Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Scarlet Letter

(Editorial cartoon by Tom Toles and published 8/21/2012 by the Washington Post. Click on image to enlarge and then please hustle your fanny back here.)

I'm still fuzzy-brained from the allergy meds, but that hasn't stopped me from continuing to re-read Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter. I am reading this now as part of my drive to re-read novels from my past, but also because I wanted to consider the historical underpinnings in American (and, for that matter, world) history when it comes to misogyny. Needless to say, not much has changed in the 160-some years since the novel's publication. Many men still want to control the lives, the bodies, and the destinies of women.

As some of you may recall from your high school English class, the novel takes place in 17th Century Salem, Massachusetts at a time when the Puritans still ruled in New England. The heroine, Hester Prynne, has been condemned by the authorities for being an adulteress and bearing an illegitimate child. Her punishment is public shaming, including having to wear a scarlet "A" on her clothing for the rest of her days. Complicating her life further, she refuses to name her partner in this "crime", who, it turns out, is her pastor.

Something I had forgotten about the story was that Hester was already married. Her family arranged a marriage to a man who was older and physically deformed while both still lived in England. He decided to go to the New World (America) to make his fortune and she followed after him. He disappeared and was presumed lost at sea, but she no definite proof of that, so she was still married but without a husband. He, of course, turns up at the moment of the first public shaming of Hester and swears to find and punish the man who cuckolded him.

I'm more than a third of the way through the book and today I read the part where the town's leaders (all men, including a couple of religious leaders and the governor) have met to decide whether or not to take Hester's child from her so that she could be raised as a good Christian, something her mother clearly is not. The pastor (and father of the child) persuades them not to remove the child, but does so once again without revealing his true role in the matter.

The utter hypocrisy and misogyny of that culture reminds me a great deal of today's brand of Puritans, people like Todd Akin and Paul Ryan who see women only as sluts to be branded and handcuffed and put to shame in the public square. Toles' cartoon touches only one aspect of the war against women (victims of rape), but the war itself extends to women being able to control their bodies when it comes to conception and other health issues, and being able to control their destinies when it comes to careers and pay.

We really haven't come a long way, baby.

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Blogger PurpleGirl said...

I haven't read The Scarlet Letter since high school either but one thing I vividly remember is that Hester, being an embroiderer, embroiders around the letter in gold thread so that it truly stands out. She is as defiant as she can be.

6:45 AM  

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