Life Lessons From: Hester Prynne

Saturday, 27 September, 2014

Illustration by Jennifer Choat

A fair portion of early adulthood is devoted to half-baked hedonism. The rest must be spent in guilt, regret and ignominy. Every ill-judg’d act leaves its mark.

In such times of moral peril, what better parable to turn to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 American Classic The Scarlet Letter? Here’s the book’s plot in a nutshell: local goodwife Hester Prynne embarks on an affair with the local preacher of 17th century Puritan Salem. Humiliated after bearing his child, she is forced to wear a scarlet “A” embroidered on her bodice. (Scholarship still varies on the meaning of “A” – adulterer? Angel? Apostle? Arthur – the guilty pastor?) Here are a few pointers on taking poor decisions – financial or ethical, but particularly coital – in your stride.

Hold your tongue.

Even at the height of her distress, Hester refuses to name the father of her child. The church leadership – which imprisoned and ostracised her – admires her stoic silence. But our heroine’s reticence was not entirely selfless or without design. First, it serves a crucial role in her mission to prove her good character and return to the Puritan fold. Second, it proves useful leverage. When she is threatened with losing her child, Hester emotionally blackmails the pastor, one pious and repressed Arthur Dimmesdale, into supporting her right to Pearl, their daughter. Although it might be tempting to deflect blame from one’s own faults, Hester advises that you take the moral (and strategic) high ground when it comes to disclosure. In short, naming another guilty party does not necessarily diminish your own culpability. And no one likes a kiss-and-tell.

Consider it an exercise in empathy.

One of the remarkable phenomena associated with the scarlet letter is Hester’s newfound pseudo-psychic ability to see the hidden faults of the other townswomen. In the younger wives, she senses the strain of committing to the stringent Puritan codes of behaviour. In the older madams, she finds disillusionment with their impassive, stultified husbands. They share a covert solidarity. Strangely enough, Hester is the closest thing to a feminist in the 17th century colonies. Judge not, for ye shall be judged. Who of us hasn’t fucked up?

Kill them with kindness.

With this newfound humility, Hester dedicates her spare time to helping Salem’s wretched – the poor, the homeless and the mentally indigent. At the same time, she impresses the crude leaders of Salem with her intricate needle-work. In a neat stroke of irony Hawthorne has her stitch the seams of her accusers’ church vestments. At first, this seems to be an act of penance. But there is a striking scene where Hester embellishes the scarlet letter with gold thread. Her “A” becomes the only sliver of colour in an otherwise miserable conformist town. Instead of a stain on her reputation, it becomes an exquisite source of envy. Hester’s final lesson is simple: waste no time on spite or concealment. Wear your shortcomings with pride, and take criticism on your own terms.