I’m glad I don’t teach American Literature for many reasons, one of which is that I never have to teach Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. I have no problem going on record stating that the book is not great literature. I would go so far as to say in fact that it is bad literature. I suppose some might argue that we should teach it nevertheless in order to get a flavor of the time-period. Now, I am no literature teacher, but as I say on occasion, ignorance of subject is no excuse for not having an opinion about it. So I’ll make another hapless decree and say that if you want to get a flavor of the times, many better ways exist than to waste your time reading bad literature.
For the Scarlet Letter Hawthorne picked a theme and perhaps even a plot worthy of great literature. But his overblown style and the obsessive introspection of his narration make the reading laborious. Different folks have different strokes, but I would have hard time relating to someone “who just loved the Scarlet Letter.” As my wife stated, who also teaches literature, “Hawthorne writes with a hammer, not a pen,” and, “He writes like a lawyer, not a novelist.” As with Oswald Spengler, I did the “random page” experiment and found this at the beginning of chapter six:
Governor Bellingham, in a loose gown and easy cap,–such as elderly gentlemen love to indue themselves with, in their domestic privacy,–walked foremost, and appeared to be showing off his estate, and extirpating on his projected improvements. . . . The impression made by his aspect, so rigid and severe, and frost-bitten with more than autumnal age, was hardly in keeping with the appliances of worldly enjoyment wherewith he had evidently done his utmost to surround himself. But is an error to suppose that our grave forefathers–though accustomed to speak and think of human existence as merely of trial and warfare, and though unfeignedly prepared to sacrifice goods and life and the behest of duty–made it a matter of conscience to reject such means of comfort or even luxury, as lay fairly within their grasp.
I hope you are not as tired reading it as I am typing it. One critic wrote that, “If the reader isn’t careful, a character can be changed dramatically in two or three pages . . .” and I don’t think she meant it as a compliment.
I recently read Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy and found myself struck by some similar feelings as when reading the Scarlet Letter. Especially in “The Agamemnon” (the first part of the trilogy) we have the same somewhat restless overdone style. For example . . .
Oh welcome, you blaze in the night, a light as if of day, you harbinger of many a choral dance in Argos in thanksgiving for this glad event! What ho! What ho! To Agamemnon’s queen I thus cry aloud the signal to rise from her bed, and as quickly as she can to lift up her palace halls a shout of joy in welcome of this fire. And I will make an overture to with a dance upon my own account; for my lord’s lucky roll I shall count to my own score, now that this beacon has thrown me triple six.
So yes, perhaps he adds too much mustard, but the language has something spirited about it (instead of Hawthorne’s superior snootiness), and I can’t help but smile at the translator’s great “triple six” phrase. But then later the language still remains the same no matter who talks, no matter the reason . . .
Loud rang the battle-cry they uttered in their rage, just as eagles scream which, in lonely grief for their brood, rowing with the oars of their wings, wheel high over their bed, because they have lost the toil of guarding their nursling’s nest.
And so on, throughout the whole play. The language stirs the blood at first, and then the blood begs to rest a while.
Just as Hawthorne wrote at a time when the concept of “American Literature” just was taking shape, Aeschylus wrote at a time when Greek drama had just began in any formal sense, and this may account for some of their similarities. Aeschylus’ continuous use of the heroic style may rob his characters of depth, but at least he enjoys his craft and his story. Many vastly superior Greek dramas exist, but I suppose one must start somewhere.
Perhaps when a person starts out, one can’t help but exaggerate for effect. And perhaps the same holds true for literature as well. But Hawthorne had plenty of other examples of great writers at his fingertips, whereas Aeschylus pioneered new ground. If we considered no other reason, this makes the Oresteia a much greater work than The Scarlet Letter. I easily forgive and even applaud Aeschylus, but even after all these years I can’t say the same about Hawthorne.
For possible similar themes in Chinese films, see here.