? If he had denied it, everyone would have believed him. But a pregnant woman without a husband can't exactly deny that she had sex.

but WHY?
Name: Nancy
Date: 2003-02-24 20:21:46
Link to this Comment: 4794

After last thursday's discussion, I am less concerned about the Scarlet Latter, and more concerned about the questions it raises in my own life. I can rationalize Hester's emotions by labeling the religious scrutiny and values she lived with "antiquated", but I have to wonder where that leaves us in today's world...
The question I await in TSL is WHY. WHY shouldn't Hester have had an affair if her husband didn't make her happy, etc. etc. This was something that stumped us in class, about 200 years after the novel was published. I've never really questioned anything like this before, but I find it very strange that we, as a society, despite class, race, and almost all other dividers, subscribe to these "rules" set forth 'way back when'. The most unsettling of all is that we never ask "why". Even people who call themselves athiests are in some way acknowledging religion, even though that religious influence has employed enough smoke and mirrors so that it now appears as morality and ethical law rather than religious rule of issues that make said religion uncomfortable. I hope we're not done discussing this yet... as a matter of fact, the beauty of running class outselves tells me that we aren't done with this idea. See everyone tomorrow!

Presentation of Scarlet Letter
Name: Monica Loc
Date: 2003-02-24 23:45:52
Link to this Comment: 4802

I thought that last weeks presentations went well. I was pleased with the enthusiasm of the group in discussing The Scarlet Letter. The themes of morality and guilt were discussed in the presentation Taka and I prepared for the class. Sharing each others personal experiences was a great way to start the discussion of morality and/or guilt. I found it interesting when we were discussing the way the situation of Hester Prynne was handled in the book and how we compared it to how it would be managed today. The discussion suddenly went to young teenagers having babies and how today it is accepted or at least tries to be accepted but at the same time, it can be looked down upon.
When we started talking about love and marriage regarding Hester's relationship with her husband, I remember I made a comment and said that when you marry someone you "know" what you are getting yourself into. I actually take that back. I am not married but hearing about other peoples experiences, what I said really did not apply to their experience and I feel that no one really knows what they are getting themselves into when they are getting married. The happy marriage bliss seems to overwhelm the individual and once the bliss is over, that is when the person finally knows what he/she is getting herself into. We also started discussing what a commitment is. Some said that it was an understanding between two people to be faithful and some believed it was like a contract. I define marriage more as an emotional understanding between two people that love and trust each other and feel ready to take the responsibility of being loyal and accepting of their partners weaknesses.
I really enjoyed the discussions in the Scarlet Letter group. Since the group was intimate, more people were eager to participate and articulate their ideas about the topic at hand. I hope that the enthusiasm does not stop!

Pearl's role in the novel
Name: Margaret R
Date: 2003-02-25 02:08:40
Link to this Comment: 4809

Pearl's character has continued to intrigue me; why does Hawthorne describe her as a sprite, and almost devilish? I do realise that he wants us to see that she was born out of a passionate moment, and therefore her actions are impulsive and "elfish." Still, there must be more to her...
It also seems interesting that Hester can never relax around her own daughter; "Hester never felt a moment's safety; not a moments calm enjoyement of her" (Hawthorne 66). I feel as though there is more to Pearl than just Hester's constant reminder of her sin, and just a reflection on her personality.

essays on Scarlet Letter
Name: ngoc
Date: 2003-02-26 11:34:40
Link to this Comment: 4843

after reading all the essays, i am not sure i feel like i understand the novel any better... rather, i feel even more uncertain not only with what Hawthorne possibly hope to accomplish in his novel...but also what does the critics really want to say... i am especially confused with esay in Chapter 7 "Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter"... i am not sure what or how the sarcasm (or maybe there isn't any and i am mistaking) works...

Hawthorne's Moral
Name: Maggie
Date: 2003-02-26 11:51:57
Link to this Comment: 4844

What our group discussed while we were deciding what Hawthorne's moral in The Scarlet Letter was:

Hawthorne is certainly criticizing Hester for being immoral. This is evident throughout the text, and in that he doesn't grant her 'transcendental' freedom. She may receive monetary freedom, but this is not the same as her goal to be genuinely happy and free with Dimmesdale. Consciously, we think that Hawthorne condemned Hester's actions as immoral. Although emotionally/subconsciously he may have supported her actions. The book seems to be written as though Hawthorne started out writing the book with one idea in mind and kind of changed his mind halfway through. For example, he may have commenced with the purpose of writing a book condemning adultery, but while he was writing it, he subconsciously began to identify with Hester, or at least admire her. These thoughts showed through in his creation of her, but he did not let himself forget the 'moral of the story'. Or maybe this process happened vice versa?

So we concluded that there is no true moral to The Scarlet Letter, either in intention of the author or (as we discussed with the other group) the tale. The reader, depending on how they read the book, must take the moral away from the text.

Name: Samantha D
Date: 2003-02-26 22:08:58
Link to this Comment: 4852

Upon the completion of this book, I'm conflicted about my own emotions regarding it. I think that like Hawthorne, I don't know how to feel about Hester's "sin." Intellectually, Hester's affair makes perfect sense. Why shouldn't she engage in a relationship with a person other then her husband if he cannot make her happy? Theoretically if we bind ourselves to one partner for "as long as we both shall live" we miss out tremendously on so many other experiences. However, emotionally I cannot relate to Hester. I am a firm believer in monogomy, even though it seems narrow minded. I think that it is a natural human reaction to commit to one person, and want their commitment in return. However, this perdicament is pretty interesting when applied to the book. I sympathize with Hester for her loveless marriage, but at the same time, I don't think I can condone her extramarital affair.

Don't be a Puritan!
Name: Jillian
Date: 2003-02-28 00:23:19
Link to this Comment: 4880

In class today, Nicole brought up the tricky character of Mistress Hibbens, the witch. Since the story takes place in Salem, I was wondering if Hibbens is a reference to the witch trials. Hibbens is the only one who dares to speak to Hester in public. Of course she understands the feeling of being ostracized, but perhaps she also understands how unfounded a lot of the Puritan society's rules and judgments are. If there is any moral I can say I took away from this book it is: don't be a Puritan! Hawthorne obviously has an ax to grind with the strict and unyielding set up of a Puritan society. The witch trials and Hester's scarlet letter are examples of how the Puritan society dealt with those that fell outside of the norm. The Puritan way was constricting and could easily squeeze the life out of someone - like Dimmesdale or Hester - who can not live in such a confined world. It is only in the forest, when away from the Puritans, that the two main characters can truly be themselves and own up to their darkest secrets and desires.

Thursday's conversation and interpretation
Name: Nicole Mar
Date: 2003-02-28 21:34:27
Link to this Comment: 4883

In last Thursday's class, Jillian and I lead a discussion about interpretations of The Scarlet Letter. We started out by brainstoriming what colors were representative of which characters in the novel - here is what we came up with

Red -> Hester / Pearl
Blood, passion
Black -> Dimmesdale / Chillingworth / Hester
Decay and isolation
White -> Hester
Clean, innocence
Green -> Chillingworth, Hester
Envy, jealousy, nature
Blue -> Pearl, Dimmesdale
water, nauture, saddness

We also listedcontradictions we saw in the novel and we each talked about the one contradiction that we saw as central in the book and which most effected our personal interpretations of the text.

Science / Religion
Love / Laws Taka, Maggie, Jamie and Margaret all felt this was the major conflict they noticed
Transcendentalism/ Christianity Jillian flet this was the primary conflict
Individual / Society We thought that Hawthorne was largely concerned with this issue (and Sam too!)
Conscious / Unconscious
Nature / Civilization Jill and Nancy thought this was the conflict that they picked up most on
Love / Duty (obligation) Nicole and Kathy saw this as the major conflict
Rationality / Passion
Youth/Old age
Heart / Mind

I felt that the discussion about interpretation of The Scarlet Letter was an important one. Because there are so many contradicitons in the text (listed above) the novle can mean many different things to different people. We talked about the ways in which Christians (in an article in ChristianLife online) saw the the novel as being important as a moralizing tool to remind the world of the problem and consequences of sin. But feminists have appropriated the text and use it to point out the past repression of sex and its negative effects to call for greater sex education and presentation of sex as natural and positive. The fact that we as readers can derive such varied and different reading may explain why the Scarlet Letter is a more obvious classic than the "preachy" Uncle Tom's Cabin, that is not so open to interpretation.

Finishing Scarlet Letter
Name: Monica Loc
Date: 2003-03-03 10:37:28
Link to this Comment: 4908

I was reading Nicole's email and I thought that identifying characters with different color representations was a great way of analyzing the characters and the roles they play. Finishing The Scarlet Letter was exciting for me because most of the questions (not all though) I had in mind while I was reading the book were answered. Even though the ending was a bit slow, I am glad that Nathaniel Hawthorne did not stall as much as he did in the beginning of the book. I expected the ending to be just Hester, Pearl and Dimmesdale leaving to Europe and that was about it. The turn of events in the chapters surprised me and that is what I found really interesting. Up until this point, I am still trying to figure out what was going on Hawthorne's mind while he was writing this book. He seems to have glorified Hester unconsiously but at the same time condemned her subconsciously. I hope by reading Hawthorne's short stories, I will understand the way he interprets his writing.

The dichotomy between nature and society
Name: Christophe
Date: 2003-08-09 15:48:03
Link to this Comment: 6276

The term society is defined as: The social structure that makes up a culture. That structure guides the actions of respectable persons in that culture. When a society no longer serves its inhabitance's nature, changes are initiated. The evolving needs of the people that make up a society demand that societies have a natural flexibility in order to survive those changes. The threshold of cultural flexibility in America was tested during the eighteenth century by the then nouveau Romantics, who sought to throw off the mental shackles of puritanical morality. A steep gradient of cultural forces was precipitated by a change in fundamental morals; this forced a collision of philosophies that has not been better pronounced than in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne expresses, albeit subtly, the current drawing minds away from societal-authoritative thinking to a less restrictive a priori experience, through depictions of his central characters' relationships with nature's purity that serve as a foil for the corruption inherent in society.
Pearl defies any authority placed above her, relying instead on her own perceptions as her guide. Pearl's resistance to any authority other than instinct reflects the unsoiled innocence of man's nature. She is unaffected by "the disease of sadness, which almost all children, [...] inherit, [...] from the troubles of their ancestors [society]" (1432). Her nature, while enigmatic to the provincial settlers, allows her to be centered and happy when those around her are false and unhappy. While walking through the forest she expresses a perceptivity of her closeness with nature by saying, "the sunshine does not love you [Hester]. It runs away and hides itself, [...] [but] It will not flee from me" (1431). She knows that nature loves her, and that is what nature tells her. Conversely, Pearl sees society and its members, who have done nothing but despise her, for what they really are, puppeteer and puppets respectively.
Hester resides in the nether regions of society, and consequently is free from its regulations, but her penitence shuns nature's accord until her fleeting moment of liberation. She is perceived as an affront against nature for her sins, even causing some townsfolk to ponder whether she should be put to death. Without social bonds, Hester "had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest," so she "roamed as freely [mentally\morally] as the wild Indian in his woods" (1440). Her awareness of her social position prevents her from shunning all popular conventions however, and her relationship with nature betrays her sorrows. Her variance with nature is evidenced by the quiet brook that mumbles to her of her sorrows. When she finally casts aside that scarlet A, the letter that symbolized the right society reserved to persecute and judge her, she is transformed once again to her true nature. Simultaneously, she is again at peace with nature: "All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the grey trunks of the solemn trees" (1442). Her freedom is short-lived, because she not only casts off society's yoke, but also her own daughter's. Her acceptance of her societal position forged the character that became who she was to whom she cared for.
The bittersweet revelations that Hawthorne brings to light offer no answers to the individual about the woes of conventionality, yet they became a part of the established conventions. The struggle to be free from one's limiting components only creates the environment for which the next person tries to overcome their limitations, or if in that struggle other limitations are created, they will be the conventions to overcome. Changes sweep away to more changes, and in this respect The Scarlet Letter is a work of pure genius in its timeless representation of universal themes in a historical novel. Honestly depicting the past, Hawthorne accepts his cultural inheritance, while also tailoring the fictional account so that it circumstantially expresses his own contributions. He also makes relevant the sensual perceptions by which people evaluate their cultural inheritance. He masterfully uses depictions of nature to this end. Pearl and Hester were true to their nature, and this provided them a solid basis for personal growth and development unhindered by life-stealing pretense. While still limited by society, they were forging ahead by defining their society, yet still having their true nature in accordance with their actions.

Central Issues
Date: 2005-09-11 17:05:01
Link to this Comment: 16087

What would you say are the five central issues in this book and why?

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