Big Books of American Literature: Alchemies of Mind
Day 17: Thursday, March 23, 2006
The Scarlet Letter, finale

(Most images on this page taken from
"Exposing Scarlet:
A Visual Response to The Scarlet Letter"

Moving from the Crowd...Back to the Individual
(aka 'devolution')

visitor next Tues, 3/28: Amelie Rorty
(3 of her essays in the packet: what would you/shall we have her do?
(she's offered a "mini-history of the conceptions of passions and emotions...
Aristotle, Augustine, Descartes, Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, perhaps, Freud...
"But would you rather I lead a discussion?")

visitor next Thurs, 3/30: David Ross (BMC Econ)
paper on TSL moved til Fri. a week, 3/31
(papers beginning w/ "A" ready to return!!)

Inspired by Amelie Rorty: Let Me...Revise

Further inspired by Michael Tratner, "Working the Crowd: Movies and Mass Politics (Criticism 45, 1, Winter 2003: 53-73):

"Red Letter Day, No. 1"

"Red Letter Day, No. 2"

So: let's take this to The Scarlet Letter
(with thanks to Jessica:) "So I'm wondering how to categorize what the townspeople feel towards Hester. Of all the complex emotions happening in the novel, this is interesting me the most. Literature is often extrmeley useful at describing the emotions of a group of people in a time and place in ways that let other people in other times and places understand it, and in ways that, for me, history, sociology, anthropology and the like aren't as succesful and convincing."

...the Old World, with its crowds and cities, offered them a more eligible shelter and concealment than the wilds of New England, or all America, with its...few settlements (153)

...the crowd was in a tumult. The men of rank and dignity...were so taken by surprise, and so perplexed as to the purport of what they saw...that they remained silent and inactive spectators....they beheld the minister...approach the scaffold, and ascend its steps...Old Roger Chillingworth followed..."there was no one place so secret...where thou couldst have escaped me, --save on this very scaffold" (179)

Steph: What's the deal ...Why does Chillingworth try to "save" Dimmesdale from public humilation at the end when he had spend the entire novel seeking subtle, sneaky revenge on the priest? Is this some kind of male bonding thing I don't understand?

"Hester Prynne"

"Roger Chillingworth"

A number of you wrote/wrote about 21st c. versions of these big books
(Laura S.: "I wish we were dialoguing about our papers.")
Alison--UTC as 19th c. "fanfiction," and Little Eva as a "Mary Sue"
Angel--a "biological rewriting" of UT's C
Amy-- The Boondocks, w/ Tom DuBois as an Uncle Tom & Uncle Ruckus as an Uncle Tom caricature
Anna--representating the tempo of Eliza's internal/external "dance"

Let's try to do something similar/get @ what's going on in the final scene of Hawthorne's novel,
by actually being the crowd=performing the final scene from Suzan-Lori Parks' play

we need 5 individual actors, a crowd, and an audience to watch the crowd.

Let's re-perform this, using "stop-action" techniques
(the audience can stop and re-direct the plot/alter the action)
or come up on stage and be a "cloud,"
articulating us what is going on in the characters' minds.


"Braid (Detail)"

Now let's try taking it back to the nineteenth century--and have a few paired-but-public conversations
Chris: The action is much more than just an act of sexual impropriety, but an action against the community as a whole....Her action has become a disturbance to the community, unhinging and unsettling it, and even a threat to refound it....However, the reader sees that society is too large, too power fulfor her uprising to be any more than a feeble attempt, that in the end strengthens communities' belief in itself, even more than before. Lauren: where do you see this happening? How is her action threatening to untie the fibers of the community? Is the community disintegrating around her? If so, I really don't see it. More than anything, I think you could make the case that she makes the community stronger by removing herself from its midst. It becomes "Hester" v. "Not-Hester" and this faceless, amorphous character of "the town" gains something more like a structure by the mere fact that "she" is not like "them."

Laura O: with this novel I feel it is my right to participate in the storyline....Hawthorne has placed me unwillingly side by side with his characters. I feel uncomfortably close to alongside the people of this town....I leave with a sense of uneasiness....It doesn't come neatly packaged, but it still blows my mind. Jorge: I keep going through the ending in my head trying to fight the feeling of disappointment ... what was the use of confessing in front of such a huge crowd his sin right before his death?...What did he solve?...Was his honesty of any value to them? Did he teach them a lesson with his honest death?

Jessica: At first it was Dimmesdale who really got to me...most of all the way he claimed that his own suffering in silence was some how quantifiably worse than Hester's public shame....Am I reading Dimmesdale as the schmuck Hawthorne wanted him to be seen as?....In my quad group on Tues, we dubbed Dimmesdale the ultimate dead-beat dad. Margaret: I agreed with our dubbing of Dimmesdale as the ultimate dead-beat dad. However, I did feel sorry for him in the beginning. Here is this sincerely religious man who strays a bit and decides to punish himself for the rest of his life for his sin....But then the ending, and oh, was I angry at Dimmesdale. He was so close to being free with Hester....and yet so far away....How could he be so "inconsiderate and demeaning against me and mine"?

Can we "resolve" Dimmesdale?
Catherine D: "Dimmesdale is not a man I would considers protecting. He's so cowardly."

Alison: "....he seems like such a pale milquetoast that I couldn't imagine him having sex....any sex between them seemed unbelievably awkward....Did she even enjoy it?"

Adina: "I wouldn't have gone through all that trouble of keeping the secret for him."

So--where are we, as we end?
Or, as Margaret asked, "What is the take home message of the book?"
What is it, indeed?

The reader may choose among these theories....we have thrown all the light we could acquire upon the portent, and would gladly...erase its deep print out of our own brain (182).



What happens, when you juxtapose the forest and the scaffold?

"What we did had a consecration of its own" (140) with
"when we violated our reverence each for the other's soul" (181)?

Can we achieve, finally, some sort of "alchemy" between the two positions?
(with help from Alice Meichi's "Mortificatio"?)

Or should we even try?

Adina: "why I loved the book so much... is that there is so much room for interpretation. I think that makes it timeless. I love it that so much is left unresolved."

What do you make of Pearl's inheritance? (Emily?)
Of Hester's return?
Of the final gesture toward "the coming revelation"??
(Cat W--> action? a 'call to arms'?)

And--finally--what WAS this all about???

"Hunger," 2004

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