My students really got into Nathanael Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. So what grade did I give them? An A+, of course. But a bright red one.
The reason I love teaching literature is because it makes people into better persons. By analyzing the mistakes of others, we can eschew pratfalls. By witnessing acts of heroism, we can emulate.
A cursory reading of the Scarlett gives the anti-puritanical crowd plenty ammunition.
But if we dig deeper, we find unexpected richness. The story was more than just a social critique. We find a resilient Hester Prynne who turned her humiliation into eventual public admiration. We learn to overcome adversity. We learn we can change into better people, no matter how bad we are.
We find a bitter, diabolical, jilted Roger Chillingworth, who’s quest for revenge makes him far more evil than the vilified adulterers. They fell in love and got carried away. He deliberately plotted his life’s course towards evil. If there ever were a manual on how to become a Hitler, it’s Chillingworth, whose very name evokes the lack of human warmth. Talk about a lesson in moving on. Yeah, Chillingworth turns his life into the poisoned purpose of tormenting another.
Then there’s Dimmesdale, the secret partner, who cowardly dodges the shaming that Hester cannot. We can sling a lot of mud at Dimmesdale. But who voluntarily divulges their worst skeletons??? No, Dimmesdale deserves compassion. But he’s also a lesson in the value of (dare I say?) confession. He only escapes the clutches of his evil tormentor (Chillingworth) by courageously taking his place next to Hester on the scaffold in the town square.