The Scarlet Letter – The Novel has been critiqued by many as a document of crime and punishment. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured The wearer,-so that both men and women, who had been Familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time,-was that SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter Wearing the scarlet letter is meant to bring her ridicule and humiliation. The Novel progresses further as she has to face the ordeals of what some have called the moment of indiscretion. Hawthorne’s novel is more of an emotional and a psychological document, set in the 17th century puritan American society at Boston. The chief female protagonist is adulterous, a sinner who has to wear the badge of shame – though she removes it in the middle of the novel. Hawthorne has left certain questions in the mind of the readers that have been interpreted and critiqued since then. Important ones like: The question of the anatomy of the letter ‘A’, The Hester – World – Nature – Society – Situation question has many converging and diverging channels. Hester’s charm, beauty and elegance have puritanical shades of black and white.
She is beautiful with her long black hair reflecting the sunlight gleam, her attractive eyes and cool countenance, her grace unmatched. Yet the fall from grace is inevitable after the punishment is announced upon her, as she looks withered out – though physically but not psychologically or spiritually. Puritanical irony pervades the novel with paradoxes and dichotomies of shame, sin, fall, cowardice, guilt and envy versus strength, fortitude, compassion and honesty. Hester values her morality, her ideas and her honesty above everyone else. Her battle is not with her own self but with the others. She stands all alone at one side of the battle field with her fortitude and the society on the other. Her individuality is at stake but she wins in the end after a long journey of struggle.
The spatial and the temporal in the book strikes the universal as it talks of human nature, nature of the universe, human society and nature as an entity in itself. The puritanical lesson is arrived with the idea that wisdom is attained through a long sequence of the sin-repentance-punishment trio. Mistakes in life teach lessons. Hester learns from her mistake. She is shown to live a gracious life after that. She becomes a respected woman, a legend in the Boston colony. She draws even with her life and society at last and lives long and peacefully. On the other hand Chillingworth kills himself as his heart and mind and will corrode with hatred, revenge and envy. Also Dimmesdale is all consumed by guilt and shame as he finally surrenders and dies after he has made a public confession and declaration of his shame.
The Scarlet Letter, the motion picture is a treat to the senses. It is a fairly considerable attractive piece of art. Demi Moore is stunning as Hester Prynne, Garry Oldman as Dimmesdale who looks like a college rockstar is convincing and Robert Duvall as Chillingworth is reasonable as a gone-native. The 1995 adaptation is director Roland Joffe’s story. It has digressed from the original and ironically won the ‘ Worst Remake or Sequel’ at the Golden Raspberry Awards. The film is a treat to the eye as shot in the British Columbia on Vancouver Island in and around Campbell River, Lupin falls, Myra falls in 1994. The cinematography is austere as the town is meant to resemble a puritan new England town in the mid 17th century. The grey of the buildings on the dock street talk about the unexplored ‘grey’ in the backdrop of the puritan black and white shades of the novel as even used the light of the film.
The music score enhances the contours of the growth of symbols and the characters as well as the settings of the contrasts. John Barry’s music the final selection plays a significant role in the movie to be rated as its pertinent USPs. The film earned a number of negative criticisms ironically. Especially as it has ended. On this Demi Moore commented to which I subscribe. “In truth, not very many people have read the book. The ultimate message of Hester Prynne would have been lost if we’d stayed with the original end.”
‘The love making scene’ and the mulatto slave girl exploring her body in the bath tub with a communion with the scarlet bird is the most “cherished scene”. It would be right to mention here Hester as a ‘Stalwart English Lass’ with her ‘free spirited ringlets’ was married to an older man Robert Duvall who she had never loved. (Owen Glieberman) The same critic calls the scarlet bird in the movie ‘symbol of a symbol’ an appropriate mascot. The fiery climactic action in the end
where the American settlers are pitted against the noble natives leaves a lot of ponder upon as the Hollywood endeavour depicts. Demi Moore as Hester Prynne makes quite sense: “ Almost anyone would agree that Hester Prynne, the puritan feminist martyr of the 17th century American society suffers to an outrageous degree for her adulterous crime, her punishment extreme even by puritan standard, can’t help but strike the modern audience as borderline medieval in its cruelty.” (Gliebermann) The question is however an open ended question and it remains. The message remains, be it from the 17th Century puritan or the 21st century globalised world, the woman, in this case Hester Prynne in all her sensuality, sensibility and pride remains spiritually bound to the society that shuns her.
Also, even Hawthorne says that the letter “A” worn as a disgrace later transforms from Adultery to “Angel” in a spiritual, mystical sense and “Able” in a more rational sense. The choice that Hester makes leads to her courage, strength and her growth as a human being. The book as well the movie is both ‘parable of a puritan American societal repression and universally any societal repression that would rip apart even the freest of souls. Demi Moore portrays Prynne’s ‘Smirking with superiority at her white bearded governors and jailors convincingly. Her scenes with Olderman are aptly soft and soothing and she “cries beautifully’’ and with fortitude. Dimmesdale portrays the soul-quandary as Olderman looks a ‘ shell-shocked flower bud’, Duwall as Chillingworth in the novel shows up as a gone-case native out of his mind in search of his wife’s love, obsessed with and consumed by envy and guilt mixed with guile.
The diversions in the movie enhance the emotion and their impact on the audience. As the Narration goes, it is through the eyes of Pearl, a female narrator as writing, interpreting and analysing the central text of the movie Hester Prynne and the other significant symbolic texts emerge. The amount of time travelled is also different but it is portrayed convincingly in the movie. Another movie critic Michael Arnold says that ‘the 1850 novel is a ‘Social Commentary that is still relevant today.’ The film sheds light on questions that are left unanswered in the novel. For example who was Hester Prynne before she arrives in America? How was she married to Chillingworth ? Dimmesdale’s Background and his affair? And likewise. Retaining the structure as given by Hawthorne it strategically adds the technique of flashback which gives completeness to the plot. Demi Moore realizes the character of Hester Prynne, she thinks for herself, she is concerned about the role of women in the society, she ponders over the human nature, her thoughts about divinity are un-hypocritical, she grows ever more compassionate, she is a loving mother, a law abiding citizen, she is a woman of her own dreams, of her own rational mind.
Her actions speak louder than words. She does not ‘demonise her oppressors ‘and lives well with grace and dignity. Why she falls for Dimmesdale is perhaps more convincing in the movie than while reading the book. The film tells a more complete story. I wouldn’t quite agree when a critic says ‘sorely got lost in translation’, which might sound like a more politically correct view of the movie. The antipathy between the maleness and the femaleness has prevailed since time immemorial. The rational knowledge behind this antagonistic culture has been pursued. Simone de Beauvoir in ‘The Second Sex’ has suggested that ‘Male activity’, in prevailing over the ‘confused forces of life’, has subdued both Nature and Woman.’ This has a long history in the self-definitions of almost all the cultures.
“In her nature lies the healing power which replaces that which has been used up, the beneficial rest in which everything immoderate confines itself, the eternal Same, by which the excessive and the surplus regulate themselves. In her, the future generations dreams. Woman is more closely related to Nature than man and in all her essentials she remains ever herself. Culture is with her always something external, a something which does not touch the kernel that is eternally faithful to Nature.” (Nietzsche)
The movie “The Scarlet letter” apart from being puritanical statement is also a rational feminist statement where Hester is just out of a Virginia Woolf text as she carves a niche for herself, as she tries hard to make a room for herself in the predominantly man’s world right from the very beginning of the story as she defiantly declares. “I intend to find a house of my own as soon as possible.” Then she constantly takes access to her resources, grows creatively with her Virginian ‘Androgynous mind’ and finally blossoms as a heroine. The three stages as I have tried to delineate are. First, her “Access to Education”, Second, the growth of her androgynous creative mind, lastly her blossoming into a more universal character Hester needs to establish an identity of her own; ‘with a freedom to worship without fear of persecution’ though from the Bay’s Governors’ point of view she is headstrong. She perhaps has to pass ‘the test of loyalty’ ‘the test of spirit’ with faith and prudence which she is going to pass in the end.
What happens with her free spirit is evident as “A highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to certainty’’(Woolf). Hester is righteous, she visits the church, she ‘talks to God’, her religion is not just ceremony, and it’s not just ‘imagination of mottos’. For her religion is the true spirit, the inner voice, she stands true to her values, for which she is even dubbed as blasphemous and ironically and hypocritically persecuted. She is a true libertarian. Woolf says “There is no gate, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of the mind.” ‘The Scarlet letter’ is about fascination and passion; it portrays the invigorating life that a woman needs to live be it physically, psychologically, emotionally or spiritually.
The series of events that take place in Hester’s life are a challenge for her to grow in body and in spirit in all its totality. Right from the point where she conducts her business transactions saying: “Why isn’t my money no good to you Sir?” when asked why her father or brother are not doing business for her. She is truly an androgynous mind as she rides the horse while going to the church and even better than the Pastor. “I can ride, I shall manage.” She is witty and intelligent in replying to Dimmesdale when he remarks “Your tongue knows no rules Ms. Prynne.” By saying, “and if it did Reverend, what purpose would it serve?” When other women of her times ‘stay at home and cook, sew, clean and raise children,’ her ‘incandescent mind’ loves to be in the library and read and exchange books, and she prefers to listen to the ‘passion of her heart’ as rightly put by Harriot, “ Let men tremble at who wins the hand of the maid but possesses not the full passion of her heart.”
Hetser married to the Old Chillingworth never loved him, she was no more the child who was married to him. She prayed, even as she dreaded, she struggled against the love that grew stronger with each passing day. She rises high on the pedestal as she declares “I love and honour the man who has fathered this child and say what you will, he will be my true husband for life.” But her right to stand up to the hypocrisy is denied. She constantly struggles between freedom and bondage. On being adjudged blasphemous Hester speaks her mind unequivocally “I believe I have sinned in your eyes but who’s to know if God shares the same views.” She stands by Harriot, who is to be punished for being declared as a witch, Hester defends Harriot thus: “She has committed no crime beyond speaking her own mind.” She even reprimands the governors, “Satan is not at work here among women, but if he is here, then perhaps he is among you men.”
As Woolf has posited,’ Men have historically belittled women as a means of asserting their own superiority…they, threatened by the thought of losing their power reduce women to enlarge themselves.’ Virginia Woolf’s metaphoric conceit of light comes to play in the action, her “incandescence’’ genius illumines the reality…allows her “to light a torch in that vast chamber where nobody has yet been…” Hawthorne in the 19th C is in consonance with Virgina Woolf – Hester creates a room of one’s own in ‘The Scarlet Letter’, Pearl is the narrator, she writes as she narrates, even Harriot along with Hester are heroines that blossom and create a place for themselves. The rationale of marriage of the minds in the sensuality and the passion, incandescently leads to the creative logical end in the movie.