Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Source of book: I own this.

As regular followers of this blog recall, I participate in an online book club, hosted by my friend Carrie at readingtoknow.com. This is our second year, and we are focusing on classics - an even mix of adult and children’s books. This month’s selection was chosen by Shonya at learninghowmuchidontknow.blogspot.com.

This is my third time through The Scarlet Letter. The first occurred at somewhere around age ten or eleven, when my mother read it to my siblings and me. Since I am the oldest, my brother and sister would have been even younger. The book did make an impression on me, as did my mother’s commentary on the Puritans and witch hunts.

(Side note: I got my love of literature from my mother, who was an avid reader from a young age. I remember reading Laura Ingalls Wilder and C. S. Lewis together as some of my earliest memories. We read David Copperfield when I was all of nine - my sister would have been five. I doubt I remember everything, but I can remember Huckleberry Finn, Christy, The Prince and the Pauper. Although we didn’t read it together, my mother also convinced me to read The Octopus, Frank Norris’ novel on the railroad monopolies, when she thought that I was too much of a doctrinaire capitalist. This was serious stuff, and I believe it taught me critical thinking skills early. I had to grapple with opposing ideas and the real life consequences of those ideas. I still look back on those days fondly, and I know that my horizons were broadened as a result.)


I re-visited The Scarlet Letter in high school. It was assigned as our full-length novel in American Literature. I took a set of video courses in high school since neither of my parents was confident teaching algebra. While the English teacher for grades ten and twelve was excellent (Mr. Collins, I wish every teacher was like you!), the one for grade eleven, and thus American Literature, was merely passable. He was young, and everything was “by the book”, so I didn’t feel like I really gained that much from the second time through.

This reading, at more than twice the age of the last, added a few extra layers that I had not noticed before. I will discuss the life of Anne Hutchinson in detail in a note below. At the time of my first and second readings, I had also never really experienced real life Puritans, so it was difficult to entirely relate to Hawthorne’s dislike. True, they had this morbid focus on avoiding pleasure, and they killed (mostly) old women in a frenzy, but surely people weren’t like that now. Were they? And nobody really wanted to emulate them, right?

In the intervening years, my experiences with the Christian Patriarchy movement, and later, the events of 9/11 and what followed made this book make far more sense. In addition, in the course of reading this book, I have spend some additional time looking into what the Puritans believed, and how they responded to the events and ideas of their time.

Although Hawthorne was a contemporary of Charles Dickens, his writing is best understood as being of the earlier Romantic Era, and thus more of a kin to the dark works of the Bronte sisters, or the epics of Sir Walter Scott, than the more realistic works of the Victorians. I personally have a soft spot for Hawthorne’s other great novel, The House of Seven Gables, which may (or may not) have the same depth of psychology, but which explores the issues of greed, grudges, and forgiveness. Thus, it is a mistake to approach The Scarlet Letter as a realistic work. The events are clearly too coincidental to be taken literally, and the characters are exaggerated.

Hawthorne himself commented that The Scarlet Letter might succeed as an opera. Truly, it would have been ideal, as it follows generally the “opera plot”, as described by the delightfully snarky George Bernard Shaw as “the soprano and the tenor wishing to make love but being prevented by the baritone.” (Insert the correct parts for Hester, Arthur, and Roger here...) And certainly, such an opera should have been composed by Verdi. There is really no other choice.

I find it fascinating that Hawthorne had his own baggage about the Puritans. His ancestor, John Hathorne, was the sole judge at the Salem Witch Trials that never doubted that he was right, and felt no remorse about the whole thing. Hawthorne was embarrassed enough that he added the “w” to his name, to obscure the connection. I imagine Hawthorne’s feeling was somewhat like having a Nazi ancestor who maintained the rectitude of the Final Solution to the bitter end. (Many have written cogently about the social implications of the burning of witches. Those targeted were typically old women with no family to support them or defend them, and who were thus looked on as a burden to society.  Really manly stuff there, Puritans.)

As I see it, Hawthorne had two parallel points that he made in this book. The first was personal, and is made explicit in the last chapter, when he advises, “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred.” This call for a lack of hypocrisy is both admirable, and yet, in the context of the narrative, unattainable.

It is true that hypocrisy destroys. It destroys Arthur Dimmesdale most obviously. His body cannot withstand the weight of his guilt, and all of the good he does for others means mere death to him. It destroys Roger Chillingworth, as whatever good he once had is subsumed into hatred for Arthur. It destroys Puritan society. The book makes it clear that many, many, are guilty of even Hester’s sin, and yet they ignore it, living in hypocrisy which manifests itself - as it always does - in the draconian shaming and punishment of those caught in sin. However, it is far from clear that confession leads to freedom either. Hester may gain some measure of freedom in her own conscience from her “true” existence, but she pays a heavy social and personal price. She can never rise above her sin, and her child continues to bear her mother’s shame throughout the book. Likewise, Arthur’s confession accomplishes little. He dies, and his legacy is forgotten just as it would be with others of a more pure heart. Puritan society learns nothing from this incident, and would go on to burning “witches” within a few years.

As I thought about this more, it occurred to me that in a way, Hester is the greatest hypocrite of them all - and she has no choice but to be one. Puritan society mandates that she play the role of the “fallen woman”, even though the majority of her life doesn’t fit that role. The real her, if you will, is the woman who is generous to the poor, who comforts the suffering and dying, and supports herself and her child through hard work. But she cannot simply be that person, because it has been decreed that she be an object lesson to everyone else of the need to punish sexual sin.

So why is there no good that results? One potential answer is that there is no forgiveness. There are two problems that arise from the Puritan legalism. (And make no mistake, the Puritans were hard core legalists. I allude to “preparationism” below in my note. This focus on making oneself “worthy” of salvation is at the heart of Puritan exclusionism and hypocrisy. ) The first problem is that a legalist focuses on the sins of others, so that he or she feels “good” by comparison. Thus, the legalist is able to have a self image of superiority. Second, and related, is the inability of a legalist to forgive the transgressions of others. After all, they are simply not worthy, or they would have been “good” like the legalist. There is much more to be said here, but it might have to be the subject of a full post.

Thus, Hester cannot be forgiven, despite her years of good - even saint-like behavior. She is an adulterer, and thus can never be thought of as good. Likewise, Arthur’s reputation as a saint is both deserved and undeserved. From the Puritan point of view, he should have been reviled, and never allowed to hold his head up ever again. Had they known of his sin. However, without that knowledge, his deeds were in fact admirable. He was a good pastor, a kind man, admirable except for his one fall. Hawthorne gets this one absolutely right. Society's opinion of Hester and Arthur has nothing to do with their actual merits. It has everything to do with perception. Since the Puritan society can neither realize that it is as sinful as Hester, nor forgive her for her lapse, it must continue to judge based on externals rather than on the criteria that really matter.

With society unable to forgive, the drama focuses on Hester, Arthur, and Roger. Their thoughts, noble or dark, are on display, and we are invited to contemplate how we would behave in each situation. Would we choose to run, as Hester tries to do? Would we continue in hypocrisy as Arthur does, or confess in shame as he eventually does? Would we seek to destroy those who have wronged us, and sell our souls as Roger does? These are not easy questions, and Hawthorne knows that there is no easy, tidy answer.

The second point is about society itself. I feel I missed much of this on my earlier readings because I lacked the background knowledge, and thus Hawthorne’s clever allusions to the issues.

First, he sets up the societal question with a reference to the “Utopia of human virtue” that the Puritans have attempted to set up, while he at the same time references Anne Hutchinson as a saint. As I note below, I completely missed this, because I had no idea who Anne Hutchinson was, and had no internet to look it up.

Later, Hawthorne states outright exactly what this “Utopia of human virtue” was like in real life. When Chillingworth, Hester’s missing husband, shows up at the moment of her public shaming, an unnamed townsman says, “Truly, friend, and methinks it must gladden your heart, after your troubles and sojourn in the wilderness, to find yourself, at length, in a land where iniquity is search out, and punished in the sight of rulers and people; as here in our godly New England.”

In many ways, I cannot think of a more clear statement of exactly why I fear a totalitarian theocracy. Here are united in unholy alliance, a morbid focus on the “iniquity” of other people, and the temporal power to hunt down and eliminate it. There is something terrifying about a self-righteous group, sure that it alone holds the knowledge of the truth, with the power and desire to eliminate all opponents. That way lie the burning of heretics and witches. Lest I be accused of being unfair to religious totalitarianism, let me note that Raymond Aron convincingly describes Communism as a religion of its own (substituting “the end of history,” aka fate, for a supreme being). I would note that Nazism also qualifies under this criteria. The elements are a belief in the inevitable correctness of one’s ideology (and morality), the temporal power to crush all dissent, and the will to carry it through. The Inquisition, the Witch Trials, Stalin’s purges - all of these give evidence of the danger of the belief that it is excusable to slaughter those who refuse to honor the orthodoxy. As I note below, it was the trial of Anne Hutchinson - referred to by Hawthorne - that set the Puritans on the path to the Witch Trials, which would eventually destroy their attempts at theocracy.

Hawthorne also notes that Pearl, a mere innocent child, is punished every bit as much as Hester. The suspicion of bastards was hardly limited to the Puritans, of course. The law itself sought to eliminate illegitimacy by whatever means it could, even if it meant the starvation of bastards and the inevitable prostitution of abandoned mistresses. (Hugo portrays this quandary in his moving Les Miserables.) Shakespeare felt no qualms about casting the villain of Lear as a bastard - one who would naturally be irreverent of the higher powers. Thus, Pearl is believed to be of “demon origin.”  The other children are not permitted to play with her. She is cut off just as her mother is. (There is a definite trend in this direction in modern conservative Christian circles toward severe limiting of contact with “contaminated” outsiders - something I did not notice as a child since I had a wide variety of friends. Including children born out of wedlock. We didn’t do the isolation dance, even when I was older. But make no mistake, a key belief in these circles is the need to isolate children from anyone who might be a “bad influence,” and this very much includes those from single parent or divorced families.)

Pearl serves as an example of this prejudice, to be sure, but she also serves as a sort of prototype for what the author views as the strong woman that would emerge after the fall of the Puritans. Beginning with Anne Bradstreet, whose poems I read concurrently with this book, there arose in the colonies, and later in the emergent United States, a feminist undercurrent, which would eventually give rise to women’s suffrage. It is no accident that Hawthorne mentions these ideas within the book. Hester allows her mind to expand while she is left to her ignominious solitude.

Much of the marble coldness of Hester’s impression was to be attributed to the circumstance that her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling, to thought. Standing alone in the world,—alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected—alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable,—she cast away the fragments of a broken chain. The world’s law was no law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings. Men bolder than these had overthrown and rearranged—not actually, but within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode—the whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of ancient principle. Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known of it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatized by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the seashore, thoughts visited her, such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door.

That Hawthorne considered a break in the “ancient prejudice” of the belief in the congenital inferiority of women can be seen by the lines a few paragraphs in.

Indeed, the same dark question often rose into her mind, with reference to the whole race of womanhood. Was existence worth accepting, even to the happiest among them? As concerned her own individual existence, she had long ago decided in the negative, and dismissed the point as settled. A tendency to speculation, though it may keep woman quiet, as it does man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her. As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position. Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated. A woman never overcomes these problems by any exercise of thought. They are not to be solved, or only in one way. If her heart chance to come upper-most, they vanish.

This is one reason that Hawthorne remains popular today. He understood the sexual dynamic at work here. I was surprised to see that even this early, Hawthorne notes a concept that I had thought of as more modern. This is the dichotomy known as the Madonna and the Slut. A woman must position herself in one of these two categories, or society will do it for her. Either she fully embraces her societal role as a wife and mother, or she is considered to be sexually dangerous. Hawthorne specifically compares Hester on the scaffold to the Madonna, while noting her status as a fallen woman. He has just mentioned Anne Hutchinson, and this is no accident. Hutchinson largely fit the “Madonna” conception. She had a large family, worked as a midwife, and was generally accepted by society. However, she refused to stay in that box, and started discussing and teaching theology with other women. Before long, she was being publicly accused of having orgies. If only one could write this off as a relic of the past. Within the Christian Patriarchy movement, there is a strong belief against sending females to college. After all, their acceptable role is that of wife and mother. I also recall that there was a common fear that was used as a tool. “If your daughter goes to college, she will be pregnant in two years.” Or its variant, that she would become a lesbian. Someone within the movement said that recently (I can’t find where I saw it now) but it has been used over and over. I remember hearing it as a child even before our time in the Patriarchy movement. I am thankful that my parents (and my in-laws) strongly rejected this idea, and encouraged the girls to seek an education. I will also note that college did not result in promiscuity. It was just the pernicious dichotomy resurrected for a new generation. (See my note below for more on this issue.)

Finally, at the very end of the book, when Hester returns to her home and life after Pearl is grown and married, she becomes a counsellor to young women like her former self.

She assured them, too, of her firm belief, that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness.

Hawthorne’s own marriage demonstrated his aim in this passage. He wrote that she "is, in the strictest sense, my sole companion; and I need no other—there is no vacancy in my mind, any more than in my heart... Thank God that I suffice for her boundless heart!"

I love that he mentions his mind as well as his heart. The view of a woman, not just as one to be loved, but an intellectual equal, was still revolutionary in Hawthorne’s day, when most men believed that a true intellectual friendship was only possible with other men. In Hester’s time, it was unthinkable. Women who dared to act intellectually either did so carefully and with subterfuge like Anne Bradstreet; or, they paid the price like Anne Hutchinson.

I have a few final thoughts. Pearl’s personality didn’t make much of an impression on me during my earlier readings. Probably, I just wasn’t that interested in seven year old girls. Now that I have daughters of my own, I recognize her. Because one (and maybe all) of my daughters share her traits. My middle daughter, in particular, could be described here:

In the little chaos of Pearl’s character, there might be seen emerging—and could have been, from the very first—the steadfast principles of an unflinching courage,—an uncontrollable will,—a sturdy pride, which might be disciplined into self-respect—and a bitter scorn of many things, which, when examined, might be found to have the taint of falsehood in them.

Perhaps Hawthorne has explained why my daughters are like this, though:

There was fire in her and throughout her; she seemed the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment.

As I explain to those who jokingly ask how I ended up with five children, each of my children was conceived in a reckless moment of wild, completely irresponsible passion...

Note on the life of Anne Hutchinson:

Nathaniel Hawthorne mentions a name at the beginning of The Scarlet Letter, a name which recurs later in the book. I do not remember noticing this name as a child, when my mother read this book to us. Likewise, I do not recall that it made much of an impression when I re-read the book for my literature class in my junior year of high school. Of course, this was before the internet became ubiquitous, so I would have been less likely to pause and look up an unfamiliar name.

The name is that of Anne Hutchinson. Who was she, and why did Hawthorne draw an intentional parallel between her and Hester Prynne?

Anne Hutchinson was one of the central figures in the “Antinomian Controversy” of the 1630s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Without getting into the theology too much, the question was about the relative roles of law and grace in salvation and the Christian life. Martin Luther was accused of antinomianism, as were many of the early protestants such as the anabaptists. (My ancestors, the Mennonites, were also labeled with the epithet, as were the Quakers.) The general belief was that salvation was through grace alone, without works, and that the law was no longer binding after salvation. The Puritans emphasized the need for good works for proof of salvation, and, in a key difference, held to a doctrine of “preparationism.” This meant a list of good works that a person should do to prepare themselves to be worthy of salvation. In addition, the Puritans laid a great emphasis on judging a person’s spiritual state by their outward works. I don’t have a problem with looking for a person’s “fruit,” and neither do most “antinomians,” but the fruit of the Spirit, as defined in Galatians, looks vastly different from that required by legalistic groups, from the Puritans to the modern day Patriarchists. Then, as now, there was an emphasis on unquestioning agreement with authorities, bans on dancing and holidays, restrictions on acceptable clothing, and rigid gender roles.

As would be expected, there was no love lost between the groups. The Puritans accused the free grace group of being libertines (although there is no evidence that they actually lived differently from the Puritans) while the free grace group accused the Puritans of adhering to a “covenant of works.”  If this had been the sole source of controversy, it probably would not have boiled over the way it did. The free grace group also advocated for a degree of equality for women, particularly in spiritual matters. Anne held studies at her house, wherein she and an eventually large group of women discussed scripture and sermons and theology. This was not considered a particularly proper role for a woman - at least by the Puritans. Things went downhill from there, particularly regarding the accusations thrown at Anne, who by all accounts was a virtuous and charitable person, much like Hawthorne’s portrayal of Hester Prynne. Nevertheless, the worst of the accusers claimed she hosted orgies at her house, and communed with the devil - the usual rot directed at non-conformist women at the time.

Feeding all of this was a political feud between former governor Henry Vane (who supported the free grace group) and current governor John Winthrop, a prominent Puritan. This fatal combination of church and state led to things boiling over in a war of rhetoric and accusations about who was a qualified minister - or wasn’t.

Hutchinson was put on trial for what boiled down to heresy, along with ministers John Cotton and John Wheelwright, who were also accused of sedition (for publicly speaking against the established pastors. At that time, pastors were paid by the State, and were thus government officials.) Poet Anne Bradstreet’s husband Simon, who would later become governor himself, was technically on the prosecution side, nevertheless sympathized with the defendants, and would later advocate for free speech rights. It is his record of the trial that is the source of much of what we know about the dispute.

At first, during the trial, Hutchinson was able to deflect most of the accusations. Unlike her co-defendants, she had never committed herself in a public forum, speaking only in her own home. Winthrop, who seems to have taken a violent dislike to her personally, grilled her on theology. (Much of this was recorded by Simon Bradstreet) The general consensus is that she held her own quite well, and probably bested Winthrop in her knowledge of the Bible and of theology. Winthrop did not take this well, and spent pages in his diary pouring forth bile about her. However, it is unclear how the trial would have ended had Anne not made a fatal misstep. She requested permission to address the court and tell it the truth. (Lawyers everywhere are slamming their heads on their desks at this point. It is NEVER a good thing when a client in a criminal matter wishes to take the stand. Bad things just happen.) Anne took the opportunity to say exactly what she thought of Winthrop, the Puritans, and predicted that God would avenge her. This was definitely not the best course of action, particularly once she attacked elected officials such as Winthrop and the state-employed clergy.. (We forget, living in a nation with the right to criticise those in power, that this was once a serious crime.) As a result, she was banished from the colony. She would also face a church trial, at which she refused to recant, and was excommunicated.

She and her family fled, settling first in the fledgling colony of Rhode Island (founded to provide freedom for religious dissenters), and eventually in what is now the Bronx, but was savage wilderness at the time.

Soon after her exile, she suffered from what we now believe is a hydatidiform mole, a pregnancy gone wrong. (She had had fifteen children, and was nearing menopause.) Winthrop, in what has to be the low point of his career, wrote a particularly vicious and gloating letter, claiming that deformed doctrine led to deformed pregnancies, also mocking another woman in the movement for having a miscarriage.

The saga has a sad ending. Anne and her younger children were murdered by Native American raiders, along with a number of other residents of the area. John Winthrop undoubtedly would have considered this a fitting end for a disgraceful heretic.

History did have the last laugh, however. Hutchinson would be the ancestor of no fewer than three United States Presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush. Also descended from her are presidential candidates Stephen Douglas and Mitt Romney and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Melville Weston Fuller. Most interesting of all, from a lawyer’s perspective, her bloodline would unite with that of Anne and Simon Bradstreet in the person of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., to this day one of the most influential American justices.

The Puritans did not fare so well. About fifty years later, they would follow up the figurative witch hunt against the outspoken Anne Hutchinson with a literal witch hunt that would leave dozens of innocent women dead, and faith in the wisdom of the Puritans forever shaken. As historian George Lincoln Burr would put it, "More than once it has been said, too, that the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered." From that point on, the colonies would begin to amend their constitutions to allow religious toleration, and move toward a consensus of freedom of speech, association, press, and religion which would eventually become the First Amendment of the Constitution of the new nation.

Additional note on Patriarchy and the Puritans:

Let me give a little more of my personal history here. I attended two “home churches” during my early twenties, before my wife and I began dating. The first was one that my family formed out of the blow-up of a small church caused by the pastor’s abusive behavior - and his attempted seduction of a church member. That group contained families that had been hurt, but was not solely those of us affiliated with the Gothard organization. It lasted for a year or so, at which point all of us went our separate ways amicably.

The next experience was not so positive. The group was a geographic spin-off of the home church led by Jonathan Lindvall. (My wife’s family spent time in that group. Perhaps some day I can convince her to share her unpleasant experiences there.) In my lengthy post on Patriarchy and White Supremacy, I laid out the connection to theologians writing prior to the Civil War. These theologians were in turn influenced by Puritan writers. The modern day Patriarchy movement venerates the Puritans, particularly their views on theocracy and the establishment of a utopian Christian society. They also mirror the Puritan's views of the proper place of women.

During the time I attended, a big meeting was held, triggered by a request that the leaders of the group clarify what women could and could not do. At that time, young and naive, I honestly believed that they would be open to considering the whole of scripture, rather than a single passage, so I accepted the invitation to participate. The decision, which was pretty much a foregone conclusion, was that women were not permitted to speak at all. They could not read scripture. They could not share what God had laid on their hearts. They could not ask questions. They certainly could not discuss theology. In fact, it was pretty well agreed that they should not discuss theology with each other - after all, women are naturally prone to be deceived. If they had questions, they could ask their husbands, and that was the end of the matter. I do recall that women were begrudgingly allowed to sing along with the music, but that was less due to a belief that they had that right than the fact that they sang better than the men, on average, so our singing would be terrible without them. I kid you not. “Quietness” was interpreted to mean utter silence. I can tell you that this is not unusual in Christian Patriarchy.

Need I even mention that no women were invited - or welcome - at this meeting? Their input was not desired, or considered of any value.

This was not the only parallel to the story of Anne Hutchinson and the Puritans that I observed. The groups that I was in viciously punished any and all women who failed to stay in their place. If a woman wanted to go outside her sphere and discuss things either intellectual or “male” such as cars or sports, she was quickly put in her place, and told that those topics were off limits. In addition, just as in the case of Anne Hutchinson, she would soon be accused of sexual misconduct. “Flirting” with the young men, for example. And unless she agreed to subsume her desires and stay in her box, she would eventually be cast from the group.

I discuss above the “Madonna/Slut” dichotomy, and it is my experiences and observation while part of these groups that let me to formulate something of this sort, although I did not actually discover that it was an idea propounded many years ago. It is completely predictable within these groups. The failure of a woman to conform and stay in the domestic box leads rapidly to a spurious accusation of sexual offenses. Every single time. Actual evidence doesn’t matter.

In a strikingly similar manner, any argument with a legalist over the meaning of grace will quickly move to the “orgy” argument. Every single time. Try it - and bring your stopwatch. The argument - just as it was with the Puritans - and those before them - is that if you don’t enforce the rules, the next thing you know, everybody will be having orgies. Or become lesbians. Or have lesbian orgies or something.

And, unsurprisingly, the “rules” are never about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, or self control. Instead, they are about externals. Dressing a certain way. Avoiding undesirable people. Reading only certain books. Not celebrating Christmas (hello Puritans?). And more than anything else, keeping women in their box.

Soon after this, I left the group, asked an intelligent young woman on a date, and joined the Evangelical Free Church that we attend together with our family to this date. The Puritans would undoubtedly consider our theology to be dangerously antinomian. Even worse, we refuse to take a dogmatic position on predestination, so we have both Calvinists and Arminians in the same congregation. But don’t worry: we don’t have orgies.    

For a fascinating article on the parallel lives of Anne Bradstreet and Anne Hutchinson, see this post by the Poetry Foundation.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Source of book: I own this.
Date originally published on Facebook: June 12, 2011

Before I started blogging, I wrote reviews for the entertainment of my family and friends, and posted them as notes on Facebook. Later, I became dissatisfied with the lousy format and limited options of that medium, and started this blog. I am systematically re-posting my old reviews to the blog. My friend Carrie recently reviewed this book, so I figured I would join the conversation.

Mary Shelley came from an interesting background. She was the daughter of William Godwin, a somewhat radical author and intellectual (he is considered the first modern proponent of anarchism); and Mary Wollstonecraft, a pioneering feminist. Godwin’s two major books were Enquiry concerning Political Justice, a work on political science; and Things as They Are; or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams, a satirical novel believed to be the first mystery thriller. Wollstonecraft is known for her influential work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. The stories of the lives of these two would make a fascinating essay to write.


The story of Mary Shelley, however, comes at the end of Wollstonecraft’s life. She contracted childbed fever and died when her daughter was 10 days old.  Godwin remarried a couple of years later, as much to have help raising Mary as for love. Unfortunately, this did not work out as well as planned. Mary and her stepmother clashed, to say the least. In any event, Mary ran away with the still married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley at age 16, becoming pregnant soon thereafter. To a degree, life with Percy and his friends and fans was like a soap opera, with some questions even today about who was sleeping with whom. Eventually, Percy’s wife committed suicide, leaving him free to marry Mary.

Frankenstein had its birth in a discussion about recent experiments involving “galvanism,” known to us as electricity. The famous experiment in which the legs of a frog were caused to move by a properly applied electrical current had been a revelation to the scientific community, and there were even rumors that Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles, and a poet and scientist himself) had reanimated dead matter. On a rainy evening gather around the fire, Mary Shelley and Percy, Lord Byron, and John Polidori read German ghost stories to each other, and discussed the recent scientific discoveries. Byron suggested that they each write their own ghost story inspired by the evening’s conversation.

Byron himself managed only to make a start on a poem about the Balkan vampire legends. Polidori did better by writing The Vampyre, a short story that birthed the entire romantic vampire tradition of writing. Percy did nothing.

Mary, the sole woman, wrote Frankenstein. This novel is rightly considered to be the first science fiction work, although the genre didn’t become established until Jules Verne popularized it a few years later. However, few books have had such an influence on popular culture as this one. Unfortunately, much of what has entered the culture completely misses the point of the book.

First, Frankenstein is the scientist, not the monster. The poor monster never even gets a name. He is described in the book as being hideous, primarily because of his yellowish, watery eyes. Shelley does not waste much time in description here – she allows the imagination to paint the picture. This may be a reason why the novel itself didn’t sell well at first, but an artistically questionable theater production based on the book did. The monster was much more effective with a good visual. Had the theater company done a better job in understanding and presenting the story, rather than indulging in cheap scare tactics, Frankenstein may have been an effective tragedy. Instead, the public was ever after left with the vague idea of a green monster terrorizing the population.

What is Frankenstein really about? On one level, it is about the danger of science without ethics. Victor Frankenstein becomes enamored of himself and obsessed with alchemy. He sees himself as being able to use modern science to do what alchemy wished it could do: create. Heedlessly neglecting everything else, Victor assembles his creature from body parts. Only the best will do, as he intends to make an √úbermensch that will surpass in strength and quality any known human. Through the use of electricity, the creature is given life. Victor refuses to explain the process lest anyone attempt to duplicate it. When the creature looks at Victor the first time, terror results, and Victor flees. So far, the theme is scientific hubris. In the popular imagination, the story would then continue with the monster going on a killing spree before eventually being stopped with (fill in magical or technological device here).

Shelley takes the story much deeper by asking two fascinating questions. First, what is the creator’s responsibility to the created? Second, can a creature remain good in the face of abuse and unkindness?

As to the first question, Shelley references Paradise Lost throughout the book, even giving the monster access to a copy as he learns to read. The monster comes to believe that Victor owes him a mate. Since no human can look on him without horror, Victor should create a female monster.

As to the second, this question strikes at the heart of the nature versus nurture debate. How much of what we are is due to our innate nature, how much to our own choices, and how much to the experiences we have had? Could any of us survive loneliness and rejection without damage? The creature, as is well known, becomes the monster. However, his rage isn’t directed at humankind as a whole. His war is with his creator. What collateral damage the monster causes is calculated to hurt Frankenstein.

Thus, in this book, the monster becomes the sympathetic character, not the nameless horror he appears to those around him. This is both more subtle and far more interesting than the popular conception of the soulless monster to be killed that inhabits the horror genre today.

A few notes on the writing itself. Shelley wrote this book at the age of 20. She was obviously well read and had an intelligent and imaginative mind. As a general rule, she keeps her narrative tight and focused, wasting little space on the page in trying to sound “literary”. She is, however, subject to several of the affectations of her times. With such a thrilling story to write, she would have been better served by the use of simpler language and more direct, active narrative. Later, of course, writers such as Verne and Wilke Collins would master the art of suspense, using the language itself to propel the story forward rapidly, even breathlessly. This fault, although hardly hers alone, makes the story feel overly deliberate at times.

The second fault is the lack of personality in the secondary characters. Some of this is surely due to the fact that she envisioned the book originally as a short story. It grew, but not enough to flesh out the characters. The two main actors, Frankenstein and his creature, are well drawn, and psychologically interesting. The other characters become necessary to further the plot, but are ultimately forgettable. Particularly disappointing in this matter is the lack of a female character with more than a cardboard outline. This is perhaps particularly puzzling coming from a female author. However, it is possible that Shelley never identified with womankind. Her mother, after all, was scandalously radical herself; and Shelley never really knew her in person – merely from her writing and her father’s memory. Her conflicts with her stepmother and stepsister are well known. She may have felt more comfortable writing about men. Alternately, she also may have decided that her tale simply fit with male, rather than female characters.

This is a book to read with careful contemplation. It does not work as a thriller in the traditional sense; to read it this way would fail to appreciate its depth of thought and analysis. Rather, this book should cause us all to look within ourselves. Hubris, prejudice, and our relationship to our maker. These are all bound up together in the classical tragedy. This fantastical tragedy gives us the opportunity to find these tragic seeds in our own hearts.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Perfect Wagnerite by George Bernard Shaw

Source of book: I own this.

Occasionally, I have the opportunity to read a book that corresponds to the music that the Symphony is performing. For example, The School for Scandal and Why Mahler?

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of the two most important opera composers of the Nineteenth Century: Giuseppe Verdi, and Richard Wagner. In honor of this event, we performed a concert jointly featuring the two composers. At the same time, I purchased a copy of George Bernard Shaw’ commentary on The Ring, which conveniently happened to be on sale at a nice discount.

Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a cycle of four operas, or as he would prefer, music-dramas, based loosely on the Norse Sagas, and filled with philosophy and symbolism. The works were intended to be presented as a set, over four consecutive nights. With a total length of over fifteen hours, they are not for those of limited attention span.

The ring referred to is a magic ring forged of stolen gold. (This is one of a number of parallels with Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings - both works share source material.) The universe of the dramas contains gods, demi-gods, giants, dwarves, mortals, and heros. The plot is too involved to re-create here, but a summary is easy enough to find. I am particularly fond of my copy of Stories of the Wagner Operas by H. A. Guerber, published in 1895. (I have the 1897 version - I am guessing it is a second edition, but it doesn’t say. My wife found this for me for next to nothing at a used book sale.)

While it cannot hurt to be familiar with the story before reading Shaw’s analysis, he includes all of the necessary elements for his point.

Shaw’ interpretation of The Ring is that it is a socialist allegory, and there is ample evidence that Wagner intended that, at least in part. Shaw was a Fabian, so he would naturally analyze the work through that lens. Engel’s book on the working class of England was popular and influential, as were the works of Marx. Wagner was given to philosophizing, but, as Shaw notes, his views changed over the twenty-one years he worked on the cycle, and many of his writings are self-contradictory. Toward the end of the process, he became enamoured of Schopenhauer, and then attempted to fit his earlier ideas into that ill-fitting mould.

Unlike most composers of opera, Wagner chose to create everything about The Ring. He wrote the text first, in reverse order, then compose the music in chronological order. He collaborated with Adolphe Sax to design the Wagner Tuba, a new instrument for the occasion. He designed and built an opera house intended to show The Ring in all its glory.

I had not previously read any of Shaw’s non-fiction, and, although I knew he had a legendarily sharp tongue, I was surprised at his level of arrogance and condescension. He refers often to the “superior” listener, and dismisses those who prefer the music of Gotterdammerung to that of Das Rheingold. As Shaw notes, the allegory makes the most sense in that first drama, and breaks down in the last. Thus, those who come merely for the beautiful music rather than for the philosophy are mere Philistines. I’m afraind that I probably fall into that category, being somewhat unimpressed with Wagner’s philosophical preaching and moved by the transcendent sweep of composition in Gotterdammerung. This is not to say that I dislike Das Rheingold, but that I find it less irresistible.

In Shaw’s conception, there are four representations of humanity in the work. First, the dwarves - particularly Alberic - represent the capitalists, who have turned their back on love, and seek to rule the world through the power of gold. (It must be said that Wagner’s portrayal reveals his anti-Semitism. The terms “capitalist” and “Jew” were all too interchangeable in Nineteenth Century writing. Even W. E. B. Du Bois fell prey to this.) The giants represent the “stupid” but respectable and toiling class, who worship money. The gods represent the intellectual, talented, and moral people, who are forced to assume the reigns of power, secular and religious. The heros represent those pure artists who are able to break free from the worldly systems and, Wagner and Shaw hope, save the world someday.

Shaw wrote this book in 1897, updating it three times, the last in 1923. This was during the time of optimism about the future of socialism and communism, when Fabians like Shaw could still believe that the workers’ paradise would eliminate greed and oppression. Later events proved that human nature remains the problem and that there is no panacea, but Shaw lacked knowledge of the future. Thus, I find that “greed” rather than “capitalism” fits the allegory better. There has never been a “golden age” when men enjoyed gold for its beauty rather than its power. Greed and oppression have plagued humanity since the dawn of recorded history.

Despite being too much enamoured of the vision, Shaw’s analysis is convincing as to what Wagner intended. The allegory, while not perfect (Shaw noted that perfect allegories are unreadable), works as far as it goes. His musical knowledge shows too, and he enlightens those portions of the work as well.

There were a few delightful lines worth quoting. Shaw notes that its much in the “ordinary way of the world, for senile avarice and craft to set youth and bravery to work to win empire for it.” I also liked the analysis of fear. The magic fire surrounding Brunhilde can only be passed by the man who knows no fear. (In this case, Siegfried.) In contrast, Mimmy the dwarf is the incarnation of irrational fear.

Mimmy is all fear: the world for him is a phantasmagoria of terrors. It is not that he is afraid of being eaten by bears in the forest, or of burning his fingers in the forge fire. A lively objection to being destroyed or mained does not make a man a coward: on the contrary, it is the beginning of a brave man’s wisdom. But in Mimmy, fear is not the effect of danger: it is a natural quality of him which no security can allay.

Shaw’s criticisms are accurate as well. Wagner’s works are long, in large part because he repeats himself.

Almost the first thing that a dramatist has to learn in constructing a play is that the persons must not come on the stage in the second act and tell one another at great length what the audience has already seen pass before its eyes in the first act. The extent to which Wagner has been seduced into violating this rule by his affection for his themes is startling to a practiced playwright.

In some cases, the singers did the material no favors. Shaw describes some of the worst as “mere animated beer casks.”

One final musical note by Shaw also looks different from the Twenty-first Century. The author lists the foremost post-Wagner composers as Brahms (no argument there), Richard Strauss (arguable, but not certain), and Edward Elgar (really?). Shaw shows a certain pro-British myopia here, as Elgar is considered a lesser light than Mahler, Sibelius, and others of the late Nineteenth. Shaw’s assertion that there was no true musical heir to Wagner was true enough at its time (both Strauss and Mahler would show his influence, but the music-drama never caught on.) However, Wagner’s true influence was to be in a medium unknown and unforeseen by Shaw: the motion picture. Wagner’s use of the leitmotif, a term he invented, turned out to be perfect for the new art form. Uncluttered by endless storytelling and turgid poetry, the use of themes for emotions, characters, and and items would become a key element of movie scores, particularly those with epic storylines.

Here is the final scene from Das Rheingold, one of the selections from our last concert. Alas, we did not use either bass trumpets or Wagner tubas. I love the portrayal of Loki, the lawyer god, if you will.


And, perhaps the best known selection from Gotterdammerung.