Seeing Past the Scarlet Letter
While many may grimace and groan when I mention it (having been force-fed its pages as juniors in high school) Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter remains one of the favorite pieces of literature I’ve ever studied. There was always something so real, so substantial about the character Hester Prynne. Imagine how my ears perked, then, upon hearing the allusion to the novel in the lyrics of Casting Crowns’ song, “Does Anybody Hear Her?”
If you recall, there are actually two people who bear scarlet letters in Hawthorne’s novel (come on, dust those webs off, you remember!). There is Hester Prynne, the woman who wears her scarlet letter upon her chest, and Arthur Dimmesdale, the man who suffers in secret, silently bearing his scarlet letter and the guilt that accompanies it. Both have the same offense, both know the error of their ways. The only difference here is how much of a presence their scarlet letters have in their lives. Granted, Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter is physically present, pinned on her apparel and enrooted in her daughter, Pearl, but she does not allow her scarlet letter to dictate who she is. Branded, she continues to make an honest living for herself, helps those who were less fortunate than she is and raises her daughter in the best way she knows how. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, allows the secret of his scarlet letter to engulf him, eating away at him a little more each day. Deteriorating from the weight of his conscience, Dimmesdale becomes wrought with guilt as his attempts to keep up appearances continue.
The characters I’m most interested in learning about, however, are the townspeople – the crowds that fill the paved streets that surround the scaffold in the very last scene, the voices that utter sharp words under their breaths as Hester passes by, the same voices that hang to every word as Dimmesdale, shaky from his condition, delivers his final message. I picture what it might have been like in the chapel that day and liken it to the scene in the music video, members of the congregation quietly chatting outside the church doors, engrossed in their less-than-meaningless chin wagging. I read how the people of Boston treat the unfamiliar, completely cognizant of the scarlet letters others bear while denying that, like Dimmesdale, they too bear theirs in secret. Images from the Casting Crowns’ video run into the scene, and it hits me- this looks pretty familiar, and not because I’ve watched it or read about it.
The following phrase from the Casting Crowns’ song particularly stands out from the rest: “If judgment looms under every steeple/ with lofty glances from lofty people/ can’t see past her scarlet letter/ and we’ve never even met her.” If. That’s a nice way of putting it, because it’s a well-known fact that nine times out of ten, young people in the Church catch themselves passing judgment upon others when they know they shouldn’t. It’s rampant amongst youth and young adults, especially with all the stereotyping that goes on in our culture, and I can’t say I have never done it.
It makes me wonder – how many Hester Prynnes do we turn away, especially during the times they need us most? Like the girl in the Casting Crowns video, the Holy Spirit leads people to the steps of our churches. What do we find ourselves doing when that happens? And how long will it take for us to open our eyes and lend a hand? The fact of the matter is, we all have had to bear scarlet letters; we have all sinned and come short of the glory of God. Following the lead of Hester Prynne, we must remember that the scarlet letter does not define us – any of us – especially since we have been washed clean of it.
(Video source: http://www.youtube.com/user/Charlesc28)