For the last thirteen years, I’ve taught American Literature to juniors at an independent girls’ Catholic school. In that time, my syllabus has included classics from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The young women I teach come from a variety of backgrounds, but most of them are Catholic. Although I attend Quaker Meeting every week and my religious and political views may be different from those of my students, I find that literature brings us together and gives us a common ground to talk meaningfully about important issues and spiritual beliefs.
In my career, only a few books have managed to make it onto my syllabus again and again. One of them is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Every September, as I announce to parents at back-to-school night that their daughters will be reading Hawthorne’s classic, I get a few eye-rolls. Sure, the sentences are long, the syntax outdated, the diction difficult, but my students actually enjoy the book. When I encounter skepticism, I just smile and think about Hester Prynne, the book’s main character. She may be a Puritan living in seventeenth century America, but she embodies many Quaker ideals that I enjoy sharing with my students.
This is not something I realized when I first taught the book. In fact, at the time, I didn’t even know I had Quaker beliefs. But talking with so many intelligent, spiritual people at my school about the weighty themes in novels, essays, and poems made me realize I needed something more in my life. I started seeking my own path and one fall, shortly before teaching The Scarlet Letter for the eighth time, went to my first Quaker Meeting. I’ve attended ever since.
My experience learning about Quakerism has changed my perspective on teaching the novel, and I realize now how much Hawthorne’s attitudes parallel my own. It’s not that my purpose is to fill my students’ heads with Quaker beliefs (they would be smart enough to see through that). My purpose is to talk about the qualities of great literature—symbolism, metaphor and tone—alongside the most important elements of life. The Scarlet Letter is a book that gives students an opportunity to think about silence, integrity, love, even the presence of God and concern for one’s environment. In other words, some of my favorite Quaker principles.
Hester Prynne’s story opens as she emerges from the town jail where she has given birth to an illegitimate daughter. As a woman living alone in Salem, Massachusetts, Hester has been waiting for her much older husband to arrive from England, but his whereabouts are unknown. So is the identity of her child’s father. Because it would be against the Salem laws to execute Hester without her husband’s consent, she is given what many in the book see as a light sentence: she will forever wear a scarlet letter “A” to indicate her crime and be an example to others.
From the moment she steps forth from the prison and the sun illuminates her letter, Hester maintains her silence and her integrity. She is urged by the townspeople as well as government and church officials to lessen her burden by naming the child’s father, but she is silent. All around the scaffold, the citizens unleash cruel comments about Hester and her daughter, Pearl. The women in particular suggest punishments such as branding and death.
As we discuss this scene in class, we pause to consider the women’s brutality and Hester’s silence. I ask them why Hester remains silent in the face of such harsh criticism. I ask them what her silence represents. We talk about when it is important to speak up and when it is important to keep quiet. In this case, we decide that Hester is willing to remain silent and endure her punishment because she knows that her love is not a crime.
Hester also gives us a chance to talk about integrity between thought and action. She fashions the scarlet letter out of brightly colored cloth and golden embroidery and similarly dons Pearl in the richest, most luxurious fabrics so that she will be noticed wherever she goes. Hester is never publicly false to the letter. There are even times when she points to it to remind others that she is not ashamed. In this way, she serves as an example to my students of someone whose thoughts mirror her actions, someone who is able to passively resist the harassment of her tormentors.
Before long, my young readers realize that the tremulous minister, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, who early in the book urges Hester to confess before the whole town, is the father of her child. While the students are sympathetic with Hester from the beginning, the revelation of Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy is usually more than they can tolerate. They have difficulty with Hester’s loyalty to him and have little patience for his self-doubt and cowardice. Through everything, however, Hester maintains her love. She forgives Dimmesdale again and again for his refusal to confess, even as he is unable to forgive himself. She witnesses the push and pull of his desire to reveal his true self and his fear of disappointing a town that holds him in such high regard. Hester is able to see that of God in Dimmesdale, beyond his ecclesiastical vestments and his hypocrisy. If only we could all be so understanding.
Meanwhile, Hester and Pearl make a home on the edge of town. While they can live anywhere, Hester chooses a simple cottage beyond the village, close to nature. The other Puritans are suspicious of the forest and see it as the realm of the devil, but not Hester. There is something sacred about this place for her, and she lives in harmony with the trees and water. Nature is the one place where Hester and Pearl find freedom and can be themselves. It is in the woods, surrounded by the light that shines through the trees, that Hester reunites with Dimmesdale and expresses how she truly feels.
Of course, through all of this, Hester and Dimmesdale are haunted by Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband disguised as the town physician. When he first returns and visits Hester in jail, he tells her he will leave her punishment to the scarlet letter. They agree to keep his identity a secret because it will save Hester from execution and protect his own reputation. But on his own, Chillingworth decides that his single purpose will be to seek the identity of Pearl’s father and exact his revenge outside the law.
In the same way that Dimmesdale’s hypocrisy destroys him, Chillingworth’s revenge slowly takes him over. Hester appeals to his humanity and asks him to leave the suffering Dimmesdale alone. They confess that theirs was not a marriage of true love and that they have wronged each other. Although Hester recognizes what the desire for revenge has done to her husband, she always believes that some goodness, some small flicker of light, remains in the old doctor. She is proven right when he attempts to redeem himself by leaving his estate to Pearl.
At the end of the novel, many years after Dimmesdale has departed the earth and Pearl has grown into a young woman, Hester returns to Salem, resumes wearing the scarlet letter and lives out her quiet, simple life by helping troubled young women in the community. Her reputation is transformed, and she moves from the “living sermon against sin” she once was to a living saint. She takes her scarlet letter to the grave (next to Dimmesdale’s) as her firm conviction that she has not sinned, but loved.
Through everything, Hester maintains her integrity and dignity. She sees through the power, corruption and hypocrisy of her community and isn’t afraid to stand up for what she believes. She is patient and righteous even as she is verbally and publicly abused. She reveres nature as one of God’s gifts. She is able to see God in others, and helps us do the same.
Next year, I’m sure that once again, I will face a few rolling eyes when I mention The Scarlet Letter to parents of my new students. I’m sure that I’ll also face some skepticism from students who wonder how they’ll relate to a book about seventeenth century Puritans. Meanwhile, I’ll just smile and think about what great literature has the power to do: bring us to a better understanding of who we are and what we believe, no matter what our denomination.