Giving Prynne a Chance

This is what I looked like when I read The Scarlet Letter the first time. This was also pretty much my reaction to it.

OK, this is me, listening to the Diane Rehm show, featuring Carolyn Hax and two others talking about The Scarlet Letter.  Facts to keep in mind:

  1. I rarely listen to NPR or radio talk shows of any kind (though I was raised immersed in WGN).
  2. I love Carolyn Hax, but have never heard her voice! (oooh, thrills and chills)
  3. I hate The Scarlet Letter. Or I hated it, 10 years ago (omg, ten, seriously?).  Am (maybe) ready to give it another shot.

OK!  And away we go.  Here’s the link to the show, if you care to follow along.  It’s 51:34 long.

00:10 OMG.  Is this the theme song? Mm.  This isn’t going to work.

00:28 “Thanks for joining us, I’m Diane Rehm.  Adultery, opression, intrigue, and pride–this novel has it all.”  Wow, her voice is warbly.  But according to the box at the top of the screen, “one of her guests is always me.”  That’s nice.

1:30 Diane Rehm hasn’t re-read this book since high school.  Join the club.

1:59 Diane Rehm just congratulated Carolyn on her column. Which she’s been writing for 12 years…

3:27 Megan Marshall of Emerson College thinks the gender issues of this book still speak to us today: “how can we be manly men and womanly women and still live our lives by our own lights?”

4:13 Ooh, Carolyn gets a bit of a false start there–she’s a writer, not a talker like the English professor is.  I feel her pain! But still, she has lots of smart things to say:

“If you take away certain trappings from 1850, when the book was written…and from the 1640s [when it takes place], if you take away the scaffold and the ‘A’…the way the characters interact with each other in their romance is extremely familiar to me. You just change some of the phrasing.”

She compares the ranters and dissenters at Hester’s judgment to commenters on the Washington Post: “People are people are people.”

5:27 “This is a psychological novel, this is a relationship novel, this is right up my alley.  It’s just a little harder to read.”

6:50 D. Rehm wants to know: “there is a long preamble.  Why is that preamble so long?”  Hear, hear!

10:31 M. Marshall is trying to show how much she knows about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s secret sex life….

11:18 Kermit Moyer (professor emeritus, American University) says the book was critically received, but didn’t sell well–and M. Marshall cuts him off, “…well, it did go into three editions.”

11:56 The guests are getting pretty into it, having a lively discussion, and D. Rehm is interjecting random noises. “SCAAANDALIZED!”

14:14 Before and after every break, and every time any guest speaks, D. Rehm reads everyone’s entire resume….

15:00 Carolyn gives a plot synopsis. Yup…that’s basically what I remember.  And I’m not persuaded.  It does sound like it’s the language and the structure that win them over, though.

Tiger, perhaps covering up the "A" on his chest

20:51 Carolyn says, “I don’t see a whole lot of difference between Hester Prynne on the scaffold and Tiger Woods at his press conference…public shaming is alive and well.”

22:00 K. Moyer is relieved to hear Carolyn report that people are still shock-able.  He was worried, it seems, that we’re a world without shame.  Thanks, Carolyn, for liaising between the tabloids and the ivory tower.

23:23 M. Marshall describes Hester as a “magnet” and a comfort for other troubled women, reading a quote where Hester assures them of “her firm belief that at some bright period, when the world should have grown ripe for it,  a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness”

Mmmhmm, any day now…But seriously, Hawthorne seems to have been very pro-woman, and pro-intimate relationships.  He sounds like a pretty interesting fellow. (Was he the one who was trying to redeem himself for his ancestors’ role in the Salem witch trials, or am I making that up?  That weird bit of trivia just came flooding back into my brain.  But, in all the discussion about shame and guilt, Hawthorne expert M. Marshall never mentioned this–so maybe I imagined it).

26:46 We’re opening the phones!

27:08 Carolyn Hax’s English teacher calls in!  Points out the importance in the book of facing the past….and goes on to say many other theme and symbolism-related things.

29:46 M. Marshall says, “I hope Carolyn got an ‘A’ in your class.” Booooooo!

33:43 Carolyn thinks having some “life mileage” helps you understand and relate to these characters.  I’m thinking I agree.  Listening to this discussion, I’m wondering what on earth 15 year olds are expected to get out of this book.  Not that they can’t understand and appreciate it as a canonical work of literature.  Just think I’d find it a lot more powerful now.  (Teachers, care to weigh in?)

34:30 Hm.  Unlike me, Carolyn recalls liking the book in 10th grade.

35:20 M. Marshall presents this book as a primer for teaching students how to analyze American literature.  Mainly because of all the very obvious symbols. (Her words, not mine).

35:57 “We still don’t know if we’re a puritan or a progressive society.”

36:14 A caller from Indiana–he’s a high school teacher and reports that less than 75% of his class read the book as assigned, “or whatever.”  Or whatever?

He says, “well, I read it, because I love to read.  And I finished it long before they even thought about starting it.” Wow, the teacher deigned to read the book, because he loves to read, and is in a race with his students to finish it?  Nice.

37:00 Oh wait.  He’s not the teacher.  He’s a bitter 10th grader with the voice of a 37-year-old, complaining that the book wasn’t “fed” to them well. (After 10 years of hating on TSL, I suppose I can’t criticize him too harshly)

Actual tagline: "When intimacy is forbidden and passion is a sin, love is the most defiant crime of all." Also, blatant GWTW rip-off, with Demi silhouetted against the sunset/her own boob.

38:00 M Marshall: “people have tried to make movies of it, not very successfully,” (dig at Demi?)

39:00 another English teacher calls in, speaking on the book’s stance on male-female relationships, on single motherhood, and….more symbolism.

40:12 In a surprise move, M. Marshall reveals that Nathaniel Hawthorne was raised by a single mother!

41:00 Caller from Wisconsin with a beautiful, beautiful voice.  Oh no!  Her story takes a gut-wrenching turn, revealing how shame and stigma in families and among young women, still persists–and destroys lives–today.

42:00 OMG, M Marshall is in love with Nathaniel Hawthorne, and keeps talking about how famously handsome he was.  Really?  He looks like the love child of Mark Twain and Grover Cleveland.

Nathaniel Hawthorne = Mark Twain. Minus the cigar and the smirk.

43:20 Carolyn on Pearl’s civilizing transformation from wild child to young woman: she was shaped not by law or religion, but by her empathy with someone else’s pain

44:00 And…naturally, M Marshall tells us a bit about Hawthorne’s own children.

45:00 Carolyn on the ending–finds it inevitable, exhausting, and a bit anticlimactic.  She saw it coming: “the moment you think you can outrun something, that’s when you set in motion the collapse.”

47:00 A woman calls in who had her child through a sperm donation, and whose family is ostracizing and harassing her for not revealing the identity of her donor, so they can go after him for child support.  Holy crap.

49:29 A caller asks about the letter as a symbol of separation, in comparison with the story in Genesis of God’s mark on Cain to set him apart and protect him.  Can guests comment on that?


50:00 Diane R. thanks us for reading the Scarlet Letter, “by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Megan Marshall, Carolyn Hax, and Kermit Moyer.” Erm?

OK.  So–I’ll give it another shot.  Because Carolyn thinks I should.  Will report back.


One response to “Giving Prynne a Chance

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