Monday, August 21, 2017

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very famous novel. Written in 1850, this book has become a cornerstone of American literature. Many consider it to be the first great American novel.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is set in 1640s Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne is a resident of the colony. She is in a loveless marriage, and her husband may be lost at sea. She is shamed and vilified when she conceives a daughter, Pearl, through an extramarital affair. She is forced to ear a scarlet “A” on her clothing as a symbol of her sin.

Though Hester refuses to reveal the identity of Pearl’s father, the reader quickly learns that it is The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected member of the community. Though young, Dimmesdale is considered a learned theologian. When Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s much older husband, arrives in Massachusetts, very much alive, he keeps his identity secret to everyone except Hester and plots revenge. Suspecting that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, he befriends the minister in an elaborate attempt at retribution. As seven years pass, Pearl grows into an extraordinary child and Hester becomes more and more a free thinker.

There is so much going on in this book in terms of history, characters, plot, themes, etc. I could devote a series of blog posts to this work. As I often do, I am going to follow one particular path that I find to be interesting.

First, I want to write a few words about how I am approaching this novel in terms of history. Though Hawthorne was very interested in seventeenth century Puritan history, a Google search shows that there is still debate over the historical and ideological accuracy of the story. Though I think that this is a topic worthy topic of exploration, I will put that aside when talking about the novel in this post.  Generally, I would rather comment upon real Puritan society based upon history books anyway. Thus, I will consider the world that is talked depicted between these pages as fictional, regardless of how closely accurate it is or not.

Ironically, Hester is the most virtuous character in the book. However, her sin is not excused. She is remorseful for it. In fact, it is eventually revealed that she tries to show regret for it decades after the fact. Yet, she is surrounded by the hypocritical, the malicious and the cowardly whose flaws eclipse hers. The hypocrisy is illustrated by the fact that the text implies that all sorts of sexual and other indiscretions are going on in Massachusetts. Witches meet in the forest. Chillingworth is vengeful and malicious. Dimmesdale, though not without virtue, behaves with cowardice and allows Hester to suffer the scorn of society while he hides his indiscretion.

Though Hester is flawed, it seems that Hawthorne is illustrating what he believes is positive and good in the world when he points out the many admirable aspects to her nature. Hester takes responsibility for her actions, thinks for herself, is a good mother, etc. These virtues, as well as the wild naturalness that seems to be inherent in Pearl, seem to be related to the transcendental belief system, which was becoming popular in America at the time that this book was written. A discussion of Hester’s positive character traits, Pearl’s nature and how this all relates to the book’s philosophy can fill many pages.

The comparison between Hester and Dimmesdale is interesting. There is obvious irony when one compares the two. To the citizens of Massachusetts, there is a contrast. In their eyes, Hester is a sinful and guilty woman exposed to public shame. Dimmesdale is the upright and moral minister. He is respected and considered a great mind and a teacher. He is Hester’s minister and presumably provides her with spiritual guidance.

Yet, beneath the surface, the roles are reversed. Hester bears her guilt and the responsibility for her actions openly. She is psychologically distressed but not hysterical. In contrast, Dimmesdale hides his guilt. Inwardly he has become a wreck. His inner turmoil manifests itself in physical illness. At one point, he experiences what in modern times would be described as a panic attack,

"Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud: an outcry that went pealing through the night, and was beaten back from one house to another, and reverberated from the hills in the background; as if a company of devils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound, and were bandying it to and fro."

Over the course of the seven years that the novel covers, Hester develops a coherent worldview. Faced with mindless and unrelenting shaming, she rejects the restraints of Puritan society and many of the institutions inherent in the world around her,

“Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticising all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church.  been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers— stern and wild ones— and they had made her strong”

Dimmesdale, on the other hand, has wallowed, untethered in an intellectual and moral abyss. His actions are cowardly. When Hester finally suggests that he give up his life and run away to Europe with her, he meekly agrees. Hester has become his teacher.

There is so much more to this book. It is deeply philosophical and digs into the issues of religion, theocracy, transcendentalism, guilt-free thinking, gender, etc.  Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are complex and interesting characters in their own right. I barely touched upon Pearl, who is an extraordinary child who seems to represent nature, honesty and a wildness inherent in the world. The prose and dialogue are rich. The story is interesting.

As mentioned above, this is a reread for me. I picked up so much more this time around. I think that folks who only read this book when young may get a lot more out of it when reading it later. This is a reminder to me of just how important rereading is. Thus, I recommend this as both a reread and a first time read for anyone interested in American literature.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This post contains spoilers.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is Oscar Wilde's fantastical tale of a man who stops aging. This famous novel is a philosophical and character-driven narrative.

Dorian is a young man who is described over and over again as beautiful and youthful looking.  He is also charismatic.   Basil Hallward is his artist friend who becomes obsessed with him. The artist creates a magnificent portrait of Dorian. Over the course of the book, as Dorian descends into immorality and malevolence, the portrait begins to slowly change as it manifests ugliness in Dorian’s image. Likewise, Dorian stops aging as the portrait takes on the toll of his passing years.

Lord Henry Wotton, another friend of Dorian and Basil, is a key to this story. Much of the book is filled with Henry’s observations on life and his philosophizing. Henry is a cynic. He rejects conventional morality. He values experience for experience’s sake and advocates for the seeking of sensation and pleasure, regardless of ethics or any consideration of others.

Early in the story, Dorian is portrayed as innocent and na├»ve. As the narrative proceeds, Henry begins to corrupt him. When the two first meet, they are in an idyllic garden. I do not think that I am stretching it to suggest that there may be an analogy a between this meeting and the Serpent’s encounter with Eve in The Garden of Eden.

At one point, Henry muses,

“The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”

Henry’s belief system is a key component to this story. His philosophy seems to be a sort of twisted form of Romanticism. He believes that one can only live through experience and feeling. He rejects the intellect at several points. He champions the seeking of experiences without regard to morals, however. At times he revels in experiences that involve great cruelty to others. When Sibyl Vane, a young woman engaged to Dorian, commits suicide as a result of Dorian’s cruelties, Henry only sees the great drama in her death.

He observes,

“There is something to me quite beautiful about her death. I am glad I am living in a century when such wonders happen. They make one believe in the reality of the things we all play with, such as romance, passion, and love." 

Henry’s musings, ghastly as they are, take all sorts of turns as he relates them to art, literature, philosophy, etc. Both his pontificating and the words and actions of other characters allow Wilde to explore many facets of art, aesthetics and morality, as well as other topics. In contrast, Basil, who becomes highly critical of Dorian’s descent into wickedness, provides a morally based counterpoint to all this.

Wilde was accused of a lack of morals upon the publication of this book. In his preface that was included in later editions of the book, Wilde even famously wrote

"there is no such thing as a moral or immoral book"

However, it seems clear that this book is a scathing indictment of the moral vacuity that Henry preaches and that Dorian practices. In the above quotation, I think that Wilde was defending the need for an author to portray pernicious behavior and to ask questions about the nature of morality. This fits in with the revolting way that Henry and Dorian are portrayed. Dorian’s depravity, violence, drug use, corruption of others, etc. is described in a series of ugly passages. Furthermore, Dorian is punished in the end.

There are a lot of aspects to this book that I have not touched on above. There are all sorts of themes at play. The character of Dorian is fascinating, and I could write a lot about him. The story is interesting. The writing and descriptions are often dark but brilliant.

Thus, this book is a philosophical feast for readers so inclined. It also has much else to recommend it. I highly recommend it for those who like philosophical tales, fantastic tales and nineteenth century English literature.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Relatability of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

I read the Joachim Neugrochel translation of this work.

Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis was published in 1915. For those unfamiliar with the plot, it is the story of Gregor Samsa, a young salesman who one morning wakes up to discover that he has been transformed into a monstrous, bug-like creature. The balance of the tale concerns itself with the way in which Gregor and his family cope with the metamorphosis.

There is something about this story that fascinates people. I find that people both in real life and online tend to become very interested when this tale is mentioned.  Many folks who have not read it seem to be familiar with it. There are so many popular culture references to this tale ranging from MTV shorts to Mel Brooks movies to serious musical compositions. There are many film versions out there.

Why is this strange and quirky yarn so famous? Why does it seem to fascinate so many people? I think that there is something in this story that many people find very relatable.

This is a narrative of a person facing inescapable and absolute horror; responding to it as best he can in stoic way. Gregor is living a nightmare beyond compare, yet he does not respond to it as such.  He has been transformed into something that elicits disgust. There is no escape from it. Making matters worse, his family, the only people that he can count on, begin to show hostility towards him and begin to neglect him. All this time, Gregor is inwardly calm, as he tries his best to deal with the situation.

At one point, he tries to contend with an itch and experiences something that might drive someone else to madness,

"Feeling a slight itch on his belly, he slowly squirmed along on his back toward the bedpost in order to raise his head more easily. Upon locating the itchy place, which was dotted with lots of tiny white specks that he could not fathom, he tried to touch the area with one of his legs, but promptly withdrew it, for the contact sent icy shudders through his body. He slipped back into his former position."

As the above passage illustrates, instead of succumbing to insanity, Gregor just continues on and tries to cope the best he can. He always remains calm. When his family begins to turn on him, he does not react with outrage or even despair. This is despite the fact that in the past he made great sacrifices for them.

I think many people can relate to Gregor’s predicament. Life is full of horrors and injustices. War, genocide, famine and poverty are very real horrors that affect so many people. Even those who are shielded from such misery must cope with things like the death of loved ones, pain, disease, petty injustices meted out by those around them, as well as many other ills.  Most people accept these things with relative calmness and try to go on. As is the case with this story, observing what other people endure sometimes makes us scratch our heads in wonder that others can accept such things. Even those who spend their time fighting wrongs, and stranding up for themselves make compromises. Even the most fractious of us pick our battle and end up accepting many of the world’s evils. In a way, there is a little Gregor is many of us.

There are many reasons, other than those highlighted above, that people are drawn to The Metamorphosis. This is a fascinating story filled with intriguing characters. It is full of meaning and symbolism that is open to varying interpretations. Even in translation Kafka’s prose style is quirky, creative and interesting to read. In addition to all this, I think that many people find something to relate to in its pages.