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“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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S6 Ep 4

Host: Frank Lavallo

Readers: Katie Smith and Peter Toomey

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Year of Publication: 1850

Plot: Set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, the novel tells the story of Hester Prynne who conceives a daughter through an affair and then attempts to create a new life of dignity. Hester, her estranged lover, and the town itself, all struggle with morality, sin and guilt during a strict religious time period in American history.

Frank: Hello and welcome. I'm Frank Lavallo and this is Novel Conversations. Each week on Novel Conversations I talk to two readers about one book; and together we summarize the story for you. We introduce you to the characters, we tell you what happens to them, and we read from the book along the way. So, if you love hearing a good story, you're in the right place.

This week's Novel Conversations is about the novel, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. With that said, let me introduce my guest readers today. I'm joined by Katie Smith and Peter Toomey. Katie, Peter, welcome to Novel Conversations.

Katie & Peter: Thank you.

Frank: Before we get started, I'd like to read a summary of The Scarlet Letter. The Scarlet Letter is a story of Hester Prynne. She's convicted by Church authorities of the sin of adultery after giving birth to her daughter Pearl Hester is shunned by her community and forced to wear an embroidered a on her breast to mark her as an adulteress how her sin affects the others in her family including her daughter her daughter's father and her estranged husband and how her sin leads to her redemption make up the story of our novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Katie, let me ask you is this first time you've read the scarlet letter.

(Insert Response)

Peter, how about you. When was the first time you read The Scarlet Letter?

(Insert Response)

Frank: All right, with that introduction, let’s get into our story.

(OUT: All right. With that introduction let's take a little break here and when we come back, I want to get into our story The Scarlet Letter and we'll start talking about Hester Prynne and her sin and then we'll move on from there. Right now you're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavallo and we'll be right back.)

(IN: And we're back. You're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. And joining me for our conversation today are Katie Smith and Peter Toomey. Before we took a break, I said I wanted to start talking about our story with Hester Prynne. However, Nathaniel Hawthorne doesn't really begin the story there. He gives us a whole introductory chapter called the custom house before he ever gets to the story of Hester Prynne and her sin.)

Frank: I want to begin with Hester Prynne and her sin, however, Nathaniel Hawthorne doesn't really begin the story there. He gives us a whole introductory chapter, called the Custom House, before he ever gets to the story of Hester Prynne and her sin.

Peter: I had almost forgotten it was there. It gives Hawthorne's view of the society, that he's in now, and pretty much how he acquired the story of Hester Prynne; but along the way he talks about the political situation about working for the government and what really struck me was how little things have changed. Because he talks about being a civil servant and how that sucks the life out of you in a way. They're growing old in office, and basically come in and work for three hours, and then nap against the wall. It's almost a cartoon but some of the things he says applies to what's going on today. He says at the end, when he's going to be booted out of office, because the new president has come in and the political parties have changed he says some of the same things you hear on the radio now. And when you're reading it you know he'll say, ‘well in coming generations this stuff will have improved and everything will be different.’ And you wonder if he has his tongue in his cheek and how much he really believes it because it hasn't really changed that much.

Frank: Now Katie, Peter mentioned that this chapter also tells us how Nathaniel Hawthorne came upon the story of Hester and the Scarlet Letter. Basically, he's rummaging up in the attic amongst some old court papers and he finds a manuscript wrapped up by an embroidered scarlet letter. He takes this manuscript and creates a story out of it. Do we really believe Nathaniel Hawthorne? Is that how he came up with the story, that he found the story and he just decides to give it a polish?

Katie: No. And I like that question because one of the things I was discussing with Peter about this yesterday is that in reading the scarlet letter this time it has very much a flavor to me of someone telling a legend or a cautionary tale. So, it's almost to me immaterial about whether or not this is a true story.

Frank: How about you, Peter?

Peter: I think it's one of those things that you can choose to believe or not but he might have seen the germ or come across some little reference because he was certainly in a position to do that and then maybe just started extrapolating from that.

Frank: Sure, he may have come upon a court record just indicating a woman had been convicted by the Church of adultery, forced to wear a letter ‘A,’ and then took the story from there. So, let's move on into the story. The story starts with Hester Prynne coming out of the courthouse.

Katie: She is coming out holding her child. And on the front of her dress is the scarlet ‘A’. So, when the book opens, she's already got that.

Frank: I found it interesting that the conviction for adultery didn't actually occur until after she'd given birth. She obviously had been pregnant for nine months and yet they didn't take action against her at that point. They waited for the child to be born.

Peter: It's interesting because I didn't think about it that much, but it fits in with a lot of what the book does because everything is pretty much external; as long as the outside looks ok, you're fine. When she had a child, it was irrefutable that she had committed adultery. I mean, you could think of her as being fat; she could wear a loose gown but if she had the child, that was it.

Frank: We should mention that Hester's daughter is named Pearl and we will come back and talk a little bit about Pearl, but I want to stay with Hester here for a moment. So, what happens next Hester Prynne is put on to a pillory and required to stand on this pillory for three or four hours while the townspeople are given the opportunity to jeer at her, yell at her, make fun of her.

Katie: Hester is standing there for a while and she notices a man standing in the crowd and she recognizes this man...

Frank: And we should say that the man recognized her as well.

Katie: But as they recognize each other he indicates that she's not to speak who he is.

Frank: And Peter who is the stranger in the crowd?

Peter: The stranger in the crowd is actually her husband.

Frank: Why did the townspeople not know who her husband was?

Peter: She had come to the village and her husband, who was a physician and a scientist, had been off studying.

Frank: But he sent her from England alone, did he not?

Peter: Yes, he did, to Boston.

Frank: And then he was gonna follow her later but then, because he never showed up, he was presumed lost at sea.

Peter: But now we have him in the crowd standing there, looking at his wife; and he had been among the Indians, so he was dressed kind of in a ragtag way. So, even if one knew that she had been married to a gentleman, the people in the crowd would not think of him as somebody to whom she had been married.

Frank: Okay. And it's after she recognizes her estranged husband, that we’re introduced to the third main character of our story, the Preacher or Reverend Dimsdale.

Katie: Dimsdale is one of the younger preachers. And while she is on the pillory, one of the older preachers – who is sort of Dimsdale’s mentor – says, ‘Ok. She was your parishioner, will you ask her to disclose the name of the father of the child so that this person can be brought to justice.’ And Dimsdale really doesn't want to and he's really hesitant and he's tremulous; and he says in a very melodic way, ‘please disclose the name so this person can find forgiveness.’ She says, ‘No I won't.’ And then he sort of says, ‘She refuses,’ and bowed his head, and you sense this relief in the way.

Frank: Relief in what way?

Katie: Dimsdale, in his thinking, is how courageous she is. And it was at this point that I remember thinking… Lord Almighty! He's the father of the child (laughing) because I had forgotten that part. I couldn't remember who was actually who.

Frank: If you had not remembered that, would that passage have clued you in that he was possibly the father of her child?

Katie: I don't think so.

Frank: Peter, how about you? Did you remember that it was Dimsdale who was the father?

Peter: Yes I did.

Frank: If you'd had not known that, would these passages have clued you into that?

Peter: I think there was kind of a whisper of that, without it actually coming out and saying, this is the guy.

Frank: Because I have to say it didn't work for me. It would not have foreshadowed it for me. But moving on… after about three or four hours of her being subjected to this public humiliation, she is released and basically left to live her life – although, as an outcast in the community - and it's at this time that she and her estranged husband have a moment to talk.

Katie: Her child is ill and they call in her estranged husband, because he's the new physician in town, and he comes in to treat the baby, and as they're talking, he also asked Hester who the father is. And she again, refuses to tell him. He then insists that she not tell any of the town's people who he is – that he is in fact her estranged husband. So, Hester is now in a position of keeping a secret on both sides.

Frank: She's keeping the secret of who the father of her child was (Katie: Right.) And keeping the secret that her husband is actually alive and well and living in this town.

Katie: Right. And he very much wants this information. He sees himself as the wronged husband.

Frank: Right. This was not a happy reunion between husband and wife.

Katie: And he will leave her alone as long as she keeps his secret. He's going to go by the name of Roger Chillingworth.

Frank: But Katie, that's not the only thing he tells her in this meeting. He also makes a threat, doesn't he?

Katie: Yes. He vows to track down the one who got her pregnant.

Frank: And it's about this time now, that the novel skips two or three years, and next time we meet Hester and her daughter, Pearl is about three or four years old. And we also come to learn that there is a new living arrangement in town between Chillingworth and Dimsdale. What's going on?

Katie: Roger Chillingsworth - the physician and Hester's estranged husband - he has moved in with Reverend Dimsdale. Reverend Dimsdale, over these years, has continued to waste away and very pale and kind of frail; and Chillingsworth has presented himself as both the friend and the physician of Dimsdale and now shares a household with him so that he can keep an eye on his patient and be there whenever he needs them.

Peter: Yes and Killingsworth is trying to diagnose what he sees as his infirmity and ask him, ‘Do I know everything about you? Have you told me everything? Because frequently the spirit influences the physical and it could be something that you're having a problem with that's making you ill. And I have medicines that I've learned from the Indians and I can help you if I know at all.’ And Dimsdale gets angry with him for prying; and you get the feeling he's not gonna give up.

Frank: The book then goes into account of Hester being the seamstress.

This is how she's making her living, right?

Peter: That she, herself, dresses very plainly - except for this elaborately embroidered ‘A’ and her gray gown. She doesn't hide this ‘A’ at all. And that's part of what the townsfolk talk about is that she emblazoned this ‘A’ on her very somber dress. There are many references in the book to this scarlet letter having a lurid gleam to it, or casting some kind of bright light.

Frank: Sometimes it even glows in the dark apparently (Peter: Right.) And it's not that she's proud of her adultery but she refuses to be cowered.

Peter: Exactly. And she also pours a lot of her creativity or her imagination or her life energy into doing her needlework so that she makes beautiful embroidered gloves for the magistrates and she embroiders baby clothes and she always dresses her daughter very, very beautifully. So that even though Hester's dress is very plain and simple, Pearl is always decked out in lovely, luscious lace items.

Frank: So, Katie, here we are about four years after the original conviction for adultery and the town has clearly not accepted her – anymore than they had at the very beginning. But they do buy her products but still no one will talk to her. No one has anything to do with her. It's really her and Pearl against the world. But I did mention that another strange relationship has occurred; another living arrangement is going on, right?

Frank: Now we should make clear, that as readers, it's at this time that we come to know that Chillingsworth knows that Dimsdale is the father of Hester's child. Pearl. But that really comes to us in the totality of the information we get from the novel. There's no one moment in the novel where Chillingsworth says, ‘Aha!’, that proves to me that you, Dimsdale, are the father of Pearl.

Katie: Yeah. It builds. Little pieces here, and little piece there. I was actually struck very much by this whole sense of this spiritual illness making his flesh waste away. It's almost like Hawthorne was kind of pre-figuring what many people believe today that there's no separation between the body and the mind and that many illnesses can be exacerbated my emotional problems.

Frank: For me that was probably the most intriguing and modern aspect of this novel. I might want to use the word, psychosomatic illnesses, that are apparent in Dimsdale. We have to believe these illnesses are coming from his internal strife from what's going on in his mind and his heart because he knows he has committed adultery and yet he's the one who's remained silent. He's the one who's allowed Hester to suffer years of public humiliation. He hasn't come forth at all. We see Hester almost blooming throughout this time and we see Dimsdale continuing to waste away and waste away.

Peter: There's one interesting little passage where Dimsdale has fallen asleep in a chair and Chillingsworth walks over and he pulls aside his clerical shirt and he looks at his chest and he's like, ‘Aha!’ Then he walks away, and you know from reading, that Dimsdale frequently grabs his chest when he's feeling weak and you're thinking, ‘well OK tell me more.’ But you hear nothing else about this for a long time in the book.

Frank: And I'm going to ask you not to tell me more just yet either. What I want to do is skip ahead just as a novel does. And now we meet Pearl and she's about seven years old and Hester is continued in her life. She's a seamstress in town, still shunned by everyone. but still wildly popular for the products that she creates. And it's at this time now, Hester makes a decision, things really cannot remain this way forever. I've got a daughter here who's getting older. She's beginning to hear things in the town. She's starting to be shunned and Hester feels changes have to be made. The impetus for this change comes from Chillingsworth, who tells her, ‘I know who the father of your child is and I'm gonna tell everybody.’

Katie: Hester really has a sense that enough is enough. And she tells her former husband Roger Chillingsworth that she's going to tell Dimsdale that Chillingsworth is her husband. She knows Dimsdale has gone on a pastoral call to someone. She waits for him to come back and they have this conversation in the forest, in which Hester tells Dimsdale that Chillingsworth is her estranged husband and that he does not have Dimsdale’s best interests at heart.

Frank: Sure. Dimsdale thinks Chillingsworth is his best friend and he's actually his worst enemy. (Katie: Exactly.) Chillingsworth is not only giving him physical medicines that we aren't so sure are helping but he's also psychologically toying with Dimsdale. (Peter: Absolutely.) So, Hester and Dimsdale have this conversation. Out of that conversation, they devise a plan. And basically, Peter, they decide they're going to leave the country.

Peter: Hester has done work for a man who is the captain of a ship that's going to go to Bristol. She says that she and Pearl can go and Dimsdale could come with them and they could live together, the three of them. Dimsdale agrees to this. All they have to do is wait four days and they can reveal who they are and go off to have a life together with Pearl, overseas and away from the colony.

Frank: Okay, we have Hester and Reverend Dimsdale in the forest making plans to leave the country with their daughter Pearl. So, happily ever after… they're gonna sail off and have this wonderful life, right?

(OUT: All right before we talk about what happens to this plan and how successful it really is let's take a break here and when we come back we'll finish up our story of the Scarlet Letter and then I want to talk a little bit about what Nathaniel Hawthorne was actually trying to tell us in this novel. Right now, you're listening to novel conversations. I'm your host Frank Laval. Today I'm having a conversation about the novel The Scarlet Letter. We'll be right back.)

(IN: And we're back. You're listening to Novel Conversations. I'm your host Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. And joining me in conversation are Katie Smith and Peter Toomey. Okay, when we left, we had Hestor and Reverend Dimsdale in the forest making plans to leave the country with their daughter Pearl. So, happily ever after they're gonna sail off and have this wonderful life.)

Katie: Well, you would think so. They only had a little bit more to go through before they got to leave. They had elected a new governor and Reverend Dimsdale was supposed to preach the sermon that day and that was going to be his last duty. And after the conversation in the forest he was much more invigorated. He looked a lot better.

Frank: That's right. The events that you're talking about are gonna take place about four or five days after their meeting in the forest. And just in those four or five days, the Reverend starts to look a little better. He's not quite as pale, he's not quite as wispy. Now comes a day of the celebration and the Reverend has to give his final speech.

Katie: Yes. And Hester is in the square with the townspeople watching him go into the church and it's very crowded with all kinds of officials, and she's there with Pearl, and she's outside listening and she can hear mostly the tones of what he's saying but not the words; and Pearl is kind of scampering around, as Pearl is one to do. And the captain of the ship, which is going to take them away, calls Pearl over and says, ‘Would you tell your mother the physician Roger Chillingsworth will also be on board.’ Pearl tells her mother this and Hester just freezes. Then meanwhile, Dimsdale has finished his sermon. Everybody is saying that it’s the best one he's ever preached. And he's coming out of the church and as he comes out, he's getting paler, he looks like he did before only worse. He can barely walk.

Frank: He walks by the pillory, where he remembers seven years ago Hester being humiliated by the public. And he has an epiphany, basically.

Katie: Right. He decides that he needs to tell the truth and he needs to tell it now before he goes into eternity with a sin on his soul.

Frank: But Katie, he decides not only just to tell the public. He decides to proclaim it. But he can't just jump up on the pillory…

Katie: No, because he's about to pass over to the other side. So, he enlists Hester's help and she is very reluctant to do this; but he insists that she come over to him and she's the one that actually physically supports him to stand up on the pillory. They also bring Pearl up there, so that the three of them, the family unit in essence, are standing there together.

Frank: And then we finally have the grand confession. He admits that he's the father of Pearl, that he had committed adultery with Hester and then he decides to show the crowd his own scarlet letter.

Peter: He pulls aside his shirt and some people say that they saw a scarlet letter on his breast.

Frank: But this was no embroidered letter ‘A’.

Peter: No, it was like a stigmata, a lot of the townspeople say that that's what they saw.

Frank: What do you believe they saw? For me, I was led to believe that he had been carving a letter into his body for all these years. That's why he kept putting his hand over his breast.

Peter: That's interesting because they did say he scourged himself. I was thinking being raised Catholic, that psychologically, you could probably produce something like that.

Frank: Katie?

Katie: I actually had the same sense as Peter that his own guilty conscience was probably working on him much more than the townspeople.

Frank: So, we all agree there was a physical manifestation of his sin. We just don't agree on where it came from or who caused it. (Katie: Right.) And then finally what happens to our reverend Dimsdale after he bears his breast?

Katie: He does collapse at that point. And Hester again is supporting him. His head is resting on her bosom which is right where the Scarlet Letter is. And then he says farewell and he dies.

Frank: How does our story finally end?

Katie: There is a chapter after this appropriately entitled, The Conclusion, in which Hester and Pearl actually disappear for a while. Chillingsworth dies a couple of years later. He leaves Pearl a great deal of money and property.

Frank: The wealthiest girl in the nation.

Katie: Yeah. Then after a number of years, Hester actually comes back.

Frank: She comes back without Pearl but she comes back with her ‘A’.

Katie: Yes, with the scarlet letter and resumes her residence on the outskirts of town and lives a very quiet life there.

Frank: Right, Katie, a quiet life but also a productive life.

Peter: Many of the women in the town seek Hester out. There's a great line in here about this. It says: ‘Women most especially in the continually recurring trials of wounded, wasted, wronged, misplaced or erroring and sinful passion; or with the dreary burden of a heart unyielded, because undervalued and unsought, came to Hester's cottage demanding why they were so wretched and what the remedy. Hester comforted and counseled them as best she might. She assured them too, of her firm belief, that at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, and 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.’

Frank: Finally, a moment of redemption for Hester. (Peter: Exactly.) And Katie, how do we finally end our novel?

Katie: Hester dies, and according to the lines here, ‘After many, many years, a new grave was delved near an old and sunken one.’ And the old and sunken one is Dimsdale’s. And according to the book, ‘It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle, yet one tombstone served for both.’ And on the tombstone the letter ‘A’ in red.

Frank: All right. Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Scarlet Letter. Did he write this novel to tell us how sinful adultery was?

Peter: I got a very different sense of it.

Frank: Tell me what you got from this?

Peter: When I was reading, I kept thinking, in essence, what's the big deal? They had an affair and I'm not condoning that. I'm only saying, to me, the bigger sin (if you will) was the hypocrisy and the cruelty with which the town's people, and the magistrates, and the clergy, treated her because they never let her forget what it is that happened. And they never have any sense of forgiveness or acceptance.

Katie: I think Hawthorne saw a lot of unfairness. I think he saw a lot of joylessness.

Frank: Joylessness in the religion?

Katie: In the religion and in the lives people led so that it almost made Joy a sin. I think it's a love story in the sense that these two people did love each other.

Frank: Are we ever actually given a clear example in the novel, that this is a love match?

Katie: Actually yes. It becomes clear that it's a sign of Hester's love that she keeps silent about the identity of her fellow adulterer. Because the townspeople wanted to know, Chillingsworth wanted to know, and the penalty would be death for this man. And she kept silent all those years so that he could live and could have as productive a life as she was able to give him.

Peter: I think this book is very much a book about people's characters and how they handled themselves with dignity, or how they buckle under their own cowardice, and those things are always true about human beings. People still struggle with those things today and I think, always will, because we're human.

Frank: Very good. I agree with you a hundred percent.

(OUT: Let's take a break here. When we come back what I'd like from both of you then would be some favorite passages or perhaps a moment or two we haven't had a chance to discuss. You want to bring that up. That's what we'll do in our next segment. Right now we'll take a little break. I'm Frank Lavallo. You're listening to novel conversations and our conversation today is about the Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. We'll be right back.)

(IN: And welcome back. You're listening to novel conversations and I'm Frank Lavallo. And today I'm having a conversation about the novel The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne and I'm joined in my conversation today by Katie Smith and Peter Toomey. Okay, in this last segment what I would like from you is a moment or a passage in the novel that makes this book memorable for you and makes it a book worth reading. Katie you have something you want to share?)

Frank: Now, what I’d like to do is share a moment or passage in the novel that makes this book memorable for you and makes the book worth reading. Katie, do you have something you want to share?

Katie: I do. We actually haven't said much about Pearl as a character in the book, but there's a little paragraph near the end which I really like that really illuminates Pearl, to me, through much of the book. They talk about her being an elf, a sprite, they even sometimes use the word demonic. To me, she's almost not a person in the book, but a symbol. And sometimes they even talk about her being, the living symbol of the scarlet letter. But at the very end of the book, when the Reverend Dimsdale is actually collapsed on the pillory, he wants Pearl to kiss him before he dies. And this is the quote here, it says:

“Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief in which the wild infant bore apart had developed all her sympathies and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up, and made human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world but be a woman in it; towards her mother too, Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.”

To me that's a lot about hope in this situation, even though Hester and the Reverend Dinsdale, who have a lot of grief and sorrow in their life, the child that they produced, who up until this time was kind of this demonic character, somehow then becomes human through all of this, through her father's confession of guilt and then goes on to become a grown woman and find human joy and sorrow in the world. I love redemption stories and that's a lot of what this is about for me.

Frank: I'm glad you mentioned the word redemption because that's what I was thinking of as well. Not only is it a moment of hope, but it is a moment of redemption for Hester, for Reverend Dimsdale, and of course, for the daughter Pearl as well. Peter do you have something you want to share?

Peter: For me, the best books are where I see something for my own life manifest in the characters. You can get aggravated with Hester and Dimsdale, you know, why was he such a wuss. Why didn't he confessed earlier? Why did Hester stay? And I found this passage because I remember when I first read this, I was really annoyed with Hester, like why didn't she leave? There's nothing that made her stay. There's nothing that said, if she went someplace else, she couldn't just get rid of this scarlet ‘A.’ And it talks about it toward the beginning:

“She hid the secret of why she stayed from herself and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart like a serpent from its hole; there trode the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected to any union that unrecognized on earth would bring them together before the bar of final judgment and make their marriage altar for joint futurity of endless retribution. She barely looked the idea in the face and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe was half a truth and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment and so perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length, purge her soul and work out another purity than that which she had lost, more saint like because the result of martyrdom.”

She stayed because she loved him. And because she had hope against all hope that somehow she would be able to see him and in some way connect with him even though she hardly ever spoke to him. And that, even though I could say I'm not a romantic, that is the truest kind of love. I've seen people do these kinds of things in relationships and in situations and I've done it myself where everybody around you is that you should have given up on this a long time ago and you don't. And you tell yourself and other people all kinds of reasons, and the reason is really the simplest one, that you love the person or you love the institution or you love the situation you're in, in spite of everything that's bad. And I think that is Hester’s strength.

Frank: I also have a moment from Hester. Throughout this entire novel, as we've all commented on her outward appearance is one of almost acceptance. She seems to go along with the way the town treats her, so you almost get the impression that she's got an equanimity about her, in accepting this. But there's one throwaway line, early in the novel, that tells you that she's not so accepting of it. Let me read you the quote:

“She was patient. A martyr indeed. But she forbored a pray for her enemies. Lest, in spite of her forgiving aspirations, the words of the Blessing should stubbornly twist themselves into a curse.’

So, here's a woman who outwardly seems serene, seems to have accepted her fate, and yet she will not even offer a prayer for the people in the town that are harassing her, because on the chance that that prayer might turn into a curse. She does have some resentment and some anger very well buried, but there's anger, nonetheless.

Katie: I think Hester presents a lot of dichotomies. And one of the other pieces that I had marked, talking about Hester, it says:

“She had in her nature a rich, voluptuous, oriental characteristic; a taste for the gorgeously beautiful, which, save in the exquisite productions of her needle found nothing else in all the possibilities of her life to exercise itself upon.”

So, to me that says a couple of things, one of which is about she has this rich, oriental characteristic inside herself, this voluptuous self, but she never really lets that out in any kind of display except for the red ‘A’ that she is embroidered for herself; and in the beautiful clothes that she makes for other people. That also talks to me about people's creativity coming from their dark side or their shadow side. And so in the sense of a redemption story, she somehow transforms everything she's been through, into these really beautiful creations.

Frank: Absolutely. One other thing I'd like to mention before we end the show is one of the minor characters of the book, we didn't get a chance to talk about was Mistress Hibbons. She's a witch. Nathaniel Hawthorne makes her a witch, has her going into the forest at night; claims that she's flying around with her devil father. Was that an attempt at comic relief or was he trying to show us the superstitions of the Puritans?

Peter: I actually think he was trying to show us the mindset of the people at the time. I do think that it’s maybe not just a superstition of the people of that time but, in many cases, they really believe that those were real incidences and that people really did do those things back then.

Katie: I think it's interesting that Mistress Hibbons, I believe is the governor's sister. (Peter: Mm hmm.) So, he's directly related to a woman who claims to be a witch and you get the feeling that perhaps one of the reasons that nothing is done to her is because of her societal position.

Frank: So political connections, can even help a witch.

Katie: Sure. And that says something about the society. Like it says something about our society as well, when we see corruption and people are saying all the time, ‘if it were not for his/her money or connections or political clout, he/she would be in jail.’ And nothing happens to her. She's never burned at the stake. She talks about flying around and whether she's just crazy or she actually does this. They just let her go.

Peter: I think that's another case of showing this stark light metaphor throughout the whole book, that here's this very upstanding governor and his sister is the one that's meeting the Devil in the forest. Again, there's that sense of the light and the dark and how people, not just back then, but people today still split those things, instead of recognizing that as humans we all have those characteristics inside of us.

Frank: We're all a little bit good and we're all a little bit bad. All right. I think on that note we will end our conversation on Nathaniel Hawthorne's, The Scarlet Letter. I once again want to thank my guests readers for coming in and having a conversation with me today Peter and Katie.

Peter & Katie: It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having us.

Frank: You’ve been listening to Novel Conversations.


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