The Scarlet Letter: A Twice-Told Tale

YOU'VE heard a great deal about Mosses from an Old Manse. [1] Now, moving from Concord to Salem, let me tell you about Hawthorne's next great work. The Scarlet Letter opens in an Algonquin village, where the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and his close companion, Running Moose, have come on a peace mission. Arthur is at home among the indigenes, but he is special in this regard. "You're the only [white man] who comes [to us] with open heart," says the tribal chieftain, Metacomet, who then proceeds to list the settlers' injustices. Metacomet's remarks sound an ominous note. It turns out that Arthur and Running Moose have a "great experiment" in view, involving racial harmony and social diversity, but their dream is not to be. Not yet. The time is the sixteen-seventies, when, historically, a series of attacks by the federated local tribes devastated the English settlements. As the story ends, the assault is underway. And yet the conclusion is hardly tragic. For one thing, it's clear that the settlers have brought their troubles upon themselves. More important, a romance has flowered between Arthur and the beautiful Hester Prynne, a romance that actually occupies most of our attention, and whose harvest is a little Pearl. Finally, as things unfold we learn that the Puritans are not all bad. Potentially they are indeed a diverse community, comprising not only dogmatists and invaders, but ecumenicals, free-thinkers, Quakers, antinomians, and former members of the Merry-Mount colony. So the mood is hopeful as the story draws to a close. The community survives, and with it, presumably, the prospects for the great experiment. Prospectively, too, the experiment moves outward across the continent, where the Dimmesdale family, riding off together into the sunset, goes in search of a new life.

The movie of The Scarlet Letter did not sell many copies of the book. That may be because the movie flopped, or, better, because the book did not need selling, or, best of all, because the American public did not buy the adaptation. For as you can tell from my precis, and as the screen credits make plain, the movie, starring Demi Moore and Gary Oldman, with Robert Duvall as Chillingworth, is "freely adapted from Nathaniel Hawthorne." Joyce Carol Oates called it a feminist adaptation, but I think that's too limiting. The movie is a contemporary reader's fantasy about everything he or she wanted to know about The Scarlet Letter, but was afraid to ask in class. I don't mean this as criticism. The Scarlet Letter clearly needs explaining. Why, where, and how, exactly, did Hester and Dimmesdale get together? How did Hester manage on her own, without either child-support or day-care? What happened to Chillingworth during his long captivity? And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Anyone reading the novel has to come to terms with extra-textual speculations; and this film sets out to provide a context appropriate to our times. A worthy project, admirable in its own right, and perhaps necessary to the novel's persistence from one generation to the next. Not necessary, of course, to our sense of the novel's intrinsic value, but important in suggesting its relevance to our lives. In other words, what I called extra-textual explanation is a commentary on our culture.

The narrative context, then and now, is early New England. We might call this our cultural common, since (for fictional purposes, at least) the Puritans constitute a kind of shifting symbol of national origins. In the film, they are the prudes that H. L. Mencken characterized as living in constant fear that someone, somewhere, might be enjoying himself. Puritanism here is a society to break free of. In fact, the term I mentioned in the credits, "freely adapted," might be read as a pun. Hawthorne's Hester remains confined among the Puritans, first as their "seven-year bond-slave" (as she says resentfully), and then, after her return, as a sad and wise counselor to women. Her one attempt to cast off the A is rejected by Pearl with the vehemence of a Puritan jail-warden. In the film, on the contrary, Pearl is the voice-over from the open territory. What she tells us, as a now-settled frontierswoman of the Carolinas, is a story of liberation. The Carolinas were then slave-territory, but we must let that pass. This is above all a story of personal liberation: the flight to freedom of self-reliant individuals. It is also a story of sexual liberation. In a striking gender reversal, the opening love-scene shows Hester peeping from behind the bushes at Arthur swimming in the nude; and at the end Hester holds the reins as the family drives out of town. Last and perhaps least, this is a story of religious liberation: "Mother came in the hope of worship without fear of persecution," Pearl explains, and Hester finds it in a subversive women's group whose theological creed, as summed up by Hester and repeated by Pearl in the film's final line, is: "who knows what God considers a sin?"

The focus on liberation allows for lots of action. That's a problem in the novel, where almost nothing happens. Confined as they are by their Puritan setting, Hawthorne's characters think and feel; love, hate, interpret, and speculate, but they rarely do anything. The film solves that problem with the customary stand-bys, sex and violence: a massacre, a wife-beating, a murder, graphic physical torture, equally graphic self-mutilation, a scalping, a suicide, an attempted rape, several even more detailed love-scenes, and (to parallel the early swimming episode) a long bathing scene, featuring Demi Moore attended by her black Caribbean companion, Mituba.

Sex and violence, we might say, serve to recontextualize Hawthorne's tale, and the result is a salutary lesson in the limits of interpretive freedom. Question: what happens when you have the license to adapt a text, especially one as open-ended-which is to say, as temptingly adaptable as The Scarlet Letter? Answer: you get a collage of contemporary cliches. Nothing more clearly exposes the traps of culture than self-conscious attempts at originality. The Puritans in the film are a fair index not only to popular taste, but to current views in academia. What I called the Mencken Puritans are those in power, the ruling patriarchy; the rest are comprised of the mix I mentioned. The bad guys are the usual suspects: witch-hunters, moralists, and land-grabbers. The good guys are mainly the marginals and the unrepresented minorities. The time (as I said) is the 1670s, but the movie actually compresses the three most familiar episodes of seventeenth-century New England: the Anne Hutchinson trial (1630s), Metacomet's War (1670s), and the witchcraft hysteria (1690s). Thus the plot relates intolerance, male chauvinism, colonialism, and, climactically, the racism that explodes in the inter-tribal attack. Hawthorne's novel is set in 1642-1649, in order to emphasize the newness of the venture, and the nature of its errand, which is not revolution, as it was in England in 1642-1649, but rather a certain social order designed to redirect the radical energies of its adherents. The movie Puritans are an incipiently progressive community under an oppressive regime, a society at odds with its own most liberal possibilities.

This is not altogether wrong, historically; certainly no more wrong than Hawthorne's recreation; it is not even altogether false to the novel. A colleague of mine claimed that this was the movie his students had always dreamed of. Many of them had pictured Hester as a free spirit; most could barely remember (much less resolve) the fact that she returns voluntarily to New England; and all of them considered Dimmesdale to be an absolute cad or, worse, an absolute wimp (what did he feel so guilty about, anyway?). I could add parallels from my own teaching experience. And I think we must grant that to some extent the novel is responsible. To that extent, the movie makes for a wonderful case study in continuity and change. That's the subject of my essay: the shift in cultural context between the movie and the novel, with particular reference to the function of the New England Puritans as a symbol of national origins. Let me repeat the phrase: the function of New England Puritanism. For the context I have in mind is not Puritanism itself, but its cultural legacy--Puritanism as it was freely adapted by Hawthorne in 1850 and by the filmmakers of 1995.

What's at stake, then, is the meaning of a national ritual. Hawthorne captures its essence by locating the letter in the Salem Custom House, which he describes as a sort of initiation-post: the "civic" threshold to "Uncle Sam's government," emblazoned with "an enormous specimen of the American eagle," under "the banner of the republic." [2] For two centuries now, the Puritans have been the imagined entry into official U.S. history--or, better perhaps, the official entry into an imagined U.S. history. Either way, the Puritan migration has served, rhetorically, as a communal passage into American identity. Like any other ritual, this one is distinctive to the community that shaped it--which is to say it's a ritual distinctive to a modern secular nation. Other rituals return to a founding moment (as in the Eucharist, to use a Puritan example) in order to recapture--to relive and recapitulate--a unique transcendent event. Americans return to the Puritans both to reclaim a sense of purpose and to declare a great leap forward. We are like the Puritans in fundamental ways and we are fundamentally better than they are. Traditionally, indeed, it's a matter of cause and effect: we're better because we're alike. Their religious venture in utopia (to recall the opening paragraph of Hawthorne's novel) has expanded into our democratic city on a hill; their errand into the wilderness has culminated in our manifest destiny. A New Yorker cartoon has one Puritan say to another, as they disembark from the Mayflower: "My first goal is freedom of religion, but my long-range plan is to get into real estate." That's the skeptic's view of the ritual. For believers, a fit image is Hester at the novel's end, looking toward the great society to come. In the film, we get Arthur's vision of an American New Jerusalem, "the greatest of all human dreams," somewhat modified by Hester's closing summons to the frontier: "We came here to make a new [world]." It is real estate consecrated as the new promised land.

Hawthorne's view of that promise is closer to the skeptic's than to that of either Hester, his, or the film's. His critique of progress is a main theme of Mosses from an Old Manse and a main subtext of The Scarlet Letter. But it is a critique, not a denunciation. Hawthorne believed that, for all its defects, the Northern Union was better than other available social systems, and that the Puritans' crucial contribution was to open the way towards liberal democracy. The movie is somewhat more grudging in this respect. Here, too, however, the community is presented as being proto-American, dedicated to essentially liberal values. To be sure, their language is archaic and their institutions primitive, but in 1995 as in 1850 the Puritans live in a contract society built on voluntary association, the work ethic, free enterprise, government by law, and governorship by election. Hawthorne's Hester earns her living by needle-work, rather like a Victorian seamstress, whereas Demi Moore is an upwardly mobile single mother, with a small farming business, hired help, and live-in child-care. But personal independence is the standard in both cases, and in both independence has a troubled relationship to the equally important standards of the family unit. In general both communities embody the good guy-bad guy contrast I described, the symbolic bipolarity we commemorate in one form or another every Thanksgiving Day. The bad Puritans represent the archaic forms we've left behind; the good Puritans are the forebears through whom theocracy foreshadows the New World Jerusalem.

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