". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

From the Pen of Mr. Hawthorne

As part of our study of American literature this year, I am having my two older children (14 & 17) read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Because it is not an easy book to read, I decided we would do it together. It makes for an interesting readaloud, as it is light on action and dialogue and heavy on description and reflection. Almost every detail is infused with symbolic import. And Mr. Hawthorne does not seem to trust that his reader will readily get the symbolism so highlights it repeatedly. Every sway of the trees, darkening of the sky and shape of a cloud has significance, as the drama playing out in the lives of the main characters radiates far beyond their little world, the microcosm of human action reflected in the macrocosm of the natural world with such force as to make Mr. Shakespeare himself nod approval.

All of this makes for a rather verbose style, one that is not my cup of tea. Yet my memory of reading the book quite a few years ago is a positive one. I enjoyed it then and I am enjoying it now. I think the reading aloud is actually allowing for more appreciation of Mr. Hawthorne's ability to turn a phrase. He does have a way with words that goes right to the heart of human behavior, as some choice quotes from our reading so far will attest.

Consider, for example, this comment on Hester Prynne's visits to the homes of village women for whom she is working as a seamstress. I would wager that my female readers will recognize the "alchemy of quiet malice" described.

"Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distill drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtile poison from ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that fell upon the sufferer's defenceless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound."

Or how about this passage, on parenthood:

"Mindful, however, of her own errors and misfortunes, she early sought to impose a tender, but strict, control over the infant immortality that was committed to her charge. But the task was beyond her skill. After testing both smiles and frowns, and proving that neither mode of treatment possessed any calculable influence, Hester was ultimately compelled to stand aside, and permit the child to be swayed by her own impulses. Physical compulsion or restraint was effectual, of course, while it lasted. As to any other kind of discipline, whether addressed to her mind or heart, little Pearl might or might now be within its reach, in accordance with the caprice that ruled the moment. Her mother, while Pearl was yet an infant, grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that warned her when it would be labor thrown away to insist, persuade, or plead. It was a look so intelligent, yet inexplicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl was a human child."

I bet many of my readers who are parents can relate to that "look" and the wondering about the humanness of one's offspring!

And then, there's this, which will no doubt resonate with anyone who has ever tiptoed away from a sleeping child:

"Her only real comfort was when the child lay in the placidity of sleep. Then she was sure of her, and tasted hours of quiet, sad, delicious happiness; until--perhaps with the perverse expression glimmering from beneath her opening lids--little Pearl awoke!"


Melody said...

It was the time period, right? I remember seeing The Last of the Mohicans and wanting to read the book. But, after reading that first sentence, "It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered before the adverse hosts could meet," I knew this was not something I could read by knocking off a chapter in bed each evening. this really had to be READ. I did finally get about halfway through before Mary was born and I had to set it aside. Later, I read The Deerslayer, and I found that it was like translating German; you only get the gist the first time through! When Matthew and I read The Scarlett Letter, there it was again; that language! But it's good for the brain.

Cheryl said...

Ugh, Cooper. Avoided him until grad school, and then only because I had to.

Yes, the style is due in part to the time period. Hawthorne was a Romantic. But then as now everybody didn't march in lock step. And Poe, a fellow Romantic, was less than impressed with Hawthorne:

"Now, my own opinion of him is, that although his walk is limited and he is fairly to be charged with mannerism, treating all subjects in a similar tone of dreamy innuendo , , , "

"He is peculiar and not original--unless in those detailed fancies and detached thoughts which his want of general originality will deprive of the appreciation due to them, in preventing them forever reaching the public eye. He is infinitely too fond of allegory, and can never hope for popularity so long as he persists in it. This he will not do, for allegory is at war with the whole tone of his nature, which disports itself never so well as when escaping from the mysticism of his Goodman Browns and White Old Maids into the hearty, genial, but still Indian-summer sunshine of his Wakefields and Little Annie's Rambles. Indeed, his spirit of 'metaphor run-mad' is clearly imbibed from the phalanx and phalanstery atmosphere in which he has been so long struggling for breath. He has not half the material for the exclusiveness of authorship that he possesses for his universality. He has the purest style, the finest taste, the most available scholarship, the most delicate humor, the most touching pathos, the most radiant imagination, the most consummate ingenuity; and with these varied good qualities he has done well as a mystic. But is there any one of these qualities which should prevent his doing doubly as well in a career of honest, upright, sensible, prehensible, and comprehensible things? Let him mend his pen, get a bottle of visible ink, come out from the Old Manse, cut Mr. Alcott, hang (if possible) the editor of 'The Dial,' and throw out of the window to the pigs all his odd numbers of 'The North American Review.'"

Cheryl said...

I meant to provide a source for those quotes: