Wednesday, March 7, 2012

"The Scarlett Letter": some intersections

I started to reread "The Scarlet Letter" hoping to see the connections with Toni Morrison's "Beloved", as someone had pointed out to me there were many. I also found many intersections between "The Scarlet Letter", set in the Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, and Jane Campion's movie "The Piano", set in nineteenth-century New Zealand.

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel, Hester Prynne is a young bride who, after having been sent to the new colony of Pennsylvania where Puritans lead a sober and gloomy life, is tempted into committing adultery (a word that is never mentioned in the novel), seen that her old husband is believed to be dead. For this reason she is banned from her own community and is forced to wear a big embroidered "A" on her corset, so that she will be always reminded of her sin. She lives in a cabin by the sea with her daughter Pearl, born out of wedlock. In Morrison's "Beloved", instead, a woman escapes from the plantation where she was a slave and when her master comes back to retrieve her, she kills her infant daughter to spare her a life of slavery. After this crime, the woman is also banned from the community and has to deal with the ghost of her baby, who haunts the house where she lives at the edge of the town.

What is striking about both "The Scarlett Letter" and "Beloved" is the way they deal with horrible things, like the plantation were Sethe and Paul D used to live as slaves or the mark Hester Prynne is forced to wear. Both texts conflate beauty with horror, showing how beautiful things can grow in the most ugly places and viceversa. The play is also indicative of the way in which a literary text can be beautiful and poetic even though it deals with terrible topics such as slavery, rape and  infanticide. This passage also shows how the reader might feel when reading "Beloved", which I consider one of the most beautiful novels of the last decades. At the beginning of the novel, Morrison writes about the plantation where Sethe grew up and from which she escaped:

suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out beofre her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her - remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that. (6)
The same pattern is more than evident in "The Scarlett Letter", where similarly to what happens in "Beloved", the main character, a woman who has committed a hideous crime and is banned from the community, ends up living in a house isolated from the rest of the world, with no visitors and nothing more than a weird daughter. At the beginning of Hawthorne's novel, the prison where Hester is kept is dscribed in these terms:
Certain it is, that, some fifteen or twenty years after the settlement of the town, the wooden jail was already marked with weather-stains and other indications of age, which gave a yet darker aspect to its beetle-browed and gloomy front. The rust on the ponderous iron-work of its oaken door looked more antique than any thing else in the new world. Like all that pertains to crime, it seemed never to have known a youthful era. Before this ugly edifice, and between it and the wheel-track of the street, was a grass-plot, much overgrown with burdock, pig-weed, apple -peru and such unsightly vegetation, which evidently found something congenial in the soil that had so early borne the black flower of civilized society, a prison. But, on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as he went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. (chapter 1)

The best passage to show the affinity between "The Scarlet Letter" and "Beloved" is in chapter two of the former, when Hester comes out of the prison and the embroidered letter is described:
When the young woman - the mother of this child - stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token,which was wrought or fastened into her dress. In a moment, however, wisely judging that one token of her shame would but poorly serve to hide another, she took the baby on her arm, and, with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed, looked around at her townspeople and neighbours. On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
Many more passages between the two works could be found, for instance the importance of fairs and community, the fancy dress, crime, punishment and guilt. This has been noticed by scholars, but Morrison denies that she was thinking of Hawthorne's novel when she wrote "Beloved". Another interesting parallelism is between Sethe's remembrance of wishing to have a mark like her mother (chapter 6) and Pearl's innocent belief that her mother's scarlet letter is benevolent and that she will also have one when she grows up.

In Jane Campion's "The Piano", the references to narratives of the middle of the 19th century abounds, "Wuthering Heights" and "Jane Eyre" beign the first two that come to mind. As in "The Scarlet Letter", Ada is sent to a foreign land and is estranged from her lawful husband. Both Hester and Ada have had a daughter out of wedlock. Their names - Pearl and Flora - evoke a closeness to nature: they're wild creatures. They're both described as wild, angel-like or devil-like in an ambiguous way that is characteristic of both works (how much is Hester to be blamed for cheating on such a hideous man?). They represent the unstable boundary between nature and culture, thus allowing a nuanced portrayal of sin and virtue. In order to show an evocative connection between the two works I would like to quote a scene from "The Scarlet Letter":

Pearl, whose activity of spirit never flagged, had been at no loss for amusement while her mother talked with the old gatherer of herbs. At first, as already told, she had flirted fancifully with her own image in a pool of water, beckoning the phantom forth, and--as it declined to venture--seeking a passage for herself into its sphere of impalpable earth and unattainable sky. Soon finding, however, that either she or the image was unreal, she turned elsewhere for better pastime. She made little boats out of birch-bark and freighted them with snail-shells, and sent out more ventures on the mighty deep than any merchant in New England; but the larger part of them foundered near the shore. She seized a live horse-shoe by the tail, and made prize of several five-fingers, and laid out a jelly-fish to melt in the warm sun. Then she took up the white foam, that streaked the line of the advancing tide, and threw it upon the breeze, scampering after it with winged footsteps, to catch the great snow-flakes ere they fell. [...] Her final employment was to gather sea-weed, of various kinds, and make herself a scarf, or mantle, and a head-dress, and thus assume the aspect of a little mermaid. She inherited her mother's gift for devising drapery and costume. As the last touch to her mermaid's garb, Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother's. A letter,--the letter A,--but freshly green, instead of scarlet! The child bent her chin upon her breast, and contemplated this device with strange interest; even as if the one only thing for which she had been sent into the world was to make out its hidden import. (chapter 15)
And now a video from "The Piano". The setting is, as in the previous passage, the beach. Both the child, her mother and her lover are present. Notice Flora's use of sea-weed and her creativity with sea-shells, both recalling the passage quoted from Hawthorne's classic work.