August 4, 2009

Homeless Lit: The Scarlet Letter


Title page, first edition of The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
This is the third in an ongoing series of posts looking at homelessness in literature. Prior posts in this series: Cannery Row [1/30/09] and The Tenants of Moonbloom [3/18/09]

In an NPR program last year about Hester Prynne, the heroine of The Scarlet Letter, one of the co-hosts commented, "one of the first things you learn about Hester Prynne is that she is drop-dead gorgeous."

Indeed and how! And it's far NOT a trivial factor at understanding the book and the journey Hester has in it. From the book's text:

The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too...

Also of significant importance in understanding this brave woman of literature is that from the beginning of the book she suffers a double whammy of homelessness. She was sent away from her homeland, England, to the wooded outland of a new continent, America, to a newly birthed town called Boston. Her husband, who was to follow her there, is presumed lost at sea since he had not arrived in over two-years' time. And, she is in jail with no abode to return to. As if she doesn't have enough problems, a babe is in her arms and the letter "A" is embroidered in scarlet on a patch at her bosom, an indicator of sin of some sort that readers of the book are left to guess at. Adultery, you think?

We are told, in the book's fifth chapter, that upon release from jail, Boston's leaders allow Hester use of an abandoned "small thatched cottage" on the outskirts of the community. From the text:

In this little lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that she possessed, and by the licence of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her, Hester established herself, with her infant child. A mystic shadow of suspicion immediately attached itself to the spot.
Thus Hester, in fiction alas, became America's first known beneficiary of transitional housing.

Though it most readily seems the scarlet sin had made her at outlier, it was the homeless "sin" that best fits the depiction of her alienation from the whole of the Puritan society where she was. Most Homeless World Sacramento folk will feel the sting of the words that follow, from the text:
In all her intercourse with society, however, there was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it. Every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere, or communicated with the common nature by other organs and senses than the rest of human kind. She stood apart from mortal interests, yet close beside them, like a ghost that revisits the familiar fireside, and can no longer make itself seen or felt; no more smile with the household joy, nor mourn with the kindred sorrow; nor, should it succeed in manifesting its forbidden sympathy, awakening only terror and horrible repugnance. These emotions, in fact, and its bitterest scorn besides, seemed to be the sole portion that she retained in the universal heart.
BUT, Hester is a very, very resourceful homeless person that all of us aware of the homeless condition have to applaud! First off, despite her sad circumstance, she is a very very good mother to her young daughter, Pearl. And Pearl is this wild and intelligent child that is beguiling and a delight. The Hester-Pearl relationship is one of great benefit to each, as we would hope for any mother-child relationship.

Early in the book, clergymen consider taking Pearl from her disgraced mother for the benefit of the child. Somewhat ironically, it is Arthur Dimmesdale, the child's secret father, who voices the Puritan wisdom of why mother and child should be kept together such that they can stay together and do stay together. Wise words, these! Every homeless-family agency in Sacramento should mark these words, which follow (from the text):
"God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements--both seemingly so peculiar--which no other mortal being can possess.

... [Hester] recognises, believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath wrought in the existence of that child. And may she feel, too--what, methinks, is the very truth--that this boon was meant, above all things else, to keep the mother's soul alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for this poor, sinful woman, that she hath an infant immortality, a being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care--to be trained up by her to righteousness, to remind her, at every moment, of her fall, but yet to teach her, as if it were by the Creator's sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven, the child also will bring its parents thither! Herein is the sinful mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester Prynne's sake, then, and no less for the poor child's sake, let us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to place them!"
Of course, Buddhist heathen that I am I don't personally buy in to the Providence idea, but it is interesting and likely sound Christian reasoning.

To Hester's great credit she quickly gets to work laboring to fund the effort to take care of herself and her treasured Pearl. She begins a cottage industry, becoming a successful entrepreneur at her art, needlecraft. From the text:
By degrees, not very slowly, her handiwork became what would now be termed the fashion. Whether from commiseration for a woman of so miserable a destiny; or from the morbid curiosity that gives a fictitious value even to common or worthless things; or by whatever other intangible circumstance was then, as now, sufficient to bestow, on some persons, what others might seek in vain; or because Hester really filled a gap which must otherwise have remained vacant; it is certain that she had ready and fairly requited employment for as many hours as she saw fit to occupy with her needle. Vanity, it may be, chose to mortify itself, by putting on, for ceremonials of pomp and state, the garments that had been wrought by her sinful hands. Her needle-work was seen on the ruff of the Governor; military men wore it on their scarfs, and the minister on his band; it decked the baby's little cap; it was shut up, to be mildewed and moulder away, in the coffins of the dead.
Hester becomes more and more of a success as a person such that she makes major contributions to other poor people in the Boston community. Poor as she is, she is considerate and compassionate toward others. It comes to pass that the staunch Puritan society comes to appreciate Hester's many able aspects and basic good character.
Hester never put forward even the humblest title to share in the world's privileges--further than to breathe the common air and earn daily bread for little Pearl and herself by the faithful labour of her hands--she was quick to acknowledge her sisterhood with the race of man whenever benefits were to be conferred. None so ready as she to give of her little substance to every demand of poverty, even though the bitter-hearted pauper threw back a gibe in requital of the food brought regularly to his door, or the garments wrought for him by the fingers that could have embroidered a monarch's robe. None so self-devoted as Hester when pestilence stalked through the town. In all seasons of calamity, indeed, whether general or of individuals, the outcast of society at once found her place. She came, not as a guest, but as a rightful inmate, into the household that was darkened by trouble, as if its gloomy twilight were a medium in which she was entitled to hold intercourse with her fellow-creature. There glimmered the embroidered letter, with comfort in its unearthly ray. Elsewhere the token of sin, it was the taper of the sick chamber. It had even thrown its gleam, in the sufferer's bard extremity, across the verge of time. It had shown him where to set his foot, while the light of earth was fast becoming dim, and ere the light of futurity could reach him. In such emergencies Hester's nature showed itself warm and rich--a well-spring of human tenderness, unfailing to every real demand, and inexhaustible by the largest. Her breast, with its badge of shame, was but the softer pillow for the head that needed one. She was self-ordained a Sister of Mercy, or, we may rather say, the world's heavy hand had so ordained her, when neither the world nor she looked forward to this result. The letter was the symbol of her calling. Such helpfulness was found in her – so much power to do, and power to sympathise – that many people refused to interpret the scarlet A by its original signification. They said that it meant Abel, so strong was Hester Prynne, with a woman's strength.
There is much much more to the novel -- about the men in Hester's life and the moral of the tale. And things come to a quick resolution of sorts that is somewhat dissatisfying. But all that is not our concern here. As a homeless person, Hester had spunk! She boldly took on the challenges in the unfair predicament she was in and always always forged forward, finally making a better life for herself while facing up to her responsibilities as a parent and as a compassionate member of a community.

Right on, Hester!

4 comments:

Nagarjuna said...

Hester is an inspiring role model for all of us, and especially for those of us with our own special challenges to meet and overcome.

Tom Armstrong said...

Hester IS amazing. Hawthorne's relation to her is curious though. While Hawthorne was speedily writing his novella, the Seneca Falls Convention was taking place in upstate New York and the rights of women was a hot topic.

It's hard to assess Hawthorne's position on women's rights. While be became friendly and involved with the many enlightened New England writers of his day, his personal relationships with women were complicated. For a long time he was a writer unable to support himself and was supported by the woman in his family. [His father was lost at sea.] Nat and his wife were split apart for a period of time because of poverty. The Scarlet Letter changed all that, however. It was a sensation.

His mother's family suffered a scandal somewhat like Hester's -- but it involved sister-brother incest, no less.

But yes indeedy, Hester is an inspiration, as might be Hawthorne. [In other words, keep beating on that keyboard, Nagarjuna.]

Kyle said...

I'd have to agree with Nagajuna's comment. Nice post!

Tom Armstrong said...

OOp. One thing I notice in my review/analysis is that I didn't explain why Hester's knock-out beauty was important.

Um. And NOW (nine months later), if I knew, I have forgotten.

Nonetheless, I'm GLAD she's a great beauty. And I do suppose it can have both helped her and hindered her at getting into what trouble she suffered and in dealing with her problems. But, then, this is fiction.