On Literary Censorship: The Scarlet Letter

Published in 1850…relevant in 2019.

There is something timeless about books. Cliché and maybe a little pretentious as it sounds, it’s true. I don’t just mean the ones the Literary Gods have deemed “literature” either. I mean all books. If you connect with it in any way, it becomes a part of you, becomes timeless. My favorite version of this phenomenon is when it happens with people who want to ban books from schools. It doesn’t matter if they’ve actually read the book before or not, if there is even the implication of something scandalous in a text brought home by a child, some parent somewhere is going to fight to have it banned. They may not always win, but they will always fight.

Here’s what I love about that: maybe the best way to get a kid (or anyone, really) to read something is to cast it over with an air of danger. Why is it banned? What’s so scandalous? Why is it dangerous? I love this idea so much that every September I make a point to seek out at least one Banned Book, do some research on why it was banned, and read it for myself. So far, I haven’t come across a single one that deserved to be banned. In fact, I think trying to censor what people can consume (but especially, read) is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard of. Thus, I decided this year to pick one book for each week of Banned Books Month, do some research on its reasons, and analyze them and the text itself through a modern lens. None of the books I have chosen are currently banned, but they have been, over and over again, for years. So, why?

I started playing with the idea of looking at banned books with an article I recently put out about Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. One of the most banned books from the 1990s through the 2010s, it is also a touchstone of children’s horror literature. Kids would sneak around with that series and scare themselves and their friends half to death with it. They loved it. Parents hated it. And so kids only grew to love it more. Nothing makes a kid more curious than being told “no”, after all.

The more I thought about how ridiculous, but also really successful and scandalous, the ordeal with Scary Stories was, the more I got to thinking about how many of the books I loved had been challenged or banned. For this series project, I chose books that are within the Literary Pantheon as Great Works that I had never read before, or that I have loved for years but haven’t had an opportunity to revisit until now. The risk of this, of course, is that most of them are so old it’s likely no one cares as much about them anymore as I do. But more than anything I wanted to use this opportunity to talk about why we should still care about them. Not because they’re Great Works of American Literature — that hardly matters — but because even now, years and years after their publications, they have something important to tell us about ourselves and the society we live in.

We haven’t really gotten past this point, have we?

I’ve never had a problem with required reading, and in fact most often thrive on discussions about books in a way I can’t quite replicate with other topics — so much so that in one of my college classes the only time I offered any input to the class was when we talked about a book rather than a film or piece of music. That said, I know books as old as Scarlet Letter, first published in 1850, often put kids off reading, at least for a while. I first read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter in high school. I don’t remember if I loved it then as much as I do now, but it never truly fully left my brain. Something happened, though, when I picked it up as an adult. Instead of being tired and difficult to get through as one might imagine 1800s literature to be, it was relevant. Not to my life in specific, but to the society we’re all trying to make it through right now.

Hester Prynne’s crime is never explicitly stated or depicted. The novel opens with her in prison, about to come out and face the shame and public ridicule that is her punishment for her transgression. The only hint we’re given as to what that transgression is the existence of Hester’s baby daughter. We all understand the crime to be adultery — thus the bold presence of the letter A on her breast — but are never told so or shown it outright. Strange, then, that it should be banned and/or challenged as recently as 1977 for (in addition to issues of morality) being “pornographic and obscene”. At no point in the novel is the sexual encounter between Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale explained or described, other than with the existence of their daughter Pearl. There is no mention of sex at all, only its aftermath.

The most fascinating and troublingly relevant thing about the novel now, though, is not its reputation for being banned on morally scandalous grounds. It is instead the fact of how differently Hester and Dimmesdale are treated after their affair. Hester is in prison, sentenced to be an object of public scorn for the rest of her life, visually marked in such a bold way so no one will forget what she did. Dimmesdale is a respected and venerated pastor of the people, torturing himself inwardly for his crime and the moral struggle of having committed this sin but being in love with Hester. While the act of adultery itself was committed between two people who love each other (we are told, rather frequently, that Hester doesn’t and hasn’t ever loved her much older and physically disfigured husband), the consequences of it for both Hester and Dimmesdale echo the way sexual crimes are handled today.

When Hester first emerges from prison to face her punishment, several different townspeople express their opinions. Some of the women think this is too public a punishment, some think she should have been killed for her crime. All avoid contact and association with her and her daughter for at least seven years. She is even thought for a while, as all women are who venture outside the norm of societal standards, to be a witch. In fact the only woman willing to publicly speak to her is the town’s known (and later killed) witch. Interestingly, though, Hester is also said to have been tempted into her crime, and likened at least once to the First Mother of the Bible, only as her more sinful counterpart. These associations continue throughout the novel, even when the public perception of what the A on Hester’s chest means begins to shift.

No one has forgotten it. Everyone knows she’s an adulteress. But they eventually seem to come to a point where they can look past her crime, however cautiously, and see her value as a member of society. They grow to respect her and her renowned handiwork with fabric and needle and, by the end of the novel, seek her advice for their own lives. The trouble is, she has spent so long as an object of scorn and shame that she has internalized it. She believes, either because of her faith, her moral beliefs, or societal pressure, that she deserves the punishment of wearing the Letter on her chest and taking in the people’s scorn, even as she tries to help them.

It feels something like the equivalent to the modern trend of victim-blaming. We as a society shame and blame women all the time for senseless things, nearly to the point of women feeling like they can’t do anything without risk of ridicule. And when something terrible happens to them, there is a poisonous tendency to look at the victim to see what they might have done to lead to what happened, rather than outright and immediately punishing the person who committed the act.

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Which brings us to Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. To his credit, the guilt for both committing the act in the first place and not coming forward about it when he originally had the chance eats him up inside for the entirety of the novel. What’s more interesting than that, though, is that he can do no wrong in the eyes of the people of the town. Even after he confesses that he is, in fact, the father of this illicit child everyone in the town pities him, or chooses to outright believe the opposite.

“Without disputing a truth so momentous, we must be allowed to consider this version of Mr. Dimmesdale’s story as only an instance of that stubborn fidelity with which a man’s friends — and especially a clergyman’s — will sometimes uphold his character; when proofs, clear as the midday sunshine on the scarlet letter, establish him a false and sin-stained creature of the dust” — Scarlet Letter, p. 212

Sound familiar?

While Dimmesdale doesn’t commit a sexual crime in the way we understand it now (do people go to prison for adultery?), he does go against the social mores of the society he lives in but, rather than be punished at all by anyone but himself, he is venerated and held in higher and higher esteem as the novel goes on. The only modern equivalent I can think of is the way news media will bend over absolutely bass-ackwards to make sure a white man who commits any kind of crime is seen in as innocent a light as it is possible to paint him.

If reading this novel with a modern lens shows us anything, it is that we haven’t come nearly so far as a society as we thought we had. We still demonize women (and, occasionally, liken them to witches) and venerate (white) men. We still force women to internalize the effects of transgressions such that they punish themselves for way longer than is necessary, and sometimes for the rest of their lives. No matter how far they get from their past, no woman forced into the spotlight is ever allowed to forget what scandal she came from, even if the public has to make it up.

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Katelyn Nelson’s writing interests lean mostly toward pop culture analysis and representation. She tweets @24th_Doctor, mostly about horror.

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Katelyn Nelson

Katelyn Nelson

Katelyn Nelson’s writing interests lean mostly toward pop culture analysis and representation. She tweets @24th_Doctor, mostly about horror.

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