Saturday, January 22, 2011

My Scarlet Letter

A prompt posted by my friend Laurie over at That's What She Read. Do pay her a visit. (Of course, she already has a bajillion visitors and commenters whilst I doodle with my thoughts about knitting and unfinished posts...but still going to plug her because she's Just That Good.)

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it?

In tenth grade, I met Nathaniel Hawthorne. Mrs. S, my chain-smoking, desk-jumping, craziness-cultivating (and we loved her for it) honors English teacher slapped the book down upon our desks and said, "Dive in." Unfortunately, for many of us, the pool had no water.

I dreaded every chapter of this book, and finished it only begrudgingly, happy to move on to shallower waters, leaving Mr. Hawthorne and his horrific heroine behind. I got a glimpse of his nasty magic again in college, reading "Rappaccini's Daughter" for a American lit survey course. Hmm...themes: Control of women? Women are deadly and evil? Men should control women AT ALL COSTS? Should have sent me back to SL, but, alas...

Then, years later, I got a job as AN ENGLISH TEACHER. And, lo and behold, was assigned to teach 10th grade honors American Literature. And, you guessed it--Hester Prynne was on the menu.

I spent no small amount of time reading about SL. And I realized what I wasn't mature enough to see at age 15--that I blamed the book because I didn't understand it. I didn't have the skills, or, perhaps (sorry Mrs. S), the guidance to feel my way through Hester and Dimmesdale's maze. When my reading and thinking skills met their first big wall, they couldn't scale it, and so I hated the wall.

I've taught the book seven or eight times now and grow to appreciate it more and more--not as a heart-pounding page turner (because that it is most emphatically not) but as a morality tale, a fable, a parable, a uniquely American mixed-up and self-questioning text, full of ambiguity and paradox.

My students get angry at Hawthorne for playing God. I say--get angry at the Puritans; they started it. They rail against the injustice of a tale without a happy ending. I say--isn't it? And because I can argue both sides, and because of the cracks that I see open in each student's personal wall--I love this book.


Laurie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurie said...

OK: Confession. I too hated this book in high school. And yet again in college. Very possibly because it was merely assigned, not illuminated. I did, however, wax intrigued by "Rappaccini's Daughter".
Your post has convinced me to screw my courage to the sticking place and give it another go. Which version do you favor? I'm seriously off to reacquaint myself with all things Hester and Dimmesdale. But naming my kid, dog, bike, chicken, or imaginary friend 'Pearl'? Never gonna happen. That girl scares me.
The Scarlet T.

Laurie said...

p.s. Dost thou mock me with thy Lovely Capitalization, D?