Contributed by: Chandler Barton, literature and education major
Nathaniel Hawthorne had an interesting way of portraying life in his hometown of Salem some two hundred years prior to his age in his story, The Scarlet Letter: 1640’s, approaching the era of the witch trials, we find an adulteress, shammed by her community, confronted by her newly arrived husband from abroad, and holding the name of her lover—as well as the father of her newborn child— sealed and secret from the church authorities, who themselves are eager to bring public shame on the adulterer alike. When the identity of her lover is revealed to be a member of said religious authority to the reader, we start to piece together the complex puzzle and riddle of our main character’s silence and torment, made manifest in a Scarlet letter ‘A’ sewn into her dress, to forever be displayed to the public eye.
Like any modern reader I tend on occasion to find (and seek!) a bit of vague allegorical connection to contemporary society and events in older texts of literature, and given just how indulgent and gluttonous we Americans are on politics given the primary election season, I felt it appropriate to find a link to our potential presidential candidates.
The main character, accused of infidelity before the law, land, and God; our Bernie Sanders, divorced de facto from their neglectful (but by no means abusive) husband, the Democratic Establishment, through virtue of the crime committed. Accused and condemned, the authorities, the aspect of Hillary Clinton, commands the fornicator to reveal their lover’s identity. “Submit!”, the boisterous, albeit slightly maniacal voice commands, demanding surrender to the old regime and futility before the established authority of the land; but the identity of the adulterer remains safe and sound. Our young, youthful Sanders voter, despairing and worrisome, driven to commit such a heinous crime and betraying the establishment out of a combination of what we can only guess is socialist lust and the feeling of loneliness and abandonment by the Democratic Party.
Is the allegory any clearer? The comparison telling? Doesn’t it all now make much more sense? Absolutely not. My nonsensical and irrational attempt to compare a piece of 19th century literature written out of familiar guilt to 21st century politics (consequently also a result of some sort of guilt, I think) is indicative of nothing more than my innate desire and demand that the author speak to me in some sort of timeless, transcendental terms. Instead, I’m just left with a drool picture of what Puritans did to pass the time between drowning witches. Lame.
Satire aside, Hawthorne used masterful prose and verbiage to steer this story—one filled to the brim with societal intrigue and implicitness—to its masterfully worded conclusion. The plot does smell a smidge like tragedy but ultimately deals more with the timeless question of sin and redemption. What better backdrop to use for such a theme than Nathaniel’s native Salem? After all, the city and even Hathorne himself had a colorful pedigree in this regard, and the history surrounding the place would give some name recognition to the past and contemporary reader. (See, Nathaniel? Your witch-burning forefathers proved useful in boosting your career after all.)
Why I decided to pick the Scarlet Letter up and reread it as a part of my self-assigned summer reading is mystery even to myself. I simply opened up that scratched, dusty dresser drawer that contains my treasure trove of old paperbacks from days of yore and simply dug out a book or two in my typical ritual fashion. Along with Crime and Punishment, which I must confess I have yet to read at all, I sat the two aside to go over in the coming summer weeks.
I think what drew me to this book, other than the fact that it’s been nearly six years since I last cracked it open, was not the central themes of sin or redemption, but rather revenge and reconciliation, which both play key parts in the plot. A big part of how these ideas play into the story and even what it means to me personally transcends the idea of individual forgiveness or making amends; rather, a large portion of the story has to do with reconciling one’s past and present. Personal circumstances in my life as of late have caused a bit of introspection in this regard, and I was glad I gave the Scarlet Letter another read. If you haven’t read it yet, or maybe like me it’s just been awhile, consider adding it to your summer reading list to browse over between binge-studying for 5-weekers.
The last and most important question remains unanswered, though: which character, out of all the colorful personalities before us in this story, is Donald Trump?
You decide on that one.