When my students complain that they don’t like The Scarlet Letter, I tell them to remember the thestrals.
Thestrals are the creatures in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels who pull the carriages that bring Hogwarts students back and forth between the train station and their school. In the first four novels, the thestrals are invisible, and Harry and his friends marvel at how exciting it is to ride in carriages that pull themselves.
At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry witnesses his classmate Cedric Diggory killed by Lord Voldemort. Then, when he returns to school at the beginning of The Order of the Phoenix, he finds that the carriages that pick the students up at from the Hogwarts expressed are now pulled by large, grotesque creatures that he has never seen before:
If he had to give them a name, he supposed he would have called them horses, though there was something reptilian about them, too. They were completely fleshless, their black coats clinging to their skeletons, of which every bone was visible. Their heads were dragonish, and their pupil-less eyes white and staring. Wings sprouted from each wither – vast, black, leathery wings that looked as though they ought to belong to giant bats. Standing still and quiet in the gathering gloom, the creatures looked eerie and sinister. Harry could not understand why the coaches were being pulled by these horrible horses when they were quite capable of pulling themselves. (Rowling 178)
Befuddled by his friends who still can’t see the creatures, Harry talks to a classmate named Luna Lovegood who tells him that she has been able to see the thestrals ever since her first year at Hogwarts. “Don’t worry,” she says, “You’re just as sane as I am” (Rowling 180). The joke, of course, is that Harry and his classmates consider Luna to be crazy.
In my mind the thestrals represent art. Art is what it is – a painting or photograph, words on a page, a libretto or score, a choreographed dance. But anyone who has ever grown from childhood to adulthood knows that works of art change as we change.
In my own life, few works of art have shown this capacity to grow as I grow quite like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. My own adolescent experience with this novel was unremarkable: I didn’t enjoy it very much, but I liked how the three scaffold scenes and the four archetypal main characters made the novel easy to analyze. I was a little miffed when this title turned up on the reading lists for courses I took in college – twice – but I do remember seeing a certain wisdom and beauty in the novel when I read it again at twenty. The novel had only changed a little bit for me at that point, though.
The novel opens in Puritan-era Boston during the second phase of Hester Prynne’s punishment for adultery. First she was imprisoned throughout her pregnancy; then she was required to stand with her baby on the town scaffold for three hours so the townspeople can gawk at the spectacle of her public sin. The third stage of her punishment is the requirement that she wear the letter ‘A’ on her clothing (the word Hawthorne usually uses for the placement of the ‘A’ is bosom – suggesting both female sexuality and motherhood).
I’m leaving a lot of details out, with the assumption that my readers have read the novel or can easily access a plot summary (as I know my students can!) if they want one. What concerns me is what happens to Hester – and what doesn’t happen to her onetime lover, Arthur Dimmesdale – after she is released from the scaffold and the prison. This novel is usually billed as a story of sin and redemption, and on one level it is. However, in the secular, results-oriented world that I live in and that most modern-day readers live in, I find more meaning in the novel when I think of “failure” as a synonym for sin. Theologically, the idea holds up: if each person’s purpose is to be good, then sin is our failure to live up to this purpose. Even in a secular context, sin is generally understood as a failure to conform to the expectations of society (or of an individual authority figure, or of ourselves). And in the world I live in, the word “failure” strikes me with much greater fear than “sin.” When I read The Scarlet Letter now, as I do religiously each September as I prepare for my American Literature courses, my mind automatically makes the substitution of “failure” for “sin,” and I don’t think Hawthorne, with his 19th-century Romantic perspective and hatred of Puritan hypocrisy, would mind my doing so.
Hester’s letter marks her as different from everyone else in Boston, not because she is the only member of the community who has sinned or failed, but because she is the only one whose sin has been acknowledged and accepted publicly by the community. The letter “endow[s] her with a new sense,” giving her “a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts” (Hawthorne 77). On one level, the fact that public recognition of her own sin gives Hester compassion for the sins of others shouldn’t be hard to accept, as most of us know people who have been softened through suffering (and we can probably also name a few who have experienced the opposite reaction, becoming harder and less willing to forgive others as a result of their own hardships). Hawthorne, though, is never afraid to ask us to believe that something supernatural is going on, though, as if Hester’s ability to empathize with the suffering and failures of others is somehow a magical quality. This magic is centered upon the scarlet letter itself, which sometimes “would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate, the model of piety and justice… ‘What evil thing is at hand?’ would Hester say to herself. Lifting her reluctant eyes, there would be nothing human within the scope of view, save the form of this earthly saint!” (Hawthorne 78) In other words, the letter gives Hester a physical (but not sensory in the way that we understand the senses, as Hawthorne identifies the letter’s power as “a new sense”) ability to recognize the presence of the hidden sins and failures of others, even when these individuals are presenting virtuous facades.
“Like Harry Potter’s scar!” my students sometimes say. YES.
Later in the novel, the letter is reported to have “the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom” and to even have the physical capabilities of a 17th-century flak jacket: “It was reported, and believed by many, that an Indian had drawn his arrow against the badge, and that the missile struck it, but fell harmless to the ground” (Hawthorne 147) – in other words, the scarlet letter, a symbol of Hester’s failure to conform to the expectations of others, transforms into a talisman against both spiritual and physical danger as well as a conduit that allows Hester to understand the hidden failures of others.
Hawthorne suggests that there is something fundamentally female about Hester’s transformation, and, of course, it is because she is a woman – and becomes pregnant – that Hester’s adultery with Dimmesdale becomes public knowledge while his complicity remains a secret. The obvious connections that Hawthorne draws between Hester’s daughter Pearl and the scarlet letter are part of the reason this novel is so easy for high school students to analyze – even when they often miss what I now believe to be its central truth. Hester is forced to accept public condemnation for her act of individual will (which neither Hawthorne nor I really believes constitutes “sin,” although her community certainly does); Dimmesdale has the choice of whether or not to align himself with Hester and chooses not to. Most people will keep their failures secret if possible. Losing my first teaching job was nothing – nothing – compared to having to tell people that I had lost it. The Dean of Faculty – fundamentally a good guy in spite of the fact that it was his job to officially sever my ties to the school – even helped me to concoct an elaborate story of why I was returning. I was grateful for his help at the time, although almost immediately after I left his office I thought, Wow. What is happening to me right now must be truly shameful if I’m being told by the Dean of Faculty that I should lie about it. As I share this blog more and more with my friends, several of them have expressed surprise and horror when they read the stories that I’m telling, because I either kept our conversations infrequent and cheerful or – more often – let myself fall out of touch with them. Of course I knew that they would sympathize – these are good friends – but I couldn’t tell them. I wasn’t the teacher that my department chair wanted (because even as I quickly lost respect for that department chair, I never lost my desire to please her). I lost my job. I failed. I knew that these things happened. I just didn’t know that they could happen to me. So I buried the experience inside and told lies as much as I could.
But of course, I couldn’t conceal the truth from everyone forever. I did have to pack up and move out (and, because I taught at a boarding school, a moving van parked outside my dorm apartment served as a very public announcement of my failure). I did have to explain to students, parents, and colleagues what had happened, and I had to find another job. After two interviews, I gave up on looking for a job while school was still in session. Job hunting cut into my crying time, and anyway, I couldn’t handle the inevitable question I was always asked: “Why have you decided to leave your current school?” Once I had packed up my apartment and moved everything to a storage locker, I bought a one-way plane ticket for the first time in my life. A friend picked me up at two in the morning to drive me to JFK airport for my 6 am flight. On the way off campus, we stopped at the security building, where there was a 24-hour drop box for keys. I had left my car with a friend for the summer, because I thought I might be returning to the east coast in the fall, so all of the keys on my key ring were school-owned. Dropping them in the box, I said to my friend, “I don’t have any keys. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have any keys.”
Before the world of substance-abuse counseling popularized the expression “hitting bottom,” Hawthorne described this phenomenon – and its freeing effect – in The Scarlet Letter. Seven years after the first scaffold scene, Hester feels empowered to once again approach Dimmesdale, who is suffering from a variety of physical and mental ailments, because the fact that she is “little accustomed, in her long seclusion from society, to measure her ideas of right and wrong by any standard external to herself” (Hawthorne 144) gives her the freedom to operate under her own authority. Later in this same chapter, Hawthorne writes, “The world’s law was no law for her mind” (Hawthorne 148) and “She assumed a freedom of speculation… which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a greater crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter” (Hawthorne 149). In other words, “speculation” or mental freedom is a greater crime than acting on that same freedom in committing adultery. Ironically, Hester acted on this freedom (in her adultery with Dimmesdale, presumably in a moment or several moments of passion) before she really possessed it, and it is only in the years of hard punishment afterwards that she really earns that freedom and comes to understand what it meant.
The same thing happened to me. As a young teacher, I acted with independence that my department chair found dangerous and threatening. I do think that she treated me unfairly, but could I have worked harder to conform to her expectations? Absolutely. By the end of my first year teaching at that school, I was in active revolt against her, although it was a quiet and polite revolt, one in which neither of us so much as raised a voice or broke a nail. But it was a fight, and I lost. By climbing slowly and painfully out of the feelings of shame that this failure provoked, I earned the right to the freedom that I had tried to exercise prematurely.
Dimmesdale is a tragic figure in the novel because he resists change. Both his gender and his position of authority in the Puritan community give him the opportunity to keep quiet about his guilt; Hester did not have that chance. If I had knuckled under to this department chair’s demands (and keep in mind that she was asking me to change my personality, not just my teaching) and remained at that school, I think I would have become like Dimmesdale. I would have stifled something that is completely essential to who I am. I would never have completely failed, and I would still live in absolute terror of failure. I would be, to paraphrase my first department chair, a thirty-six year-old puppy dog terrified of peeing on the rug.
To return to the thestrals: Harry and Luna can see the thestrals and the other Hogwarts students cannot because they have both seen people die. Harry saw Cedric die at the end of Goblet of Fire, and Luna confides to Harry that she saw her mother die. In other words, the change in the appearance of the thestral-drawn carriages is a factor not of objective reality but of the human lens through which it is viewed. I know that The Scarlet Letter changed for me after I experienced my first failure – a failure that, in the context of the world I lived in, was at least as monumental as Hester’s.
In “Proverbs of Hell,” William Blake writes, “The cut worm forgives the plow” (Blake 81). I discuss this statement with my students when I teach The Scarlet Letter. Understanding it fully requires one to call up their middle-school biology lessons about the anatomy of worms. Worms have multiple hearts, and when they are cut in half they are often able to regenerate, creating two separate worms where only one had existed previously. I have already written that from the time I was very little I have not found it easy to forgive people, especially people who had made me feel guilty and ashamed. But in this case I’ll make an exception. Hester forgives society’s harsh treatment of her by forgiving each one of its members individually and treating them with the compassion that many of them never offered to her. Through her newfound sympathy she is able to recognize that the public’s recognition of her sin is a privilege not granted to everyone, and she pities people who are still forced to keep their failures secret. Forgiveness is a tough word for me to use toward my former department chair, although I can use the word ‘gratitude’ without reservation: gratitude for the places I was able to go (geographically, professionally, and emotionally) because I failed to be her puppy dog. Maybe – maybe – I can even feel some gratitude for the physical consequences of this failure that are the reason for my current medical leave. Like the cut worm, it’s hard not to forgive a process that, though brutal at times, gave me the ability to recognize that I have more heart (though not physical hearts) than I once thought.
At the end of the novel, Hester leaves Massachusetts and returns to Europe with her daughter, only to return alone many years later, put her scarlet letter back on, and continue to live in her isolated cottage and offer help and support to suffering women. The word that Hawthorne uses to justify this choice is “real”: “It was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home” (Hawthorne 240). Hawthorne has already made clear that the original meaning of the scarlet letter changed earlier in the novel from “adultery” to “angel” and finally to “able.” Here, I think its meaning changes again. I think “A” stands for “adult.” In the later years of Hester’s life, the letter “ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too” (240). As adults, presumably we have all eaten the apple of Original Sin – or, as I prefer to call it, Original Failure – and this simultaneous rise (into adulthood and wisdom) and fall (from innocence) is at once sacred (suggested by Hawthorne’s use of “reverence”), amazing (suggested by “awe”) and sad. This is why Hawthorne’s use of the word “real” resonates with me – because people who have not failed strike me as false – and why I am willing, finally, to forgive the plow.
More later. I need to tell you what happened during the years I was away, before I put the scarlet letter back on.
Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Romanticism: An Anthology. Duncan Wu, editor. Oxford, UK and Cambridge, US: Blackwell Anthologies. 1994. p. 81.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Modern Library. 2000.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 2003.