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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

If all adulterers were to wear badges

Title: The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Reviewer: Dennis D. Muhumuza 

Nothing is as enlivening as reading English in its most colourful and purest form. But that’s not all that The Scarlet Letter offers. Its deepest attraction is in the universality of its major themes. Though written a whopping 160 years ago, this novel would make some spouses shift uncomfortably in their seats.

It’s a story of a young woman who commits adultery with the ‘holiest’ preacher, refuses to reveal his identity and as punishment, for the rest of her life she is sentenced to wear a red letter “A” on her bosom symbolising adultery. Imagine if all adulterers in Uganda were to wear badges of shame like Hester Prynne and assemble in Namboole Stadium!

Interestingly, as I turned more pages, I felt that the essence of this American masterpiece is not to condemn infidelity more than the intolerance in the puritan society in which it’s set. This work of imagination was inspired by the reality of sin, which armed the author with all he needed to open up the hearts of his central figures and eloquently expose their ugly secrets and regrets.

The revered Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is a man who enjoys private study, meditates and fasts a lot to “keep the grossness of this earthly state from clogging and obscuring his spiritual lamp.”

But his secret and scandalous romp with Hester, which results in the birth of Pearl, weighs on him like a tonne; he fails to absorb the shock and terror of his sin despite the pristine power of his eloquence and intellectualism. As he confesses, “All of God’s gifts that were the choicest have become the ministers of spiritual torment. Hester, I am most miserable!” Roger Chillingworth, the man who’s wronged by both Dimmesdale and Hester; once a wise, good, true and just man; has his thirst for revenge transform him to, in his own words, “a fiend.”

Although Hester’s honesty and strength of character helps her survive the scandal, she’s emotionally distressed. But she behaves better than her condemners by donating her beautiful handwork to the poor, though I could argue that this goodness is only to palliate her sense of shame. Yet her consistency in this generosity earns her recognition. As the author notes: “Individuals had quite forgiven Hester Prynne for her frailty; nay, more, they had begun to look upon the scarlet letter as the token, not of that one sin, for which she had borne so long and dreary a penance, but of her many good deeds since.”

It’s left to the reader to decide why the author amends people’s attitude towards Hester. Maybe to show that sin does not make one evil or repulsive as to be treated and shunned the way Hester is and that we should forgive and leave judgment to God. The writer could as well be implicitly pleading for a little tolerance in society else we shall continue to maunder in sin without hope.

Whatever it is, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s unique insight into right and wrong, especially the psychological turmoil that comes with unconfessed sin among men of conscience, is so gripping and together with the beauty with which language is used, makes The Scarlet Letter a book every man should read before their death.

--Sunday Monitor, January 24, 2010