I recognize that this post comes out of nowhere for my regular readers. Let me assure you that my continued search for meaning in video games has not come to an end. But Medium Quality in its many forms has never been about just one thing. Rather, I have always thought of it as an exploration of humanity in the modern age. I’m just not quite intelligent (or motivated) enough to propel either my blog or YouTube channel into more intellectual spheres.
This is my blog, so I can do what I want. Even if it’s not a good idea.
About 4 weeks ago, I was enjoying a bit of solitude during my lunch break. Lazily flicking through my twitter feed, I noticed a curious hashtag that was trending: #MeToo. I spent the next half an hour reading the stories of women who had been harassed and assaulted. Until that moment, I had no idea how common their stories were. It occurred to me that, for each one of these terrible stories, there was likely to be many more that would go untold. Other women who would never know the solace of solidarity. I sat in my classroom with the door locked, and I cried.
You see, I teach American Literature at a private Christian high school. My students are under an immense pressure to be good Christian kids. But I would be fooling myself if I didn’t acknowledge that there are victims hiding in my classroom. They silently carry the burden of the words and actions that they had no choice in. They maintain appearances. They do their English homework… which currently includes reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.
(Spoilers ahead… for a 150-year-old book!!!)
The Scarlet Letter is a story about a woman named Hester Prynne who is trying to rebuild her life after serving a prison sentence for committing adultery. She is reintroduced to the community, forced to wear a red “A” to forever signify her wrongdoing. Hester and her misbegotten child are set apart from the rest of society as outcasts. In spite of this, she refuses to reveal the identity of the man with whom she engaged in this sinful act. Eventually, the reader discovers that Arthur Dimmesdale, the beloved town minister, is actually the adulterous accomplice.
It truly is an extraordinary piece of literature, abounding in thematic meaning. It’s no surprise that it is so often included in school curriculum.
I’d always viewed Dimmesdale and Hester as a pair of unfortunate lovers, kept apart by the rigid expectations of their society. Perhaps Hester hides their forbidden love to save Dimmesdale from having to endure the same punishment that she suffers. Or perhaps she does it protect the community from having to endure the fall of their saintly reverend. In either case, Hester Prynne is a hero. Courageous. Independent. Selfless. To the reader, she is a paragon of the virtues that we should all aspire to.
This reading of the text makes Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale a pitiable character. The community views him as a “miracle of holiness” (ch. 11), but the reader is fully aware that secret sin weighs heavy on his soul. Yet, he keeps his guilt hidden… driven to do so either by cowardice or duty. But if Dimmesdale truly is a coward, he would have fled Boston. I’ve always assumed that it was a strong sense of responsibility that compelled him to continue his ministry to the community. His decision to hide his sin protects the spiritual innocence of his parishioners. It’s an almost noble effort, except for the fact that it’s profoundly manipulative.
But as I teach the book this year, there is a thought that tugs at my mind. What if my default assumptions about the nature of their relationship are wrong?
The #MeToo movement came after an earlier story by the New York Times about the sexual misconduct of Harvey Weinstein, a prolific hollywood producer. Hollywood sex scandals are nothing new, much like a constant drip from a leaking faucet that I had grown numb to. I had assumed that these stories represented a rare anomaly, but I was sorely mistaken.
The Weinstein story heralded a deluge of allegations against powerful individuals in every industry imaginable. In the last few weeks, it has sparked an important conversation about power dynamics and sexual ethics.
These stories force us to confront an unfortunate reality. Powerful men can use their influence to compel women and other men to participate in inappropriate sexual encounters. Then they can use that power to suppress the truth about their actions. Even if Weinstein didn’t forcibly detain any of his victims, he certainly coerced them. He had the power to grant or deny important opportunities, so any romantic encounter between him and an aspiring actress must be considered inappropriate… regardless of consent.
I’m not saying that every powerful man engages in predatory behavior, but the prevalence of this sort of thing is absolutely startling.
What if Arthur Dimmesdale used his position of power to coerce Hester Prynne? This drastically changes the tone of the story. Hester is not the selfless hero. She is the shamed victim. She doesn’t keep the secret out of love for Dimmesdale. She does it because she is powerless. Her fate—and that of her daughter—is in the reverend’s hands. The townsfolk would see Hester executed and Pearl given to new parents for strict correction, but Dimmesdale advocates for the woman and her daughter at each opportunity. Hester is forever bound to his malignant generosity, and she never really escapes his control… even in death.
This interpretation of the text transforms Dimmesdale into a monster who wields influence to suppress the truth of his actions. His continued service in the community is an act of hubris because he cannot be caught. When Roger Chillingworth’s years-long investigation threatens his power, Dimmesdale begins to succumb to paranoia, and the slow torture he endures seems just.
It’s unlikely that this was how Nathaniel Hawthorne wanted us to view his story, but he never really gives us a glimpse of what Hester and Dimmesdale’s relationship was like like before Hester was imprisoned. The details would certainly have been too tawdry for publication in 1850. As a result the circumstances of their relationship are left to our imagination, making room for new interpretations.
This single artistic choice—though necessitated by the societal climate of its time—makes the novel timeless. Each new generation of readers approaches the book with a different set of assumptions about the nature of love, and The Scarlet Letter makes room for conversations about the issue that plagues our nation to this day.
As an American Literature teacher, I often present my students with a question about what it means to be an American. I always encourage them to seek out aspirational characteristics in the literary tradition of our nation, but it isn’t always so simple. Amid the tales of greatness, there are ugly truths that we must contend with. And lest I think we have arrived in some kind of magical golden age, the highest example of American citizenship is a President who has bragged about sexual assault, validating the abuses that had gone unspoken until a month ago.
It is especially difficult to find characters whose masculinity builds the foundation for human flourishing. Who should the young men in my classroom look to? Certainly not the Hollywood elite. Not Arthur Dimmesdale. Not even the President of the United States of America.
It is difficult to imagine a society free of sexual assault and abuse, but I hope that the #MeToo movement helps to usher in an age of awareness and support. Any illusions that we held about our heroes have been shattered, and they must stay that way. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterwork critiques the hypocrisy of his puritan ancestors. Likewise, our response to this cultural moment will be examined by our great-great-great grandchildren. We must be willing to take a hard look at who we are today if we are going to write a better story tomorrow. Let’s make it one that we can be proud of.
As long as we still have need for these discussions, The Scarlet Letter will hold and important place in my curriculum.