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"But It Doesn't Mean Anything To Me": Narrowing the Distance Between 19th Century Literature and 21st Century Students

Amy Stern

I was fourteen, the first time I read The Scarlet Letter. I was fourteen and in tenth grade and I thought I knew everything, because I was reading Gregory Maguire and Dorothy Allison and good literature was any book that had been written in the past ten years that had a voice not entirely unlike the way I spoke. When I was fourteen I read The Scarlet Letter, but what I really mean is that I read two pages of it, the first chapter that isn't "The Custom House", because everyone in my tenth grade honors class had to do a presentation on one chapter and someone had traded with me because she didn't want to go first. I read two pages, which I thought were nothing but boring exposition, and then I tossed the book into my locker until I wrote my final paper. I talked about how Hester was harshly punished for her mistake. I'm pretty sure I got an A on it.

That was seven years ago, and when I sat down and actually read The Scarlet Letter this year, I was practically convinced it was a different book. After all, it had a different cover, and it started with this long essay that hadn't even been in the edition passed out in my tenth grade English class, and although the few details I remembered from the first two pages were still there, it seemed more coincidental than anything else. (Megan McCafferty's publishers might disagree, but really.) After all, the book I'd read in tenth grade was indecipherable. The language was impossible, and even just listening to summaries, I couldn't retain which guy was Chillingworth and which was Dimmesdale. I knew that Hester had had sex, with someone who wasn't her husband, and that was bad, and then she had a child, and that was bad, and something happened in the woods, and at the end one guy had a big scar on his chest in the shape of an A. (If you think this is bad, you should hear me try to recall the plot of All Quiet on the Western Front.)

Which is weird, because the copy of The Scarlet Letter that I got this year was actually really interesting. I found it one of the easiest texts we'd read in the semester to understand; the language was pretty easy to decipher for me. Society was punishing Hester, sure, and she was far from the only person in the town who was condemned, by the town or by themselves or implicitly by Hawthorne. Chillingworth and Dimmesdale were interconnected, but far from identical; they were complementary figures, and each one's strengths and weaknesses played off the other's. The characters were a lot more interesting to twenty-one-year-old Amy than fourteen-year-old Amy had even thought possible.

The biggest difference for me, though, is how Hester is portrayed. She's not just a harlot who got caught and got punished. In tenth grade, I'd thought myself socially aware and accepting, sat around arguing over whether premarital sex was acceptable (I voted yes) and whether sex ed classes should share information about protection (ditto). But I hadn't seen Hester as a person. She was a character, who'd made a choice that was societally unacceptable and thus had to be punished.

In a lot of ways, I can't blame myself for feeling that way. After all, in high school, it doesn't matter how enlightened you think you are; you're saturated in a culture which simultaneously aggrandizes and condemns sexuality in all its forms. Everyone's lives are intertwined and the subject of the gaze of the school as collective. Sex, in a sense, is everyone's business, and no one's doing what everyone thinks is the right thing. Too much sex, and the girl is a whore or she's easy. Too little and she's a prude, a dyke, a tease. No matter how much I wanted to believe that reading Bust and Bitch and Tipping the Velvet made me better than that, I was still neck-deep in a culture where it was considered acceptable for some of the boys to make an anonymous website accusing the girls in my grade of everything from sexually transmitted diseases to incompetence at various sexual acts. (Personally, I'd been called out as a "tyke" and was seriously upset that my being younger mattered so much to people- the perils, perhaps, either of my age-sensitivity or of teenage boys' inability to spell.)

The Scarlet Letter, to me, was a part of the past. An important part, I'd been assured, especially if I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. But it was something that was old, and done with, a history book with fictional characters. If I was reading about condemning women, I'd thought, I preferred The Crucible, which we'd read first, and which at least had witches and contemporary dialogue. What I wonder now, the more I read- both of nineteenth century literature and about adolescent development- is how I didn't connect The Scarlet Letter to my life sooner.

I think I might have read the whole book, if I had. I think I might have even liked it.

I'm imagining, now, my ideal class in The Scarlet Letter. Maybe it would be taught in tenth grade; maybe it would be a year later. The first day, I'd walk into class, and the word would be written on the board. All capital letters, and big, so that they cover most of the board.


Everyone in the class free-write about the word, for ten or fifteen minutes, and then we'd all sit in a circle and discuss it. What is a slut? What other words do you associate with slut? How is that applicable in celebrity culture, and how is that applicable in real life?

The discussion would slide, within a few minutes, to the fact that slut is, usually, a gendered word; a girl who frequently has sex (or is thought to frequently have sex, or might have once had sex, or wears tight clothing or short clothing or makeup) is a slut, whereas a boy with similar behavior is a stud. What does that mean? How does that make you feel? What are the implications of that divide?

I don't think that, at fourteen or fifteen, any of us in that classroom would have all the answers. I don't feel like I have all of the answers now, and I've engaged in my share of femgen classes and readings about gender. But I feel like just having the questions is the most important part of this discussion. Because once we'd had a day discussing the implications that having sex was having at that very moment in our own lives, I think that discussing Hester's story, of being punished by those around her for her sins even as others did similar things and faced no punishment, would hit a lot closer to home.

When I think about what, before this class, taught me about The Scarlet Letter, I would go with an episode of the TV show Popular. Written by Ryan Murphy, it was an episode about six girls who ended up locked in a room to solve all their problems, and each girl revealed a secret in the process, identifying her problem with "her scarlet letter". All six girls, the episode had shown, were in a Feminist Literature class in their high school, and their teacher explained that secrets constrain you, but letting go of those secrets can also set you free. He revealed his own homosexuality, and over the course of the episode, each girl was filmed in her "Hester Prynne" outfit, with a large red letter emblazoned on her chest: R for rebound, B for Betrayer, C for confused. It offered me the possibility that Hester's condemnation was also her freedom; by people learning her secret, she was allowed to be who she was, instead of forced into the mindset her society tried to insist upon.

I suppose I feel like these thoughts, about how (for example) The Scarlet Letter plays into sex, which plays into real life, and back again, are thoughts that aren't just helpful for understanding the text; they're imperative. Getting through The Scarlet Letter by keeping it in the nineteenth century, where it's distant and absent and safe, is an awful way to approach the text, which hinges on dismissing the most worthwhile tools of analysis. It's not just trying to build a house without a hammer; it's trying to build a house without hands.

After this, I imagine we'd dive right into the text. We wouldn't read "The Custom House"; I can't think of anything that would turn me off from the text more. We'd just read the meat of the book, the story part, a few chapters a day. We'd spend most of the time in class engaging in various alternate readings of the text. Personally, I'm enamored with a feminist reading, or maybe a humanist one, largely because of how I first internalized the messages; I want to hear discussions of why it's not just Hester who is suffering from secrets, but also Chillingworth and Dimmesdale and even Pearl. Nothing in this book hurts only one person; every individual is made both victim and firing squad. It's a precursor to No Exit, where Hell is in Massachusetts and no one fully realizes just how much power they really have. But there are dozens upon dozens of ways to read the novel, and if our class discussion is any indication, it seems like the only one most high school students are exposed to is one which presupposes that sex is bad and Hester's punishment, while overly harsh, is not necessarily unfair or undeserved.

I realize that some of my understanding of the text comes simply from my experience of reading more: more feminist criticism, more nineteenth century literature, more books in general. Maybe there are texts that need to be read at least twice, once to give the background for other novels and once to actually get it now that you have the background from others you read for the same purpose. I know I have books that I hated on the first read and loved on the second; it wasn't until then that anything in the book had sunk in. But some of my problem was simply not being given even a suggestion of the frame which, reading it after four years at Bryn Mawr College, I take for granted. Let something like The Scarlet Letter be a book that connects to contemporary issues. Let it lose some of its "real" purpose, if necessary, and stop being a novel about Hawthorne's guilt about Salem, and instead turn it into a book about feminism and misogyny that speaks to the students reading it. By insisting on a specific, narrow, classic reading of the text, it keeps it from being living literature; it's killed by the very thing that originally kept it alive.

And, really, this problem isn't just with The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's text is susceptible to it, because it's so easy to blindly look at the surface and miss out on a lot of the depth, but that's hardly news. After all, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been a frequent victim of censorship and criticism for decades, as readers continue a long-standing tradition of complaining about the content they choose not to understand instead of actually looking at the text.

I can't deny that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn touches on issues that are harder for me to deal with than The Scarlet Letter. Typing the word slut meant nothing to me. I mean, at this point, I think of it as something that has been reclaimed; friends and I use it to tease each other all the time. When slut is used in a genuinely derogatory fashion, I've been known to get into an argument over it, or at the very least a heated discussion over why it is or isn't appropriate. But when talking about the key word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I'm having a much harder time, typing the N and the I and two G's and ER. In fact, I just realized that I'm going to have to type it, and bold it- after all, this paper needs to have some symmetry- and that thought is making me uncomfortable.

But this is where I need to remind myself that this is not the high-school me reacting. This is me with four years at a liberal arts college, so used to discussing things in the correct or acceptable way that I can't think of a single situation where it would be acceptable for me to use the word. This is me brainwashed into what I consider the correct way of thinking; that it's not mine to use. But maybe a student- a kid in the ninth grade, or eleventh grade, or seventh- doesn't have that feeling. Maybe the student next to him does. And maybe that's why, just like slut, it deserves its place, in gigantic block letters, on the blackboard.


Even just typing that makes me feel uncomfortable. There's that element of feeling like you're doing something wrong, just by thinking it; it's naughty, the way it was when I was in elementary school and said damn instead of darn for the first time. There's power in the word, and it's power that I don't really feel I deserve to have, because it's power at someone else's expense. And then, of course, I detour into the ideas about the power of language, and the power of this word in particular, and the history, and using it academically versus insultingly, and what exactly reclaiming means.

And are these the ideas that should be discussed in a classroom? They're certainly one of the main reasons that people want The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn banned from the classroom. Half the time, I can't tell if the critics are offended by the language or the message; is it the use of the word, or the message of the story, that is so appalling to people?

For me, the choice is simple. Censorship is wrong, period. I want to be a librarian, and part of that territory involves condemning the idea of book-banning on principle. Words are just words, I argue; they exist whether or not they're used, and their power lies in how we are able to use them as a benefit rather than a detriment. Besides, I'll say confidently, I'd rather be confronted with a book whose message I completely disagree with than have that book banned from accessibility altogether. Freedom of speech is for everyone, not just who you (generic) like or agree with.

But I also realize that the question with a book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a lot less simple. Some words mean more to certain people than to others; there would be large differences among discussing Huck Finn in an all-white school, in an all-black school, in a school with an equal mix of races, and in a school which is mostly white with only a few minority students. And it probably matters about the teacher, what class and race they are, and their relationship to the students besides.

And maybe it's the same with The Scarlet Letter, then. Maybe if I hadn't read the book in a class of honors students who probably would have been thrilled to be labeled "slut" instead of "geek", the idea of discussing the theoretical construct of slut, in this abstract academic space, would be offensive rather than necessary. Maybe my opinion would change depending on whether the teacher was male or female, just out of college or nearing retirement, friendly with the class or distant. And certainly, whether or not it would work for me as a student is almost completely divorced from whether it would work for another student.

For a while, now, I've had a hard time dealing with the image of the academic in the ivory tower, not in touch with the common man or what have you. After all, I choose to study the media which seems to reside on the fringe of academia. I look at television shows and young adult literature: the lowest common denominator, to some minds. I think about how race is portrayed in Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher and how metaphors for sex are used in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and through examining these more popular mediums, I can believe I'm enlightened enough to turn classical literature into something just as easily applied to real life. I look hard to find the academic value in teen shows like Veronica Mars or children's series like The Baby-Sitters Club, and in doing so I tend to really think that I've dealt with the inherent problem of academia distancing itself from the masses. It lets me think I've come out successful.

But my entire experience since I started reading "real" literature (whether as defined by my teachers or as defined by me) has been within the company of what I perceived as like-minded others. Even when I look at trashy television shows, I'm doing so through the lens of cultural studies and a select breed of critic; I'm not a student of the world so much as I'm a student of a smaller group of critics. Especially now, learning with students from Bryn Mawr and Haverford who might not come from similar cultural, class, or racial backgrounds but tend to have similar learning styles, I can pick up on certain biases in the way that I've learned to read. Moreover, because of the differences in the ways in which we were all raised, I have learned to analyze the ways in which how I read a text is different and how that is better or worse than the alternative.

And I wonder if maybe this ivory tower, which I think I've avoided, lies in exactly this discussion. I can discuss "nigger" and "slut" like they're just words. Words with contexts and histories that need to be studied, sure; words that carry far too much power and hurt people more than any words should. But they're just words to me. To the fifteen-year-old who's been called either of them by someone who's dead serious about trying to be hurtful, this doesn't work.

I don't think that means the literature shouldn't be taught like this. In fact, I think the opposite; applying to real life remains, for me, the best way to connect to a text, and books which I feel have hurt me intently because they ring too true are the ones which I remember the most. And I can't help but think of the phrase I've heard dozens of times during my tenure at Bryn Mawr, and agreed and disagreed with all at once: if you're not uncomfortable, you're not learning.

I guess it just means that I think there is no right answer. One of the reasons that these texts have endured so long is that they have these layers that make people uncomfortable, that make people think, that make people learn. Some people are taught poorly, and like me toss the nineteenth century into their lockers, not to be examined ever again unless, say, they need one more 200-level English class to graduate and it seems like something they should do. And some people are taught well, and latch onto the texts immediately, and get everything out of it that they should and more. Of course, the weird part, to me, is that those people could have been in the same high school class. In fact, we probably were. And if they read this paper, they'd probably laugh, and say "I told you so".

I can't even argue that. They'd be right. At the end of the day, that's why I'm an English major. That's why I'm taking this class; as I grow as a reader, each book keeps changing and developing. Which is maybe why these books have lasted in the culture for so long, and why they should be taught- no matter how well- in the classroom, at every age. There's something in them for everyone, if we look hard enough. It might be something that, at fifteen, we aren't ready to hear, but maybe at twenty, or twenty-five, or fifty, we are. It'll been there the whole time, waiting for us. And if we're exposed enough, then maybe it'll hit when we're finally ready to process it.

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