Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 15: Tuesday, March 14, 2006
The Scarlet Letter
: Stepping out of "The Prison Door"

I. Welcome back! Any relevant stories?
(Me in the Castro, second-thinking getting naked in public)

II. Mark Schulz (Psychology) will talk w/ us on Thursday;
please read (in packet): pp. 3-17 in
Malcolm Gladwell's 2005 book,
Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking

Mark says, It is very easy reading and kind of fun. I will take up some of the themes highlighted in this section (e.g., role of intuition; intuition vs. deliberative rationality).

Questions for you to ponder:

How do you know what emotions someone is expressing or feeling? What signs do you depend on most to decipher emotions?

What role does thinking have in the generation of emotion?

Can emotion be studied "objectively" or scientifically?

My plan is to talk a little about Lazarus' emotion theory, talk about how I study emotion in my lab (including my use of "naive" coders to decipher emotional expression) and about the advantages/disadvantages of intuitive coding of emotions vs. a prescribed, highly manualized approach.
III. Your third set of papers (on Uncle Tom's Cabin) are due,
both on-line and in a folder w/ your earlier papers in my box
by 5 p.m. this Friday, 3/17

IV. Mid-Semester Evaluations: What shall we change?

Anne's Summary/Suggestions

Cf. Discovery Channel's "'A' is not always for excellence" with
Kobe Bryant's New Number/Scarlet Letter

V. Re-distribute yourselves in three small groups
(count off by "grades": A, B, "C")

here's your prompt, from D. H. Lawrence, "The Spirit of Place":
Studies in Classic American Literature (1923).
The artist usually sets point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way, as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist's and tale's. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.
"Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter":
Nathaniel Hawthorne writes romance....but The Scarlet Letter isn't a pleasant, pretty romance, it is a sort of parable, an earthly story with a hellish meaning....There is a basic hostility in all of us between the physical and mental, the blood and the spirit. The mind is 'ashamed' of the blood. And the blood is destroyed by the mind, is truly a law, that man must either stick to the belief he has grounded himself on, and obey the law of that belief, or he must admit the belief itself to be inadequate, and prepare himself for a new thing....It is a marvelous allegory. It is to me one of the greatest allegories in all literature. The Scarlet Letter. Its marvelous under-meaning! And its perfect duplicity.

Your assignments:
Group A (Artist): find the artist's moral
(cite three passages in the
text of "The Custom House")

Group B (Book): find the tale's moral
(cite three passages in
the text of Chapters 1-5)

Group C (Critics): adjudicate between the two:
save the tale from the author, or (more sophisticatedly):
explain the relationship between the two

what (so far) is the philosophy of life,
the moral position taken by The Scarlet Letter?
what questions is it asking?
what are its text and subtext?
does the novel take a stand? is it confused/paradoxical/contradictory?
can a novel take a stand? do novels have morals?
might they be complex in ways essays/diatribes are not?
if so--what are we to do with such complexities?

To end: some contemporary applications:

The Scarlet Letter, a CurtainUp Berkshire review

"A New Hester Prynne Who Takes on the Patriarchy": The Scarlet Letter, adapted by Carol Gillian (NYTimes 9/15/02): the tragic love story is a hallmark of patriarchal ideology, which defines rigid gender roles and prevents us from experiencing true pleasure with other people....Hester and Dimmesdale reject a potentially happy future outside of Boston in favor of embracing patriarchal ideology, with its attendant misery....Her homily pleads for love and tolerance...Ms. Gilligan also added an epilogue that transports Pearl...into the 21st which women can be more open and enjoy sexual pleasures.....concluded that a more faithful dramatization would, in the end, be more provocative. "To hear them in Hawthorne's voice opens up the possibility for a much wider conversation about issues that are central to people's lives today."

In the Blood, a CurtainUp Berkshire review

Fucking A, a CurtainUp review

....Suzan-Lori Parks' two plays she calls riffs on "The Scarlet Letter": "In the Blood" and "Fucking A." In both plays, a character named Hester is exploited and humiliated by compassion-challenged modern socieites....a parable, set in a violent dystopia, in which Hester is forced to become an abortionist and branded with an "A." Take the woman, and give her five kids and no money, and you have something to condemn her for."

"Removing the Scarlet Letter": The College Board will no longer flag the SAT-score reports of students granted extra time because of disabilities

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