Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. Signet Classics, 2009.

Summary of Work
This book opens at the Custom House, where the author discusses how the book came to be written. The narrator is a surveyor in Salem who came across a manuscript and a tattered, crimson gold cloth in the shape of the letter A in an attic. The surveyor reads the manuscript to find that it details the events from around 200 years previous about an adulterous woman and her life. He writes a fictional account of this story, which becomes the novel.

In the 17th century in puritan Boston, Hester Prynne is led from the prison to the town square, a scarlet A emblazoned on her chest, to be punished for committing adultery. She had been sent to Boston by her much older husband, who was a scholar, but her husband never arrived after her, presumably lost at sea. She had a child much later, having had an affair; when the minister Arthur asks her to reveal her lover so he may also be punished, she refuses, taking the punishment all herself. She is publicly shamed, and must always wear the scarlet A on her breast as her punishment for adultery.

A stranger watches this entire display, and he is later invited into the community as a doctor. Roger Chillingworth is in fact Hester’s husband, and she knows this, but she and he do not reveal that to the town. He is determined to find out who her lover was and to seek revenge. Hester supports herself as a seamstress, and Pearl grows into a beautiful young child, often described as a fairy, sprite, or imp in her otherworldliness and wilfullness. They are both shunned by the community, and the townspeople seek to take Pearl from Hester, believing that an adulterous woman should not be raising a child. However, the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, mediates and Hester is able to keep her child. Since Hester’s trial, Dimmesdale has struggled with his health, suffering from a mysterious heart condition. Chillingworth so regularly helps him that he ends up moving in with the minister to help him. He also moves in with the intention to investigate his suspicions that Dimmesdale is Hester’s lover. One day when the minister is asleep, he examines Dimmesdale and discovers a branded A on his chest, confirming Chillingworth’s suspicion.

Dimmesdale is unable to forgive himself, and finds new ways to punish himself for his sins. In contrast, as Hester has lived a life of charity and humility since her punishment was bestowed upon her, the community comes to almost admire her and forgive her for her previous sins. Pearl and Hester go to visit a townsperson on their deathbed, and on their way back in the evening, they see Dimmesdale standing on the scaffold where Hester had stood with Pearl in her arms nearly a decade earlier. He is trying to find a way to punish himself for his sins, and Hester and Pearl join him on the scaffold. The three of them join hands, and when Pearl asks Dimmesdale to greet her publicly when they are in town the next day, Dimmesdale says he cannot, and in response a meteor falls and creates a red A in the sky in its wake. Hester decides she cannot watch Dimmesdale get worse, and seeks to intervene with Chillingworth on his behalf. But despite her pleading with her husband, he refuses to stop tormenting Dimmesdale.

Later, Hester arranges for Dimmesdale to meet her and Pearl in the woods, and they go walking, with Pearl playing in the woods as Dimmesdale and Hester talk. She has guessed that Chillingworth is aware of her plan to tell Dimmesdale of his identity, and so she must act quickly. They determine that they will run away to Europe so they can live together as a family, since there is a ship scheduled to depart four days later. They feel relieved, and Hester briefly removes her scarlet letter and bonnet, letting her hair fall down her back, which scares Pearl, who does not recognize her mother without the letter emblazoned on her chest. The day before they are to set sail, Dimmesdale delivers the most eloquent sermon of his career, and after he leaves, he finds Hester and Pearl staring at the scaffold in the town square. He takes them both up onto the scaffold and tears away his shirt, revealing the A on his chest, and he confesses his sins and dies on the scaffold as Pearl kisses him.

Chillingworth is furious over the death that destroyed his plans for revenge, and he dies in that anger a year later. Hester and Pearl leave town, and no one knows where they went until Hester returns alone as an old woman many years later and resumes her charitable work, still wearing the scarlet A on her chest. Pearl has married a European and has a family of her own, and she sends Hester letters every now and then. When Hester dies, they bury her near Dimmesdale and they share a headstone with the letter A engraved upon it.

Discussion of Work
A work about Puritanism, one of the main themes in this work is a discussion of sin and the human condition. Hester and Arthur could be said to reenact the Adam and Eve story of Judeo-Christian beliefs, because they go from innocence to sin and knowledge, are punished for their sins, and must work and labor for forgiveness as they are separated from God and divinity. The A sewn on Hester’s garments allow her more knowledge of the human condition and sufferings of man than many members of the community because she is able to use it to travel into spaces and situations where other people would not be able to, allowing her to learn godly qualities of charity, humility, and long suffering. Both Dimmesdale and Hester are always contemplating sin and repentance, much as would be expected of the highly religious Puritans in Boston. They are always in search of ways to reconcile their lives with their religion, something that is a problem in a religion that focuses on predestination and punishment rather than lived experience. The Puritan city therefore becomes merely a stagnant backdrop to the personal growth and experience of Dimmesdale and Hester, with Chillingworth the only real member of the community outside of the small family that bears weight in the story because of his inability to grow and forgive leading to a regression. He is a representation of what happens when love and pure emotions are perverted and changed by envying and anger, leading to evil.

How identity is formed is also a theme in the novel, with Hester taking her punishment and using it to reconstruct her life rather than let it destroy her, while Dimmesdale, who never publicly acknowledges his sin until his death, even refusing to publicly acknowledge his own daughter, allows what others think about him to consume him. His false image of a pure and pious man warp his thinking and lead him to self-punishment and psychological pain that leads to physical illness, whereas Hester finds ways that she can show herself as a person capable of doing good despite what others may think of her, leading her to become a person full of compassion, knowledge, and kindness, able to engage in society without worry.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. B.W. Huebsch, Inc, 1916.

Summary of Work
Stephen Dedalus, a young boy in Ireland near the end of the nineteenth century, is the main character of this story. The stream of consciousness narrative style follows Dedalus throughout his growth, letting the character’s thoughts and actions dictate the narrative rather than a completely omniscient narrator. While still a young boy, his parents send him to a Catholic boarding school, Clongowes Wood College, which is run by Jesuits. When he first arrives, he is homesick and gets bullied. He is chased into a ditch and gets sick from the cold water, and the other boys beg him not to tell on them for their actions. Soon after that, he begins to make friends with the other boys, and he also enjoys his time at home. One Christmas when he is home, political conversation starts and gets heated at the table because the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell has died. One of his relatives insists that these men ought to follow the will of God and the preachers who preach it, and his father, Simon, states that priests should stay out of politics and says to hell with God.

Simon Dedalus is very bad with his money, and so while Stephen is away at school, the family falls deeper and deeper into debt. It gets to the point that one summer, his family realizes they cannot send their son back to school. Stephen spends the summer with his Uncle Charles, and then that Fall they move to Dublin. When they move, they put their son in Belvedere, a very well-reputed school, and he begins to excel in academics, particularly writing and acting. He has sex for the first time with a prostitute, and the experience shakes Stephen; he is guilt-ridden and full of shame over the experience because of his strong Catholic beliefs. He tries to rid himself of these feelings by casting aside religion and instead masturbating and committing other sinful acts. However, his Catholic religion comes back in full force as he goes to a three day retreat for school, and sermons about hell and the judgment day scare him so badly that he decides to repent and return to a life of piety. He goes from one extreme to the other, and is the model of a Christian life, the life of a priest: he attends Mass each day, practices abstinence, self-denial, and even self punishment for his sins.

His example to the entire school leads the school master to suggest that he should take holy orders and join the priesthood. After taking time to consider the opportunity, Stephen decides that he cannot join the Church because he would fall; he values physical beauty far too much to live a good, priestly life. After making that decision, he learns that he and his family will again move because of his father’s poor financial skills. Meanwhile, he awaits a letter from the University to know if he was accepted or not, and as he is waiting, he decides to take a walk on the beach. There, he sees a girl swimming in the sea, and he is so struck by her beauty that he decides that beauty and desire and love should not be considered shameful, and he should stop denying himself enjoyment of that beauty and love and desire. This leads him to decide that he will not be constrained by structured institutions such as family and the Church, but that he will live his own life as an individual.

He is accepted into the university, and Stephen moves there and beings making many strong friendships; he is especially close to his friend Cranly. They take many classes, and Stephen is very poor at remembering what day it is or getting to them on time, but he enjoys debating and learning and developing theories about life and aesthetics. He uses his friends as a sounding board for his theories, and one of his professors suggests that he should be writing essays about his theories on aesthetics. The more he experiences and writes and thinks, the more he desires to be independent from his friends and family, and in the end he determines that he will leave Ireland in order to escape all of those relationships. He believes that it is the best way for him to succeed as an artist.

Brief Note on Themes
The name Dedalus is a play on the Greek Myth of Deadalus, the man who builds himself and his son Icarus a set of wings to fly out of imprisonment, leading to Icarus flying too close to the sun and getting killed because the wax of his wings melt. The stream of consciousness narrative is a main point that makes the story unique because readers get to experience the main character’s growth with him, as many times Stephen can only describe sensations because of his lack of language or his immaturity. Readers watch the artist grow from inexperienced and very impressionable to a young man full of opinions and striving for full independence. The novel is also semi-autobiographical, as many of Joyce’s influences are what influence Stephen: language, religion, family, culture, sex, to name a few.

Religion is a major player in this piece, as Stephen goes from casual but regular observance of religion to no religion to extreme adherence to religion and then a falling away again. Yet the message here is that as Stephen follows first a life of sin with abandon and then strictly adheres to the doctrines of the church, he comes to realize that doing things in extremes is harmful, and that doing things with strict obedience, not thinking for oneself, causes him to live a false life. In order to fully experience life, Stephen decides that he must live life within the two extremes, both believing in God and at the same time doubting doctrines that ask for people to deny the pleasures that come with love and beauty and desire.

The discussion of what it takes to become an artist starts to come into play toward the end of the novel, when Stephen decides that he is going to be a writer. The discussions of aesthetics show readers that Stephen is developing his ideas about artistry, but the largest discussion point is individuality. Stephen believes that in order to be an artist he must be divorced from the influences of his direct community: friends and family. This causes him to leave tradition and culture behind in an attempt to serve that same community by bringing them art and new techniques and aesthetics.

Similarly, the Irish-English conflict is always in the background of this book. The Irish have the same innate need for autonomy and self-government that Stephen does. Stephen sees this in the Irish language, which is in fact something he sees as belonging to England; he sees it in the slavery that he believes is Ireland’s fate (this is a slavery he refuses to accept and desires to escape, just like many Irishmen); and he sees his Irishness in his traditions and cultural heritage, which he desires to escape from if only to escape from what he sees are chains holding his country back from freedom and cultural development.