Two Responses to Love

Victor Hugo’s Les Misèrables was published in 1862. The title is French for “The Miserable Ones.” It stands, alongside his earlier work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as the crowning achievement of his literary career. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for stealing some bread. The prison system breaks his spirit to desperation; eventually his determination breaks through and he, for a time, escapes the clutches of the law. But at the same time, he does not change from his thieving ways. That is, until, a bishop saves him from a predicament.

The law believes they have captured a potential thief. They find Valjean with some silver that he stole from a bishop’s house. When the bishop discovers Jean at the hands of the law, he tells the police that he lent Jean the silver. Though this is a lie in strictly moral terms, it saves Jean from being sent back to prison. The bishop solemnly admonishes the peasant: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I’m buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts, and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.” By giving Valjean another chance at life, he charges him to live a holier life, one dedicated to love. And from that moment on, that is exactly how Valjean lives his life.

After becoming a mayor in a French town, Jean lives a morally upright and self-sacrificing life. He puts himself in the way of the gun when another is accused of being Valjean the escaped convict. Though he goes back to prison for a while, he eventually becomes the tracked hound once more. He promises a prostitute, Fantine, that he will take care of her only daughter, Cosette. A decent portion of the 1,463 page work is about his loving and painful relationship with his adopted daughter. Valjean goes through great lengths to care for her. The bishop’s pardon has paved the way for the rest of his life; his dying words at the end of the story are that we should all love one another, for there is hardly anything in the world greater than that.

However, another character in the book reacts to charity in a much different way: the police chief, Javert. Javert spends most of the book tracking down Valjean, wanting to send the convict back to prison. Javert believes in his position as an officer with all zeal. Justice, that criminals be punished for their crimes, is the most important aspect of his life. He gets into a desperate situation though, when a rebellion happens in the streets of Paris and he is held hostage by a group of political rebels. Jean Valjean rescues Javert from sudden death, as well as Cosette’s lover, Marius. When he brings Marius to safety, Javert ends up facing his rival once more.

Then, something unexpected, stunning, and anticlimactic happens: Javert lets Valjean go free and never chases him again. Valjean’s kindness to him has deeply affected his personal psyche and values. Maybe, just maybe, punishment by the law is not the only force for good in the world. His mind reeling, Javert goes through a desperate moral dilemna, one that drives him to a negative insanity. He views Valjean’s love as an evil that derails his mind from what he appreciates in the world: “How could it be? The chink in society’s armor could be found by a magnanimous wretch! An honest servant of the law could find himself suddenly caught between two crimes, the crime of letting a man escape, and the crime of arresting him! Everything was not certain in the order given by the state to the official! There might be blind alleys in duty!” (Hugo 1327). The officer’s sense of justice is shaken by the convict’s compassion to where he is no longer sure of what he believes in anymore. So unlike Valjean, Javert is affected for the worst, for his soul cannot agree with his newfounded, sympathetic impulse of letting a prisoner go. He cannot go live a new life founded on love and not law. for the law has been too great a part of his life.

The question that Hugo’s book brings, as other books brought up in the nineteenth century, is the role of mercy and law. Is law sufficient enough to bring peace to a society, or are there laws that simply do not address the deeper needs of humanity? As slavery and poverty are addressed at the time, people cry out for moral reforms based on a more charitable sense of duty, one not obsessively affected my laws, like Javert. But Javert’s viewpoint has its points, making it a strong debate against quick impulses of kindness that might not go as far as we think. Is love ultimately enough? Or, rather, equaling intriguing, are love and law more compatible than we think? It is a question that still informs society’s mandates to this day.

Works Cited

Hugo, Victor. Les Misèrables. New York: New American Library, 1987. Print

 

 

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How the Harry Potter Series Reflects Itself (Spoiler Alert!)

Some authors, such as Stephen King, are against the mentality that a story should be outlined before written. “Outlines,” he says, in his afterword to the first Dark Tower novel,”are for people who wish to God they were writing master theses.” King favors a more spontaneous approach to fiction, where the story, upon writing, “writes itself;” as a writer unfolds their tale, new ideas reach their mind, telling them where the story should proceed next, thoughts that would’ve most likely been missed upon a predraft outline. Just write and don’t try to plan where the story goes, otherwise you will somehow stifle the creative flow or impulse.

Yet in reading J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books several times each, I see evidences that patterns can occur in fiction, designs that seem to indicate an architectural approach to storytelling, long before the story is unraveled. I will attempt to argue in this blog post that Rowling’s books repeat various themes and concepts. Beware though; I am going to spoil the series, so if you have not read these seven classic works, please exit my blog and do yourself a huge favor. Read them.

Let us first start with the seventh and final books: Sorcerer’s Stone and Deathly Hallows.

In the first book, Harry learns a little about the life of Albus Dumbledore, how he defeated the wizard Gellert Grindewald, as Ron is showing him a chocolate frog card. In the last book, Harry learns even more about Dumbledore’s past, how his friendship with Gellert failed and how he won the Elder Wand from him.

Next, Harry is able to retrieve the Sorcerer’s Stone from Quirrel’s grasp because of his noble heart, not using the stone for himself. He knows that death is quite possible. He survives the encounter because of his mother’s sacrifice. Afterwards, Dumbledore tells him, while Harry lies in the hospital wing: “Afterall, to the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.” In Hallows, something very similar occurs: Harry allows Lord Voldemort to kill him in the forest, though he actually survives once more due to Lily’s sacrifice. Dumbledore tells him, in Harry’s mind, “You are the true master of Death, Harry, because the true master does not seek to run away from death. He accepts that he must die, and that there are far more worse things in the living world than dying.”

In SS, Harry learns from Ollivander that “the wand chooses the wizard.” In Hallows, this is the truth Harry reminds Voldemort of before he defeats him, “Didn’t you listen to Ollivander: ‘the wand chooses the wizard?'”

Hagrid mentions to Harry in Stone that two safe places to hide something are in Gringotts and Hogwarts. In the final book, those two exact places hold two of Voldemort’s Horcruxes.

Second, we have the Chamber of Secrets and the Half-Blood Prince.

Ron vomits slugs in the second book. The last name of the sixth book’s potions professor is Slughorn.

Harry learns about Voldemort’s past in the second book through Tom Riddle’s diary. In the sixth book, he learns more about Riddle’s past and exactly what the diary was.

When, in Prince, Harry and his friends are trying to figure out how Ron got poisoned, Hagrid mentions, “Chamber of Secrets all over again, isn’t it?” In both books, students are being randomly attacked.

Dumbledore’s absence disturbs characters in both books. In Chamber, Ron is scared what will happen after Dumbledore is sacked by Lucius and Fudge. In Prince, McGonagall says, “I must admit that Dumbledore’s death is more disturbing to me than the idea of Slytherin’s monster running free in the bounds of the castle.”

As Harry learns about Voldemort through a book in Chamber, so in the sixth book another book teaches him more about Snape.

In Chamber, Harry accidentally ends up in Borgin and Burkes. In Prince, Harry follows Malfoy to Borgin and Burkes to see what he’s up to.

Third, we have Prisoner of Azkaban and Order of the Phoenix:

Harry repels dementors in the third book. He does the exact same thing in the fifth.

Hermione uses a Time-Turner in the third book. Harry and his friends stumble across a group of time turners in the fifth book, when they are all inside the Department of Mysteries.

Fudge tells Harry in Prisoner that he can’t be punished for trifles like blowing up his aunt. But in Order, he does everything he can to get Harry expelled from Hogwarts.

There is a chapter in the third book called “Grim Defeat.” In Order, there is a chapter called “Number Twelve, Grimmauld Place.”

Sirius is introduced in Prisoner. He dies in Order of the Phoenix.

Professor Trelawney goes into trances in each book, speaking about Voldemort.

One might argue that the fourth book, Goblet of Fire, has no reflection, but it shares some things in common with 2 ad 6; we learn more about Voldemort’s past in the opening chapter ” The Riddle House,” and when Harry hears Voldemort explain how he got his father’s name. But then, 1,3,5, and 7 may share similarities, but suffice it to say that I have made my case.

Was Rowling conscious of these patterns? Maybe, maybe not. Though I do suspect that holding to patterns is a big help in writing fantasy, for fantasy authors usually try to tackle huge projects as in the cases of Lewis, King, Tolkien, Eddings, Brooks, Donaldson, Paolini, and Martin. But the point is that mental patterns can inform literature, that it is not all inspired by some “flow” that ignores design. Fiction is a river that flows with occasional beaver dams.

The Search for Women’s Autonomy in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

In nineteenth-century America, if a group of people had even suggested the possibility of hearing a message concerning women’s rights and liberation, they would most likely have been branded insane. When Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most influential work, The Scarlet Letter, was published in 1850, most critics assessed that the novel presented the story of a woman’s sinful rebellion against the institution of marriage and her deserved punishments. Interpretations from nineteenth-century critics repeated prevailing views of women at the time, namely, that the female sex served society best as a domestic worker, responsible for both educating and nurturing children as well as fulfilling the sexual needs of her husband. Suggesting an ideal of femininity contradicting this patriarchal order could only result in contempt for whoever put forth such an idea. Later literary critics, however, in reexamining the work in light of twentieth-century feminism, arrive at different interpretations.

These more contemporary scholars focus on the book’s central character, the young woman, Hester Prynne, who commits adultery with a pastor named Arthur Dimmesdale in 1600’s Puritan New England. The Puritans, on discovering Hester’s guilt (though not Dimmesdale’s), ostracize her by forcing her to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her breast, which labels her an adulteress. Hester also has to suffer with the knowledge that her husband, Roger Chillingworth, psychologically tortures Dimmesdale for his role in the affair. Under the punishment of the scarlet letter, Hester begins to assess her situation in light of women’s liberty, while at the same time raising her daughter, Pearl. She considers not only why she is being punished by her neighbors but also what to do with the feelings she is experiencing as a woman who desires her voice to be heard. Thus I argue that The Scarlet Letter functions as a proto-feminist text, specifically, the building blocks towards women’s autonomy.

In this essay, I shall establish a structure concerning The Scarlet Letter’s relation to women’s liberation. I will first offer an analysis of the text itself, showing how Hester stands against the Puritan’s symbolic, theological system as the woman daring enough to voice equality for all women. Next, I will explain how early critics of the book did not see the novel as a banner for women’s social justice and how their failure represents gender views in nineteenth-century America. Then I aim to counter the interpretations of the male scholars with arguments from twentieth-century intellectuals focusing on the novel’s foreshadowing of early feminism, mainly through the roles of Hester and Pearl. My conclusion will consider Hawthorne’s views of women, or, for that matter, marginalized individuals in nineteenth-century society.

In “The Minister’s Vigil,” chapter twelve in The Scarlet Letter, members of the Puritan community interpret two mysterious signs: a red, flaming meteor shooting through the sky, and a black glove found stranded next to a daunting scaffold erected in the middle of the town square. The religious authorities view the letter “A” engraved in the asteroid’s rocky composition as a symbol for “Angel,” while they see the lost glove as the Devil’s way of signaling the secret guilt concerning its owner, Arthur Dimmesdale. An official of the church even remarks on the black glove and Dimmesdale: “‘It was found this morning, on the scaffold where evil-doers are put up to public shame. Satan dropped it there, I take it, intending a scurrilous jest against your reverence’” (Hawthorne 104). Since the clergymen base their existence on the dictates of Christianity, they link natural phenomena to their moral ideals. Ironically, such a disposition is vain in the eyes of a theologian who serves as the basis for their society’s structure: John Calvin. The American Puritans drew heavily on the theological teachings of Calvin when forming their society, but their views on symbolic manifestations seem to clash with Calvin’s teachings on signs. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin speaks of signs as pertaining to human experience: “And daily experience shows that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a manifestation of God. In consequence of this blind passion all men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they thought God was visibly depicted to their eyes” (Calvin 97). If Calvin interprets sign searching as a vain passion unfounded by truth, why are the American Puritans so sure they know what the physical manifestations around them signify? Such judgment seems to be presumption on their part, labeling that is not founded on what their predecessor taught. They are guilty of hypocrisy since they do not follow the rules of the man who is revered as their key forefather.

On the other hand, in “Another View of Hester,” chapter thirteen, the narrator presents the reader with a Hester Prynne who is an active thinker capable of initiating change. His discourse addresses a mind that arrives at conclusions before deciding to act; it is thoughtful, reflective, and rational, perhaps the most reliable perspective yet offered in the text. As Hester reflects on life, she has a “tendency to speculation.” While Puritan speculation spurs hasty judgments, Hester’s thinking leads her to a dark inner world: “though [speculation] may keep woman quiet, as it does man, yet makes her sad. She discerns, it may be, such a hopeless task before her” (Hawthorne 108). What follows is a description of her reflecting on the situation of women in nineteenth-century America: “As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew. Then, the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified, before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position” (Hawthorne 108). The narrator represents Hester’s realization that women are not essentially inferior to men but have become so through a “long hereditary habit.” In other words, differences between the sexes are social instead of natural; women have been conditioned overtime to accept an unfair and unsuitable domestic role. Believing, based on interpretations of biblical scripture, that her place as a wife was to be in the home, taking care of children, and pleasing their husbands, women repressed their desires to be free, to go out into the world of opportunity.

There is more to Hester’s thinking, in particular, that women’s emotional nature must change in order to endure progress. The narrator comments, “Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change; in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated” (Hawthorne 108). Hester’s emotions are subject to change over time. This shift will create problems for her in the midst of positive growth; even if she were to succeed as a champion of women’s rights, would she always feel the same way about her feelings? Will her emotions remain constant throughout the process of reconstructing society? One day, she will feel positive about her changing role, but then the next day she may doubt it anddarkly brood over its consequences. If she is not in touch with her heart, then she will notbesatisfied with who she is. Thus, to have her “truest life,” she must be true to her inner self.

Hester not only assesses her station in relation to society, she ends up thinking about her actual thinking. The narrator mentions that, “A woman never overcomes these problems by any exercise of thought. They are not to be solved, or only in one way” (Hawthorne 108). At the end of chapter thirteen, though she does not reach full emotional closure over her situation, she is able to conceive of practical steps and take action. The narrator writes “In fine, Hester Prynne resolved to meet her former husband, and do what might be in her power for the rescue of the victim on whom he had so evidently set his gripe” (Hawthorne 109). Before this point, Hester has only suffered the condemnation of the Puritan community, being subjected to an identity forced on her due to her sin, and not having the strength to set affairs into her own direction. Now, she is able to be an actor in her own drama, attempting to initiate change and rescue Dimmesdale from the psychological torture of Roger Chillingworth.

Will such acting and reflecting save Hester from a dismal situation? The narrator mentions the word “labyrinth” in regards to the result of Hester’s surmising. She ends up confused after her thinking, unsure of how to proceed. Just when she thinks she has reached the answer to one question, ten more appear to taunt her. Such confusion can engender despair into a mind that seeks closure and solace from a seemingly daunting situation. When she struggles to convince Chillingworth to relinquish his grip of vengeance on Dimmesdale, Hester laments: So far as concerns the overthrow or preservation of his fair frame and his earthly state, and perchance his life, he is in thy hands. Nor do I,-whom the scarlet letter has disciplined to truth, though it be the truth of red-hot iron, entering into the soul,-nor do I perceive such advantage in his living any longer a life ghastly emptiness, that I shall stoop to implore thy mercy. Do with him as thou wilt! There is no good for him,-no goodfor me,-no good for thee. There is no good for little Pearl! There is no path to guide usout of this dismal maze. (Hawthorne 113) There can be no doubt that this is Hester’s thinking, for instead of free indirect discourse, the narrator is now employing direct discourse in Hester’s speech. Her inner feelings have been unleashed. It does not matter whether or not Chillingworth gives up his control over Dimmesdale’s mind: there is no “good” for anyone, no way to obtain peace and solace in the midst of their human drama. Since the narrator has Hester repeat the phrase “there is no good,” not only does it establish the dismal tone of the passage, but the reader sees directly into the emotional fervor and confusion of its main character. Her thinking leads to many different twists and turns but reality itself poses no helpful clue.

In spite of her doubts though, Hester grows in her resolve still. The way in which she acts towards Chillingworth is a monumental shift in the way she has previously acted.  Before, she submitted to Chillingworth as a newlywed wife, in the days before she came to New England. She married him without any consideration of her own personal desires and dreams. Yet now, she will not “stoop to implore his mercy” to get her or anyone else out of the situation. If she had remained a subservient wife to him, she would have been there to serve but also do nothing without his special permission as her husband. Now that she stands tall in her despair instead of groveling on the ground, she is being defiant in a way she has never been before. Though she has not solved her problems, she will go down in glory, being true to her convictions to the very end.

Despite the textual evidence above that demonstrates Hester’s regard for the plight of women in general, some critics argue that feminism has nothing to do with the book’s essential message. Hawthorne the author may have considered women’s voice to be a trifle at best. T. Walter Herbert Junior draws on the personal insecurities of Hawthorne when concerning Hawthorne’s views of women in the nineteenth-century. Herbert mentions, “Hawthorne was profoundly disconcerted by women who displayed the forthright public assertiveness that he himself lacked, as he shows in his venomous assaults on women writers and in the postmortem denigration of his erstwhile friend, Margaret Fuller” (Herbert, Jr. 285). In this way, Hester’s rebellion against the Puritan legal code exemplifies a subconscious desire on Hawthorne’s part to be as daring as the female writers of his time. Yet, he fails to do so, and, instead, sides with the men of the period in viewing the literary and cultural contributions of women as irrelevant and fit to be cast away, even labeling his contemporary women authors as a “damned mob of scribbling women.” His shortcomings are presented most clearly in that, even at the novel’s end, with her secret lover dead, Hester cannot live the dream her heart has always yearned for: to be in a meaningful romantic relationship. How can Hawthorne support the notion of women’s rights in The Scarlet Letter if he shuns the idea of female liberty?

Hawthorne seems to favor a more subservient position for women in regards to the family. Herbert draws on Hawthorne’s relationship to his daughter Una, and how he wished her to be a traditional woman, one destined to play the usual role of womanhood. There were times during Hawthorne’s fatherhood where Una would throw random and unexpected tantrums. These outbursts concerned Hawthorne, making him wonder if Una was a sane human being. Hawthorne would rather have Una be a subversive woman and serve her society in gentleness and humility. Herbert says, “The gender system that ascribed nurturing tenderness to women and combative individuality to males was conventionally regarded in Hawthorne’s times as a law of nature and of nature’s God” (Herbert 287). Herbert points out the constructs of gender that Hester’s community supports; women are to remain under the finger of men, to obey their every call. Men are to protect women and children with their strength and valor.

Nineteenth-century critics, being influenced by a predominantly Christian culture, interpret the book through the lens of salvation. Scholar Daniel Manheim mentions that the plot of The Scarlet Letter centers on Dimmesdale’s redemption from sin, not Hester’s cry for women’s rights. He focuses on the word “chain” as a redemptive symbol regarding Pearl’s role with Dimmesdale. Mentioning Dimmesdale’s cowardly vigil on the scaffold at night, Manheim says, “When Arthur, Hester, and Pearl hold hands for the first time up on the scaffold, and Hawthorne writes ‘the three formed an electric chain,’ he may be comparing the minister’s false confession to a newfangled mechanical bond of dubious fraudulent strength” (Manheim 179). Failure to own up to his adultery with Hester, Dimmesdale hides from his rightful shame. As a result, his soul is in danger of damnation, since he refuses to adhere to the confessions of his creed. As Manheim argues, “The final chain appearing in the middle of the climax of the novel suggests that the public reunion Pearl is about to be granted will have ultimately redemptive power” (Manheim 179). Since Dimmesdale acknowledges Pearl and Hester at last, his soul is spared condemnation and, even in death, he leaves as a sanctified saint. Pearl stands as the initiator of the pastor’s change towards a pure heart, since she challenges Dimmesdale during each of their meetings to abandon his sin and turn back towards the grace of God.

Women writers of the time appeared to support male-centric views of The Scarlet Letter as well. Robert S. Levine mentions that not only did critics view the book only as the dramatic unfolding of Dimmesdale’s spiritual redemption from Hell, but also that the few women writers who read the book also viewed Hester’s plight against the Puritans as a meaningless trifle in comparison to Dimmesdale’s struggle. Levine says, “The only response by an American woman writer was Anne W. Abbot’s. Abbot’s review offers an appreciation of Hawthorne’s portrayal of ‘mental torpidity’ in the prefatory ‘The Custom House,’ but for the most part focuses on Hawthorne’s failure to invest the novel with a proper Christian spirit” (Levine 275). The only interpretations that nineteenth-century scholars offered praise the world that Hester so vehemently despises: a society controlled by stern male patriarchy. They want the book to look towards the “Christian spirit” of past Puritanical religious rituals, rituals that place women on a lower social playing field than men. The idea of the novel being viewed through the eyes of an emotionally enslaved woman is absurd. Hester’s deliberate wearing of the scarlet letter in defiance of Christian teachings repulses these scholars, motivating them to cast away the book as immoral.

Yet, in spite of scholarly insistence that The Scarlet Letter can only be viewed as a despicable demonstration of wayward women, there is ample counter evidence of women being considered as distinct voices of change in Hawthorne’s era. Hester depends on her own love as a woman to fight back against the despair of her difficult position. In this way, she hopes to signal to men that there is more to a meaningful relationship than merely self-love. Twentieth-century critic Nina Baym argues that Hester Prynne seeks a kind of love in which each of the sexes is viewed with respect. Baym mentions in her article, “Revisiting Hawthorne’s Feminism,” that she, in the 1970s and 1980s, had already argued that the works of Hawthorne foreshadowed a meek and humble expression of feminism, and that the current article would only further that position (541). Baym points out that: Awareness of the recalcitrant reality of human nature occupies Hester’s meditations on reconstructing the social system, which include the tasks, in order, of tearing down of society and rebuilding it, altering what in men is either their very nature or “‘its long hereditary habit,’” which has become “‘like nature;’” and still somehow producing a “‘still mightier change’” in woman herself, “‘in which perhaps the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will found to have evaporated’” [Hawthorne 108]. This “ethereal essence” is her capacity to love. Should that be destroyed, then the social formation of which Hester dreams is an impossibility, because it is grounded in exactly that love, the only counter to male self-love. (Baym 556) If she were to lose touch with her emotions, Hester would lose her battle, having no further hope for herself. Her capacity to empathize with those in need embodies her vision of how society needs to be restructured. One example of Hester’s kindness is when she consoles Dimmesdale in the forest; she explains to him that he can let her assist him in carrying his guilt: “Such a friend as thou hast even now wished for with whom to weep over thy sin, thou hast in me, the partner of it” (Hawthorne 124). Instead of crawling in her misery, Hester uses her painful experiences to help her lover cope with his struggle with religious and spiritual authority. As such, moving from a blind faith in tradition and into a new era of mutual understanding serves as the basis of her rebellion against the Puritan theocracy.

Since her feelings for Dimmesdale invest the story with its drama, the novel can be essentially looked as a love story. Her rebellion against the Puritans stems from her desire to love a man who, at least at the moment of sexual gratification, remains by her side, something Roger Chillingworth failed miserably to do, being locked up with his scientific endeavors. In relation to Hester and Dimmesdale’s affair, Ernest Sandeen explains how The Scarlet Letter essentially represents a call for women’s romantic aspirations to be met. Writing during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, Sandeen argues for women’s liberation; women at this time were demanding not merely equal rights with men, but asserting that women are even superior to the men who have victimized them throughout history. However, Sandeen is less radical. He focuses only on love and gentleness. Sandeen explains that “If Hester is willing to endure the torture of the scarlet letter, it is because she is still in love, not because she is penitent. Her suffering is not the price she agreed to pay for her guilt but the cost she is glad to bear for her love. Her apparent humility and patience conceal her inner subversion of the penance imposed upon her” (Sandeen 425). Though Hester is more than willing to serve the Puritan community as best she can, enduring the shame of her letter, she remains alive as a lover ultimately unashamed at what she has done. Her argument is not one of radicalism but simply of kindness and respect. She refuses to repent and renounce her ties to Dimmesdale, repulsing early right wing critics of the book who want her to be subservient to the Christian definition of womanhood.

In speaking of Hester’s relationship to society, there lies a stark division of interests. New England stands divided between paganism and Christianity, and this split is evidenced by the settings the novel portrays. Levine mentions that, “there is a distinct divide between the artifice of the town and the naturalness of the woods, with the town regularly associated with the patriarchal authority of the Puritan masters and the woods with the antipatriarchal authority revolutionism of Mistress Hibbins and Hester” (Levine 282).  The Puritans create a social network based on Christian ethics that repress natural passions in human beings in favor of a more spiritual duty towards God. On the other hand, Hester’s rebellion in committing adultery with Dimmesdale represents her faith in feminine passions and needs. Her wishes position her in opposition to her community’s dictates and laws, generating the novel’s prime drama. The forest becomes the setting where she admonishes Dimmesdale to run away with her and Pearl in order to gain a new and more fulfilling life; the seclusion from society the woods provide her allows her to safely express herself without interference.

Hawthorne may also have drawn from actual historical figures in constructing The Scarlet Letter, indicating that Hester’s desire to go against the grain was not a new concept among nineteenth-century Americans. Even in the 1600’s, certain figures questioned the validity of Puritanical thought. Critic Michael Colacurcio, in his article “Footsteps of Anne Hutchinson: The Context of The Scarlet Letter,” draws on Hester and Dimmesdale’s forbidden bond in discussing actual historical people relating to the pastor and his parishioner. Hester, by defying the religious doctrines of the Puritans, relates to Anne Hutchinson’s resistance to the Protestant work ethic, how salvation is dependent on works and not faith only. Hutchinson maintained that works were not necessary for the soul to be saved. All one needed was faith in God’s work on their behalf alone.  In addition, Dimmesdale represents John Wilson, a man reputed to have been an ally of Anne Hutchinson in spreading her beliefs (Colacurcio 306, 308). These connections are relevant in that they show how history relates to Hester’s plight; just as Hester was stigmatized, so were actual women of the past. The issue of social justice is timeless and universal for women. Hawthorne could very easily have been inspired by these historical religious figures standing out as a heretical threat to what the Puritans attempted to establish in the New World: Christianity unadulterated by false teachings. Colacurcio argues that, since Hester rebels in pure freedom, she will end up destabilizing the entire system of law in New England. She not only has fought against men, but also God Himself. The Bible, through the book of Exodus, demands that adultery be shunned. Though Colacurcio sees that Hester has indeed broken the fourth commandment, though, the Puritans have committed a far graver sin in failing to realize the needs of Hester.

Precisely what kind of authoritative system does Hester work under? The Puritans have a distinct judiciary construct; they host a government where men make all the necessary decisions in society. Hester, in attempting to voice her feelings, feels desperately overwhelmed by her odds in having her voice heard. As she fights against the current, her pleas for help will most likely be discarded as the rantings of only an erring woman guilty of sin. For her accusers, it is only just that she suffers for her adultery with Dimmesdale, being critical to the salvation of her soul. Critic Laura Korobkin examines this hierarchal form of justice. The primary focus lies with the question, “why do individuals have to obey laws regulating private behavior, laws that directly conflict with individuals’ deeply held principles, and which they have had no hand in making” (Korobkin 428). Hester’s complaint to her society is an argument: why can’t women change their lives if they are unhappy? Must they continue to suffer at the hands of others who do not care for their emotional welfare?  But there also comes a time in which the Puritans, according to Korobkin, give Hester a lesser sentence for her adultery than what would usually have been. As time goes on, “many people refused to interpret the letter A by its original signification. They said it meant Able; so strong was Hester with a woman’s strength” (Hawthorne 106). Thus, the more sympathetic side of the community is revealed, making her rebellion stand out to the reader. Hester though, will not relinquish her desires in light of this slight mercy from the community. She needs more than empathy and forgiveness. She needs change.

Hester’s disobedience can be linked to other literary pieces, attesting that the individual’s fight with society was a theme many authors discussed and not just Hawthorne. Another important scholar, Michael Pringle, considers the Scarlet Letter’s relation to Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.” Pringle focuses on an era of literary history known as the “American Renaissance,” how Hawthorne’s work compares and contrasts with his contemporaries’ contributions. In both cases, the main characters enact a form of disobedience to governmental authority for their own special causes. Yet in some cases, Hester’s defiance is different in that she, unlike the subject of Thoreau’s essay, does not have the power to resist for her own sake; she cannot willingly go against government law because, as a woman, she cannot exercise as much liberty (Pringle 33). Thoreau, a man on the other hand, can disobey his government more voluntarily, signaling the ability of men to alter the course of nineteenth century politics. As Pringle puts it, “she must first find power to act as an individual against a seemingly monolithic Puritan society if she is to resist the band of adulteress. The A isolates Hester, but hardly equips her with the power to resist; however, its indeterminacy enables her to exploit a weakness in the emblem her community uses against her” (Pringle 33). Hester forces the community to come up with different interpretations for her letter. In this way, they are challenged in their assumptions and beliefs about her and must struggle to maintain their judgmental views. Hester wields the scarlet letter more as a symbol of her rebellion instead of her shame; by using her own embroidery, she creates a meaningful way to transform her pain into something that stands for her endurance. Sandeen mentions, “Through her skill in embroidery she has converted the shameful ‘A’ into such an arresting work of art that it makes a mockery of the punitive intention of her judges. In short, her whole appearance seems to glorify the very passion for which she supposedly is being exposed to public shame (Sandeen 426). Sandeen points to Hawthorne’s techniques of using ambiguity as weapon against tradition; though the Puritans may the view the scarlet letter one way, Hester views it in another way, and she uses this distinguishment of interpretation to her advantage. While the Puritans aim to bring her to public humiliation for her deed, she deliberately points back at them, mocking that what they intended to be a punishment instead functions as a reminder of what she fights for. The letter represents her values as a woman. As Hester tells the governor who aims to take away Pearl, “‘This badge hath taught me, it daily teaches me, it is teaching me at this moment, lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better’” (Hawthorne 75).

The eagle (mentioned in Hawthorne’s preface “The Custom House”) also represents a cry for women’s rights. Hawthorne will exploit this national symbol in his aim to address women’s right to be free Americans just as men. In this way, Hawthorne (who, afterall, in his own lifetime was a staunch democrat focusing on human rights) signals a national call to consider the plight of marginalized individuals in society. America, as a nation, needs to be defined by all the sexes and not just the one that holds power in every facet of the country. Robert Martin, in his essay entitled “Hester Prynne, C’est Moi: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Anxieties of Gender,” says, “This eagle is treacherous precisely because, like Hester’s ‘A,’ its meaning is not fixed; although the eagle is ‘vixenly,’ she attracts those who imagine ‘that her bosom has all the softness and smugness of an elder-down pillow.’ Yet, they may soon encounter ‘a scratch from her claw’” (Martin 514). As the national symbol of America, the eagle is referred to by the pronoun “she,” representing womankind. For the moment, while Hester suffers the stigma of the letter, she humbly submits to her shame, moving on with her life and doing her best to take care of Pearl. But in time, she will still be the same woman she always was: an American dame asserting her individuality. Martin, like Sandeen, also points to Hester using the symbol to her advantage: “Her art may be presented as transgressively criminal, but it is also a response to a crime” (Martin 520). Hester can only deal with her transgression by finding a creative way to express what she values deep down in her heart. Otherwise, she will be overcome in despair of the solitude she must suffer. Her guilt, unless dealt with, will overcome her sense of self-esteem and worth.

In the literary marketplace of nineteenth-century America, women began to assert themselves. Interestingly, during the time Hawthorne published his work, women writers gained a decent foothold in the publishing industry; every few years or so, novels from female authors would be published in volumes throughout America. At times, their sales even surpassed Hawthorne’s own. Women could even alter the course as to how the publishing industry functioned.Scholar Michael Winship draws on the period after Hawthorne’s death; he focuses on his widow, Sophia Hawthorne. Around 1868, The Scarlet Letter and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin were in literary competition with each other. Both authors had wondered which of their works would see more sales. According to Winship, after Hawthorne’s death in 1864, when Sophia found out that “Gail Hamilton, another Ticknor and Fields author whose royalty terms had been changed in 1864 in a manner similar to Hawthorne’s, began to raise questions. She threatened to transfer future rights in her husband’s works to another firm” (Winship 422). Winship argues that Sophia serves as an inspiration for Hester Prynne, a woman who stands for herself when she feels that those she loves are being used. Her case is a prime example of women asserting their rights concerning their families, not passively going along with corruption and scandal. Sophia’s stubbornness links to when Hester openly argues with the Puritan magistrates concerning Pearl: “Ye shall not take her. I will die first” (Hawthorne 76). Both Sophia and Hester, women deemed not as courageous as men in their time, both demonstrate boldness for their causes, something unheard of at the time. They refuse to relinquish what brings most meaning to their lives. In this case, it is those whom they love and their reputations.

Speaking of the literary marketplace in nineteenth century America, Jesse Battan mentions that there was even an underground women’s readership that encouraged women to relinquish themselves from abusive relationships and repressed sexuality. This group was known as the Free Lovers Society. Battan says, “The Free Lovers most important contribution was their preoccupation with the emotional and erotic experiences of nineteenth century men and women, and their willingness to discuss these experiences in public venues” (Battan 2). The Free Lovers fly under the radar in order to establish a secrecy that allows women to freely express themselves concerning their deepest fears and longings. Therefore, they can avoid the stigma that men will release on them, one in which they tell them to repent from rebelling against American tradition. Because the novel centers on Hester’s willingness to present herself in front of the Puritans and accept her token of shame, it can be inferred that Hawthorne desires to bring to light the Free Lover’s cause. Hawthorne himself flies under the radar, as it were, indirectly pointing to the need for women to express themselves more freely. Besides, Hawthorne employs an aesthetic of ambiguity in his work, leaving the interpretations of his works ultimately up to the reader. By not directly stating his aims, he has a higher chance of avoiding stigma on his end as well. Arguably, he succeeded and failed in this endeavor. If anyone had discovered the Free Lovers workings in America, they would have been condemned openly by the public in the same way that Hester is condemned for desiring autonomy in regards to her sexual and emotional needs.

Another goal of the Free Lovers, according to Battan, was to protect “women from husbands as well” (3). Hester herself wants to be free from the influence of her husband, Roger Chillingworth, for he does not, according to Hawthorne, understand the needs of his wife, a dangerous dilemma in their marriage. Hawthorne says, “Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win with it the utmost passion of her heart” (Hawthorne 114). This passage calls for a dramatic reconsideration of how men should view their wives; if they want lasting marriages, then they need to consider what their partners desire as much as themselves. Otherwise, they will become domestic tyrants, overbearing their wives with harsh rule. This dark image of abusive husbandry links to a feminist poet of the twentieth century: Sylvia Plath. One of Plath’s poems, “Daddy,” is inspired by Hester’s struggles with Chillingworth. According to Jo Gill, Plath compared Chillingworth to the father who had abandoned her, The ruthless persistence with which Chillingworth pursues his prey (anticipating the ‘brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you’ of Plath’s protagonist) and Hester Prynne’s frustrating inability, or unwillingness, to escape his influence and surveillance is precisely mimicked in the equally dreadful and inescapable intimacy between Plath’s speaker and ‘Daddy’ (in the notorious words of the poem: ‘Every woman adores a Fascist’) and in the final, if qualified and painfully achieved, transcendence of both women. (Gill) Chillingworth, in keeping with his vengeance on Dimmesdale, creates pain and friction in Hester’s life. His hold over the minister makes it more difficult for Hester to move on with the life she wants, one free to explore her feelings for Dimmesdale. In consequence, Chillingworth asserts his masculine control over Hester, forcing her to deal with her hopeless circumstances. Hester becomes so distraught that she fights back. In fact, because she is able to play Chillingworth’s game, she achieves a kind of “transcendence.” She can turn a blind eye to her pain and, with fierce determination, formulate a plan to save her, Pearl, and Dimmesdale. David Leverenz remarks, “What starts as a feminist revolt against punitive patriarchal authority ends in a muddle of sympathetic pity for ambiguous victims” (Leverenz 464). Each of the characters in the book struggles with a sense of place in the universe. They must consider if society supports them or not, and if not, what they can do for themselves to be more free.

Hester eventually reaches a dark dead end, for she begins contemplating her situation to be a hopeless lost cause. As a result, she begins considering the worst: murdering Pearl so that the child will not have to suffer her mother’s shame for the rest of her life. In her eyes, it would be better for Pearl to die than for her to grow in a world that will not allow her to have a voice. A quick and easy death will save her daughter from a lifetime of bondage.  Leland S. Person links this troublesome idea to racial mothering in the nineteenth-century. Person explains how Hester relates to African American slave mothers who would murder their children to keep them from suffering the cruelty of white slave masters. Person says, When Pearl is seven, “a fearful doubt strove to possess [Hester’s] soul, whether or not it were better to send Pearl at once to heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide” [Hawthorne 50]. This last thought proceeds directly out of the “dark labyrinth of mind” in which Hester has wandered during her seven years of ostracism and this infanticidal impulse leads directly into “the scarlet letter had done its office.” Among other features of her character, Hawthorne makes Hester’s motherhood issues for careful observation. (Person 658) The scarlet letter has trapped Hester; she is unsure as to what further steps to take will be in regards to women’s choice. After having thought of every conceivable solution to her dilemma, she can think of nothing else. Like African American slaves, Hester has no options. Just as slaves in America would grow up in the system of slavery present in the Deep South, Pearl will have no choice but to submit to the Puritans who will teach her to obey society’s standards concerning women in the world.  Either she goes with the rules of society or dies from humiliation, actual death, or despair. By comparing Hester to other women in different situations, Hawthorne indicates that the issue of women’s submission is universal and not merely limited to women like Hester. The authority of white men extends into every corner of the country. A call for women’s rights is ultimately a broader call for the rights of subjugated citizens everywhere, a theme that many nineteenth-century novelists dwelled upon, both in America and abroad. All alone, with no one to help her, Hester cannot find a permanent solution.

What if Dimmesdale, being the secret lover, can find a solution for Hester? Sadly, the minister can do nothing, for he himself is shackled in chains by the Puritans. Conflicted not only by his secret guilt concerning the adultery with Hester, but also by his conflicting standards of sin and repentance, Dimmesdale is trapped in a special maze of his own. Scholar Tadd Ruetenik explains Dimmesdale’s role: “Mass sympathy takes place during a mimetic crisis within a community. A sense of determinism brings forth the scapegoat before the unanimous condemnation of the people” (Ruetenik 75). Because Dimmesdale is thrust into a leadership position in the community, he must be responsible for people’s souls, namely, by being the representative of their collective conscience. The Puritans use Dimmesdale as a scape goat in that, instead of taking responsibility for their own actions, they blame the pastor instead. Such hypocrisy on the Puritans part allows them to maintain their power structure and mandates over their victims. As long as an individual is nonchalantly sacrificed, the Puritans can continue their ways and policies, unhindered. In addition, Sarah Chaney, in “A Hideous Torture on Himself: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature,” believes that scholars, over the history of interpreting The Scarlet Letter, treat Dimmesdale’s mysterious bodily ailment as a manifestation of his guilt and not as a sociological construct. In contrast, Chaney argues that self-mutilation was much more than a way for people in the Victorian era to deal with their sins (284). Ironically, Dimmesdale’s self-inflicting wound is his way of defying the judicial system of Puritan New England; since he punished himself, he escaped the processes by which justice is normally executed in the Puritan courts. His “penitence” removes the gavel out of the hands of the magistrates. They can’t punish the clergyman on their own terms. But then again, he proves that he is also mad and unstable, unable to be as rational as Hester in her thoughts and actions. In chapter twenty of the novel, “The Minister in a Maze,” Dimmesdale fails to distinguish what he ultimately values. After having just arrived from his meeting with Hester in the forest, he has conflicting and tormenting thoughts. His mind begins to suggest horrid blasphemies against Christianity, things that he would never have dreamed of, frightening him. Hawthorne refers to him as a “lost and desperate man” (Hawthorne 140). If he, like Hester, cannot find a way to help himself, how can he offer his lover assistance?

Hester’s final plea, then, is to be found in the actions of her daughter, Pearl. Pearl comes to represent the twentieth century feminist revolution to come. Even though the Puritans have a hold on Hester’s spirit, forcing her to comply with their definitions of womanhood, Pearl refuses to submit herself to anyone’s mandates, no matter who they are. She cannot be easily subjected. Her free and roaming disposition, unusual and forbidden as it is, is precisely what Hester needs to obtain for herself. Critic Cindy Loud Daniels remarks on Pearl’s function in The Scarlet Letter: Pearl is left unmarked by the patriarchy. The Puritan community assumes that Hester will carry on its traditions. Hester, though, cannot bring herself to quell her daughter’s wild spirit, despite the restrictions placed upon her both emotionally and physically. Hester knows the social authorities are viewing Pearl as a devil-figure, and they see her daughter’s connection with nature as proof of her mother’s misdeeds coming out in the actions of her offspring. Yet, despite Hester’s guilt, she sees her child as angelic and innocent, and it is this dichotomy that is at the center of Hawthorne’s characterization of Pearl. (Daniels 223) Pearl is far more than a symbol of Hester’s sin and Dimmesdale’s redemption; in defying the rules of others and controlling the novel’s plot, she foreshadows women taking command of their lives and fortunes. Since she is Hester’s only child, she too must suffer her mother’s ostracism and learn how she is to relate to the world. But unlike her mother, Pearl will not be at the whims of the Puritans. She will be in charge of her own life once the drama between Hester and Dimmesdale ends. If Hester herself cannot assume autonomy in her lifetime, at least her daughter can.

The elf-child serves as a complex symbol difficult to interpret. It seems that, according to the narrator, Pearl is a physical embodiment of Hester’s badge of shame. Afterall, the narrator says that Pearl “was the scarlet letter in another form, the scarlet letter endowed with life” (Hawthorne 69). In this way, Pearl, like the letter itself, is subject to many different interpretations to the reader. Millicent Bell examines how it is difficult to decipher what Pearl means. She says, “The mystery of meaning is expressed in the obliquity of Pearl’s own answers to the question of what she is. Hester wonders, ‘Child, what art thou?’ and is answered, ‘O, I’m your little Pearl’ [ Hawthorne 66]. Which is no answer for her name is a sign and not her significance” (Bell 458). However, it seems to me that Pearl represents feminine innocence. Pearl comes to ultimately symbolize women daring enough to ask honest questions concerning their roles in society. On examining Pearl outside Dimmesdale’s window, Chillingworth asks, “ Hath she affections? Hath she any discoverable principle of being” (Hawthorne 89). Chillingworth wonders if Pearl displays the expected submissive attitudes of women. So free and bold is Pearl in her natural expressions towards the world and the people in it that she seems to be unconfined by society’s strict laws. Her liberty in coming and going as she pleases is exactly what Hester secretly longs for each day as she suffers under the stigma of her letter.

Pearl becomes the catalyst that motivates Dimmesdale to come forward in the light of public humiliation and claim Hester and Pearl as his own. In accepting both his lover and daughter by blood, Dimmesdale finally exemplifies the responsibility that Hester needs. In this way, Hester receives what struggling women long for in a husband and lover: a man taking equal action for their cause.  In her article, “The Character of Flame: The Function of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter,” Anne Marie McNamara from The Catholic University of America, asserts that there lies a conflict between Pearl and Dimmesdale that summons the pastor to take at least partial responsibility in his affair with Hester and cling Pearl and Hester to himself. McNamara mentions that, The offense of her [Pearl’s] father against her is the deliberate and guilty concealment of parenthood during her whole lifetime…..She ignores her mother’s request that she love the minister. She is not cajoled by the promise of a future home in which the three will be together and in which Dimmesdale will love her dearly. Her only reply is the question, “And will he always keep his hand over his heart” [Hawthorne 136]. She clearly implies the guilt that will plague Dimmesdale even if he succeeds in the plans for escape which he and Hester are formulating. Her mother, not sensing the profound implications of the questions, lightly evades them. (McNamara 541) Pearl presents the minister with a challenging choice: you can either accept that you are a part of our lives or you can suffer a daughter’s rejection because you hide yourself from us in public. In this way, Pearl draws a distinct line between blindly accepting Puritan authority and hypocrisy and rebelling for not only her cause but also her mother’s. Through rejecting Dimmesdale’s false love, Pearl exemplifies women’s rejection of empty promises.

In light of The Scarlet Letter and nineteenth and twentieth century critics, what more may we infer concerning Nathaniel Hawthorne’s views on women? We can see that Hawthorne considered the issue of women’s liberation to be a complex one, not only open to different interpretations but also one that will take serious consideration and time to assess. At the end of the novel, Hester gives her final conclusion concerning the situation of American women. Hester counsels others of hers sex in regards to their problems: “She assured them of her firm belief that, at some brighter period, when the world would have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed, in order to establish the whole relation between man and woman on a surer ground of mutual happiness” (Hawthorne 166). Such an optimistic outlook from a character makes me as the reader of Hawthorne’s bitter-sweet work appreciate Hester’s role and cause much better. In beginning my thesis, I had mainly seen the novel as Dimmesdale’s desperate struggle and how Pearl rescues him through her prodding. This interpretation was inspired simply because I know what it is like to be a religious individual confused over the matters of my own heart. Hester is confused as well. And yet, her strength in bearing the stigma of the scarlet letter is worthy of praise. I have come to appreciate her strong character in the novel as a result. Her walking forward into the uncertain future regarding the rights of her sex represents another inspiring case of how marginalized individuals can, and will, due to the desires of their heart, challenge the assumptions of their society, pursuing real and praiseworthy change.

 

 

LIST OF WORKS CITED Battan, Jesse F. “‘You Cannot Fix the Scarlet Letter on My Breast!’: Women Reading, Writing, and Reshaping the Sexual Culture of Victorian America.” Journal of Social History 37.3 (2004): 601–624. Print. Baym, Nina. “Revisiting Hawthorne’s Feminism.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 541-558. Print. Bell, Millicent. “The Obliquity of Signs: The Scarlet Letter.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 451-463. Print. Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. H. Beveridge. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter.” http://www.gutenberg.orgfiles/33/33.txt. Web. 27 Feb. 2014. Chaney, Sarah. “‘A Hideous Torture on Himself’: Madness and Self-Mutilation in Victorian Literature.” Journal of Medical Humanities 32.4 (2011): 279–289. Print. Colacurcio, Michael J. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson: The Context of The Scarlet Letter.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 304-331. Print. Daniels, Cindy Lou. “Hawthorne’s Pearl: Woman-Child of the Future.” American Transcendental Quarterly 19.3 (2005): 221–236. Print. Gill, Jo. “The Influence of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter on Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy’.” Notes and Queries 52 (250).1 (2005): 107–108. Print. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings (Norton Critical Editions). 4th revised ed. Ed. Leland S. Person. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print. Herbert, T. Walter, Jr. “Nathaniel Hawthorne, Una Hawthorne, and The Scarlet Letter: Interactive Selfhoods and the Cultural Construction of Gender.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 103.3 (1988): 285–297. Print. Korobkin, Laura Hanft. “The Scarlet Letter of the Law: Hawthorne and Criminal Justice.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 426-451. Print. Leverenz, David. “Mrs. Hawthorne’s Headache: Reading The Scarlet Letter.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 463-481. Print. Levine, Robert S. “Antebellum Feminists on Hawthorne: Reconsidering the Reception of The Scarlet Letter.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 274–290. Print. Norton Critical Editions (Norton Critical Editions). Manheim, Daniel. “Pearl’s Golden Chain in The Scarlet Letter.” Explicator 68.3 (2010): 177–180. Print. Martin, Robert K. “Hester Prynne, C’est Moi: Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Anxieties of Gender.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 512-522. Print. McNamara, Anne Marie. “The Character of Flame: The Function of Pearl in The Scarlet Letter.” American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography 27.4 (1956): 537–553. Print. Person, Leland S. “The Dark Labyrinth of Mind: Hawthorne, Hester, and the Ironies of Racial Mothering.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 656-670. Print. Pringle, Michael. “The Scarlet Lever: Hester’s Civil Disobedience.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 53.1 [206] (2007): 31–55. Print. Ruetenik, Tadd. “Another View of Arthur Dimmesdale: Scapegoating and Revelation in The Scarlet Letter.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 19 (2012): 69–86. Print. Sandeen, Ernest. “The Scarlet Letter as a Love Story.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 77.4 (1962): 425–435. Print. Winship, Michael. “Hawthorne and the ‘Scribbling Women’: Publishing The Scarlet Letter in the Nineteenth-Century United States.” Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings: Authoritative Texts, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Leland S. Person. xv, 744 pp. New York, NY: Norton, 2005. 418-426. Print.

The Conflict between Freedom and Restraint in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

In the last few decades of nineteenth century Victorian England, the moral disposition that Queen Victoria had ushered in with her rule began to be challenged. Individuals questioned the authenticity of morality in both public and private life. It is not a mistake that two literary works close in time, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) both present characters who fail miserably to control the evil inherit in their own hearts.

Stevenson’s work presents a man named Dr. Jekyll who concocts a potion that transforms him into a hideous being: Mr. Hyde. Up to this point, the local officials, including the narrator, Mr. Utterson, have searched for Edward Hyde, wanting to prosecute him for crimes he’s committed in London (the beating of a little girl and murder of an old man). One night, they discover Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Dr. Jekyll’s lab coat, and a slip of paper containing Jekyll’s full confession.

In his narrative, Jekyll explains how he felt with his dual identity:

“Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil besides (which I must still believe to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather a leap of welcome.” (Stevenson 64)

Jekyll has two sides to his personality; on the one hand, his refined, socially accepted persona “shines” with the aura of truth and righteousness that Victorian society so highly esteems. He desires good works for the benefit of the common good. Yet at the same time, this trait may be a mask at best, for his darker instinct, after he takes the potion, is “plainly” discernable. No one can mistake its identity. Its presence is undeniable. But does that mean that Jekyll’s upright character is merely a fabrication to deceive others as to his true intentions? Is Hyde a more accurate manifestation of the doctor’s soul?  If he had been true to his holier side, he would have rejected the monster’s image outright, not “welcome” it as he does. It seems as if Hyde serves as a relief from social responsibilities; after using all his moral energies living up to the expectations of others, he finds pleasure in expressing what he’s kept hidden all along. His “idol” ego, the secret desire to be seen and worshipped by others, runs free at last, ready to experience the world.

Yet the monster leaves an imprint of “decay” on Jekyll’s features, hinting that disastrous consequences await the doctor who has decided to unleash his dark side. Jekyll still believes evil to be “the lethal side of man.” Both his own life and the lives of others soon become victim to the doctor’s wicked half. As his experiments with Hyde increase, Jekyll realizes that the situation has gotten out of hand. Knowing that his reputation as the morally upright doctor is in jeopardy, he seeks to undo what he has done. Jekyll says,

“I led a life of such severity as I had never before attained to, and enjoyed the compensation of an approving conscience. But time at last began to obliterate the freshness of my alarm; the praises of conscience began to grow into a thing of course; I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as if Hyde struggling for freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.” (Stevenson 70)

When Jekyll attempts to repent from his past decisions, he finds that his efforts fail. Though living a more saintly life comforts his conscience, the desires he thought he had obliterated return full force, even stronger than the solace of a guiltless mind. In addition, his moral reformation soon becomes less attractive, a matter “of course.” Living free from remorse becomes a drudgerous, boring routine, exciting no fun in his life. Because of this, Hyde returns to wreak havoc on Jekyll’s life. Over the course of “time,” believes Jekyll, individuals regress back into their sinful ways, no matter how sincere their repentance. Trapped between two competing desires, Jekyll comes to the only conclusion that makes ultimate sense: suicide. He ends his narrative with the phrase, “Here then, as I lay down the pen and proceed to seal up my confession, I bring the life of that unhappy Henry Jekyll to an end” (Stevenson 78). With the singular identity of “Henry Jekyll”, ironically, the depressed doctor struggles to rid himself of what he finds most repugnant even as secretly longs for it: a divided identity. Being hopelessly split in this way, he has no choice but to give up in despair.

Oscar Wilde’s tale of the youthful Dorian Gray is similar to Jekyll’s plight in many respects. Dorian, having a portrait of himself splendidly fashioned by a friend, Basil, wishes that his youth would never end. His desires stem from over-the-table conversations with another acquaintance, Lord Henry. Lord Henry encourages Dorian to view life as a Hedonist; the only aim of life is to live as freely as possible without any regard for morality or social constraint. At first, following Lord Henry’s philosophy proves enjoyable to Dorian but soon has its consequences. In his rush to live as wildly as possible, he breaks the heart of his girlfriend, Sibyll Vane. Sibyll commits suicide as a result, causing Dorian to seriously reflect on his decisions. Though he eventually dismisses his guilt concerning Sibyll, he soon becomes sucked into a whirlwind of licentiousness and debauchery, living like a man with no moral center whatsoever. But the strangest thing is that he never ages as he grows older. His youth remains as fresh as ever, as if he is magically enchanted.

And there soon arises another intriguing mystery for Dorian; Basil’s portrait, once showing Dorian’s beautiful features, now reveals a hideous likeness of Dorian containing putrid flesh and decay. Dorian decides to reveal this unpleasantness to Basil one night. Horrified at what he sees, Basil says, “ ‘Pray, Dorian, pray. What is it that one was taught to say in one’s boyhood? ‘Lead us not into temptation. Forgive us our sins. Wash away our iniquities.’ Let us say that together. The prayer of your pride has been answered. The prayer of your repentance will be answered also’” (Wilde 138).  Basil believes that the portrait serves as a message: Dorian has lived an immoral life and is in need of salvation. His soul is in a corrupt state, destined for eternal damnation. For Basil, salvation is found in Christianity, where an individual repents from their sins and begins pursuing a holier existence. There is confidence in Basil that, though Dorian has indeed lived sinfully, he can just as easily reform his ways and become a better person.

Basil’s solution is so despicable in Dorian’s eyes, however, that he ends up killing Basil for even suggesting it. The narrator describes Dorian’s anger, “The mad passions of a hunted animal stirred within him, and he loathed the man who was seated at the table, more than in his whole life he had ever loathed anything” (Wilde 138-139). Basil’s worldview seeks to hunt down and destroy that which opposes it, naturally engendering anger in what defends it. Dorian seems to suggest that when people are preyed upon due to their natural instincts, they’ll rebel. When individuals are constrained they sense danger and respond in self-defense. Otherwise, they will lose touch with their true selves. Dorian confesses to Basil that there is a “heaven and a hell” in all of us, complimenting Jekyll’s symbolic division with Hyde. He may feel horrified at the portrait’s grotesqueness, but that is not enough to change his mind about how he lives.

Only time will do that, just like time changed the disposition of Jekyll into returning to his sinful slavery. But in Dorian’s case, time leads him, long after Basil’s murder, to reconsider his actions, not to relish them. He even begins to give the Bible credit as he has his final conversation with Lord Henry, blaming him for his destructive philosophy, and warning him with a rhetorical question: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul?” The words of Christ confirm to Dorian that he has been wrong all along, that there are real and lasting consequences to the choices he has made. The young man comes to the conclusion that he must reform himself. At least until the book’s end.

Dorian arrives at the secret chamber where Basil was murdered. He thinks about his decision. The narrator says, “In hypocrisy he had worn the mask of goodness. For curiosity’s sake he had tried the denial of self. He recognized that now. But this murder-was it to dog him all his life? Was he always to be burdened by his past? Was he really to confess? Never” (Wilde 191). After finally assessing his situation, Dorian defends his evil ways: as a respectable man in society he was merely being an untrustworthy hypocrite, saying one thing and doing another. He wasn’t being true to himself. And the only reason he wanted to be good was in hope of possible pleasure, which he never received. Confessing to Basil’s murder would be an insult to his true nature, an insult to why he is the way he is. There is no need for reformation. In his anger, Dorian destroys the picture, for it reminds him of his intolerable secrets. But in so doing, he kills himself, revealing a magical connection between Dorian the portrait and Dorian the actual man. In dismantling the picture, Dorian dismantled his own persona.

What do we glean from both of these literary classics concerning the matter of freedom and restraint? One side stands for the desire to be morally and ethically pure, a blessing not only to one’s own self but also to others. It is one’s duty to be socially responsible and to follow the ways of truth and righteousness. But then again, this quest can grow wearisome to the one who wants to experience life to the fullest, the individual whose only happiness consists in being as free from unnecessary rules as possible. Conflict ensues when desires change, putting people in perpetual mazes. The struggle is desperate. We either accept ourselves as the mysteries we are, or, in our attempt to be singular and perfect, destroy ourselves. Jekyll cannot live without Hyde and vice versa. The only conclusion is that we must learn to live with ourselves, for if we don’t, then we set up our own demise.

The Meaning of the Word “Home” in Toni Morrison’s Home

The issue of social justice involves dilemmas in which individuals struggle to find a sense of place in the modern world. When people suffer at the hands of racial discrimination, one of the few hopes remaining for them lies in finding a sense of community, a place where they no longer face prejudice. In Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, the narrator, Frank, tells of his struggle to leave the burdensome roots of his past in Georgia while trying to find solace in the outside world. The memory of his homeland infuriates him, with its ties to racism. Yet, on the other hand, Frank’s sister, Cee, still lingers in Georgia, for she is ill and in danger of dying. But she also remains in the south because she feels as if it is her mission to help those in need there. Frank, out of a sense of love and obligation towards Cee, returns to his roots, determined to save her. This will set the stage for a kind of racial realization for Frank, in that he discovers that he need not totally abandon his past. Therefore, the novel presents the idea of home as a paradox; while it represents refuge, it also stands as a reminder of things we would rather avoid.

At the novel’s opening, Frank tells the writer that the home in which he and Cee were raised in was a strict familial setting. Frank says, “When we got home we expected to be whipped or at least scolded for staying out so late, but the grown-ups did not notice us. Some disturbance had their attention” (Morrison 5). Absolute control appears to be one of the tenets of Lotus, Georgia, with its insistence that children should obey their elders without question. The kids do not have total liberty as to what they can do. They must still submit, for now, to authority. As they grow older, however, they will come to realize that disobedience to customs results in much worse than simply being punished for something as trivial as being out late; authority, in the Georgia of the past, means obeying the social norms and cues that often put blacks at the bottom of the social ladder.  If blacks refuse to remain “in their place,” attempting to make a name for themselves, then they will suffer chastisement at the hands of society. This is the primary reason Frank desires to leave Lotus for good. No longer does he wish to enslave himself to racists and abusers. Home, for him, lies in being subjugated to pain and misery.

For Frank, home also represents a potential place of perpetual shame, where others criticize him for surviving the perils of war. The narrator says “He didn’t want to go home without his ‘homeboys.’ He was far too alive to stand Mike’s folks or Stuff’s. His easy breath and unscathed self would be an insult to them” (Morrison 15). Frank cannot bring himself back home without the close friends he fought alongside with during the war. Since he grew up in a place where he found at least a few people to get along with (besides Cee), he feels guilty in letting down their loved ones. There lies a bond linking him with his neighbors, creating a moral obligation (on his part) to look after them. Ironically, in this way, home is not a place void of heart, though it may, many times, be a place of persecution. Instead, home can be where you link with those who share similar traits with you, thus engendering a sense of security.

On his way back to Georgia, Frank engages in conversation with a waiter, asking him where he can get something to eat. After mentioning a diner, the waiter says, “These hotels and what you call tourist homes can cost you a pretty penny and they might not let you in with those raggedy galoshes on your feet” (Morrison 25). Though in this instance the concept of home is viewed as a place of luxuriance, the price tag for such an existence limits itself to the rich. And not only does the upper class possess entitlements concerning these places, they usually refuse to open their arms to poor citizens needing their help. They establish a kind of elitism, where only the rich receive the benefits and necessities of life. Even if you’re lucky enough to be admitted in the upper class’s circle, you must present yourself in a certain way, void of any trace of impoverishment. Otherwise, you will be refused admittance. In the case of social justice, this points to the sobering truth that certain individuals in a society, who are not as fortunate as others, must painfully watch as others enjoy the delights of life.  Clearly not everyone in America receives equal benefits to the American Dream. For Frank, the idea that he must be a certain way to inherit a place in the world is despicable. He needs to find a home more easily accessible.

There seem to be those willing to lend a hand to Frank on his travels, demonstrating that home can be a place where people assist you and not reject you based on your own shortcomings. While on his journey, Frank receives assistance from a man named Billy: “’Come on home with me. Stay over. Meet my family” (Morrison 29).  In this example, home need not be confined to your roots or where you’re from; it may even be a place outside your territory, where anyone desires to offer help in a world often plagued by chaos and stressful societal systems. In the hectic life he lives from his turbulent past, both at home and in war, Frank gains assistance from others’ hospitality, the same kind of care his sister Cee shows to her own townsfolk. If individuals break away from the bondage of their roots and into the world, they may very well find a solace in unlikely places. Frank’s new friend, Billy, serves as a temporary safety until he arrives at his “true” home, the place where he was born and raised.

Without a sense of home, neither Frank nor Cee can function in the world. On reading a letter explaining that Cee is dying, Frank reflects on the situation: “If the letter writer, Sarah, couldn’t help nor her boss either, well, she must be withering away far from home” (Morrison 34). The word “home” in this phrase signals Cee herself, her own personal being. To wither away from home is to lose yourself to death. Cee, in a desperate situation, struggles to remain alive, to live purposefully. Unlike Frank, she desires to live in Lotus, Georgia still, so that she may help those who struggle. But to do so, she must rely on her own inner strength and resolve. Her own compassion and love are her “home,” the source where she derives all her moral fiber. Her spirit, being the seat of her affections, creates the kind of peace others need. From the inward being spring all human emotions, whether they are meant for ill or prosperity. One of the pursuits of the modern human is identity: what does it entail, exactly? Is it a matter of race, creed, or social class? Or is it something that cannot be seen with the naked eye? For Cee, her identity is found in her home: her heart.

Frank and Cee grow up in harsh conditions, a home void of care and affection. Their guardian, Lenore, abuses Frank and Cee on a daily basis. She could care less for their welfare. Frank remembers: “Lenore was the wicked witch. Frank and Cee, like some forgotten Hansel and Gretel, locked hands as they navigated the silence and tried to imagine a future” (Morrison 53). The classic story of Hansel and Gretel involves a witch wanting to kill two wandering children. If Lenore had her way completely, she would be no less kind than the witch. Her duties and obligations put a strain of Frank and Cee. So burdened are the two kids that they imagine a future in which they can find a more stable sense of community. The “silence” refers to the failure of others to respond to Lenore’s cruelty. No one gives the children any voice. In regards to social justice, individuals use the power of imagination and fairy tales to reveal to readers just how blight their current conditions are. Fiction functions as a means for Frank to show the reader just how desperate his and Cee’s situation is. His narrative brings awareness that justice is wanting in a community that seems to have everything together.

Even when Frank leaves Lotus, Georgia and escapes from the clutches of Lenore, he ends up in a domestic situation that is hardly better. Home stands for the adult Frank as a place of shattered relationships. Lily, Frank’s wife, loses her connection with her husband since he wants to go back to Georgia to save Cee. The narrator says, “The multiple times she came home to find him idle again, just sitting on the sofa staring at the rug, were unnerving” (Morrison 80). Lost in his own fears, Frank fails to effectively communicate with Lily. As a result, a gap grows in their affection towards one another. As much as home can be a place of harmony, it can also serve as a stage of discord. Despite Lily’s attempts to restore the relationship, Frank fails to respond. One reason for the difficulty in establishing social justice lies in the family’s failure to function. When communities no longer provide a place where relationships can be built, humans become isolated from each other, harboring distaste and dissatisfaction with one another. And without a stable bond linking people together, the more difficult achieving justice becomes.

The freedom Frank and Cee ultimately need consists in them having the liberty to define who they are without heeding the advice of others. Only then can they gain a sense of identity in a changing world. Ethel, a lady who helps Frank take care of Cee, talks to her about the importance of following one’s dreams and desires: “I seen how you tagged along with your brother. When he left you ran off with that waste of the Lord’s air and time. Now you back home. Mended finally, but you might just run off again. Don’t tell me you’re gonna let Lenore decide who you are?” (Morrison 125). Cee has arrived back “home” in that she is now in a position to change her life for the better. But until she let’s go of the past and realize that Lenore did nothing for her will she truly become a woman. Until she develops a sense of self-esteem will she truly embrace her individual talents and liberties. Home is the place where she can be at one not only with Frank but with herself. And likewise for Frank, he can move from the past and realize that it only served to bring him where he is today. When they look back at the racism and abuse they suffered, all the cruelty and malignance, they need not be weighed down by its scars; they move forwards towards their real home: their future.

As I personally gain a sense of awareness of social justice and how the issues surrounding it affect me, I realize that I, too, have a major role to play. Understanding my own white race’s history with blacks humbles me to acknowledge that we all carry prejudice of one sort or another. Blacks would admit the same. Yet we can all move on from the past and seek to establish loving relations towards one another. When we work together and realize that we are each a mystery to be solved, we’ll come to understand the ultimate meaning of home: a place where you belong, without any unnecessary judgment of any kind.

WORKS CITED

            Morrison, Toni. Home.  New York: Vintage Books A Division of Random House, Inc. 2012. Print.

The American Dream

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published in the 1920’s, the jazz age of America. One critic has noted that at the time “gin and sex were the national obsession.” Americans chased whatever gave them happiness (as they still do today). If it felt good at the time, it was deemed acceptable, whether morally correct or not. The novel is told from the viewpoint of a first person narrator named Nick, a man trying to make a living in America. Nick relates some events that transpired around Long Island, New York, events that would affect him deeply. None of the events concern him, however, but other characters instead.

Rich Jay Gatsby entertains thousands with his luxuriant parties and festivities. Nick attends each nightly revel, celebrating the endless varieties of entertainment available to the visitors. Nick looks for Gatsby, wishing to meet him, for he was invited to attend the parties by Gatsby himself. When Nick finally meets the famous man, he is charmed by Gatsby’s kind disposition. But he doesn’t manage to learn much about Gatsby; there is mystery still. Until, that is, one day when Gatsby decides to take Nick with him in the city, introducing him to new people and places. Nick learns that Gatsby has had an interesting history, one involving war and adventure. He didn’t start out as rich but made his way to the top, though many suspect him of being a bootlegger (a person smuggling profitable alcohol into the market during the time of Prohibition).  

By talking to a girl named Jordan, Nick learns that Gatsby is in love with Daisy, a rich lady who lives across form Gatsby’s mansion. Gatsby has been throwing his parties, not so much for the rich public, but for Daisy, in the hope that she will visit him. Gatsby has a romantic history with Daisy, back in the time he was off to fight in World War I. But there is a huge problem; Daisy is currently married to a snob named Tom. Tom cheats on Daisy on a regular basis with another lady in the slums of New York, where poor workers labor under the eyes of Dr. Eckelberg (a street sign showing a large pair of blue eyes under wire spectacles). Daisy, in spite of the fact she’s married to Tom, decides to elope with Gatsby. Nick suddenly finds himself in a whirlwind of passion and deception, being the narrator who sees all these things transpire right in front of his eyes.  

Tom notices Daisy’s attraction to Gatsby and tries to insult him by questioning his roots. One afternoon, Gatsby leaves with Daisy in his yellow car, while Tom rides away with Nick and Jordan. As the night progresses, Nick learns that the girl Tom was seeing was killed by Gatsby’s car, putting her husband, Wilson, into a state of perpetual grief. Nick finds Gatsby, infuriated at him for hiding from the police. But Gatsby reveals that it was Daisy who drove his car out of control. Tom puts Wilson on the track of Gatsby, lying to him about what an evil man Gatsby is. Wilson murders Gatsby outside his mansion and commits suicide. Demoralized by the fact Daisy turns back to Tom for security, Nick concludes that they both “were careless people,” people who destroyed lives and left others to clean up their messes.

The novel ends by mentioning the green light; throughout the book, Nick notices Gatsby reaching towards the light, longing for Daisy. Over the years, literary critics suggest that the green light is a symbol for desire itself, or, more in the context of America, “The American Dream.” The United States presents an ideal, that humans can pursue any road they choose to, that they can live happy and fulfilling lives. What this means is different for different people. For Nick, it is a much needed job, for Gatsby, Daisy, for Tom, women in general, and for Wilson’s wife, the desire to escape a poor existence. It seems that Fitzgerald wants the reader to see that desire does not always pay off in the end; by pursuing a dangerous female, Gatsby endangers his life and ultimately pays a heavy price. But for Gatsby, nothing could be more important than reclaiming the past and an existence full of sweetness. Gatsby is essentially chasing his dreams, fully confident he will succeed. I enjoy seeing the novel this way. It teaches me that, even if what you desire is risky, it’s much better to have something to live for than hide in safety all your life. We all must take a risk in life eventually. Otherwise, have we truly lived? And relying on wisdom isn’t always the best, seeing as conventional wisdom tends to differ among many people. One must decide for themselves what is best. 

The book may also question as to whether or not God exists for our favor. The eyes of Eckelberg have come to allude to God Himself. But the eyes on the sign simply watch. There is no sense that justice has been executed by God by the end of the novel since Tom and Daisy triumph in their foolishness. The world Fitzgerald presents is a world of capitalism, one where competition rules and each person must fend for themselves. But this seems to be more of a plight for the poor than the rich. Fitzgerald may be questioning capitalistic society, whether or not sprawling business is worth it in the end. Or, whether or not it is a just system for Americans. On the other hand, since Gatsby has a generous heart towards others, Fitzgerald may be presenting an uncommon view of the rich; they are well mannered and fair. This view most likely will not fly with the poor. The rich are often seen as corrupt and maniacal. Either way, the reader has liberty to interpret what they will and conclude accordingly. 

The reason Fitzgerald’s novel is a classic is that it presents a historical, distinctly American era that universally resonates with us still. Issues concerning the rich and poor have never been more prevalent, and in a failing economy, the question as to whether the American Dream needs to be evaluated still lingers. In the end, though, humans will still pursue their dreams, no matter what the cost.  

Social Decadence in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities

The French Revolution stands as one of the most significant moments in the history of the western world.  In the late eighteenth century, the people of France fiercely rebel against the authority of Louis XVI, an authority they deem corrupt. The revolution slowly makes its way to the forefront of the country, and, until Napoleon assumes power, will dominate the climate of France in every way.  The British novelist Charles Dickens takes the liberty to illustrate his views of the revolution in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. As the revolution’s beginning stages are developing, Charles Darnay, a man tied to an evil aristocracy in France, is arrested for his connection to the condemned ruling class. His punishment consists of being beheaded by the vicious, but ever-popular guillotine. Lucie, Charles’ wife, can only despair and watch her husband die early. But Sydney Carton, a drunken lawyer who is also in love with Lucie, decides to make a bold move; he switches places with Charles and sacrifices himself to the dreaded punishment.  As a result, Dickens preaches that love will outweigh any revolutionary effort, but not until he has had his say about the revolution’s inherent corruption. Throughout the novel, Dickens criticizes both the abuses of the French ruling class as well as the revolutionaries who caused so much chaos trying to stop them. 

            Troubles begin for France whenever a nasty national debt arises in the country, sometime around 1789. This debt is mostly due to the fact that France had financially assisted the American colonists against the British crown during the American Revolution.  The French citizens are now left with the burden of paying unnecessary taxes.  Dickens describes this financial state in the early pages of his novel when he famously talks about the “best of times and the worst of times:” “France, less favoured on the whole as to matters spiritual than her sister of the shield and trident, rolled with exceeding smoothness down hill, making paper money and spending it (Dickens 7).  Compared with Great Britain, the French ruling class has been abusive in financial matters. The “smoothness” of their spending suggests that they hardly take any consideration as to how their spending will affect their people. They recklessly use money for their own pleasure and all the while going “downhill” on a moral level.  Such abuses call out for reform to the struggling and impoverished French men, women, and children.  These financial matters lead to burdensome taxations, which usually take around ten to fifteen percent of a peasant’s gross product (Doyle 11).  How can people be expected to make a living if taxes drastically take every penny that they own? The fact that the ruling class imposes this tax seems to be a slap in the face.  The poor, meaning those without adequate employment or other assured means of support, number at the best of times one-third of the population: eight million people (Doyle 14).  Dickens even goes out of his way to emphasize the results of poverty a tourist would behold: “Hunger was pushed out of the tall houses…Hunger was the inscription on the baker’s shelves…” (Dickens 33).un ger HungerHH  With so many people struggling with unfair taxes and starvation, it is only a matter of time before a revolution is sparked in the nation.  People demand a system that addresses reform for France, and Dickens agrees with such thoughts.

            If a person doesn’t pay their taxes, then they are sent from their impoverished farm to an even more impoverished jailhouse.  Prison systems in France are terribly handled in how they are constructed, leading to the misery of prisoners.  Dickens describes a typical jail in France as to its living conditions: “…gloomy vaults where the light of day had never shone…hideous doors of dark dens and cages…” (Dickens 215).  The words “gloomy,” “hideous,” and “dark” not only capture the tone of melancholy in the chapter, but also explain the dismal atmosphere that prisoners are subject to by the ruling authorities.  The prison vaults are not the happiest places to live in to say the least: they have little food and water to sustain their subjects and sleeping in a decent place is simply an illusion.  There could very well be diseases brooding in such ill kept dungeons, probably killing the prisoners off sooner.  Louis XVI exercises his tyranny by making rebellious prisoners suffer as much as possible for wanting to a new society to arise in the name of liberty and justice.  Whether or not the crimes are actual conspiracies against authoritarian abuse doesn’t matter; if you are a suspect, then you’re thrown into whatever dark pit the king sees fit.  In 1842, Dickens publishes “American Notes” in which he condemns the prison system in America.  This piece of non-fiction becomes one of his inspirations for the harsh details of prison life in A Tale of Two Cities.  Prison life is unfathomable; “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers… (Cotsell 27).  To endure the king’s wrath takes endurance that is not common to a human and not for a short time either. Why should people be subject to such torture?  Suffering already becomes the reason why people resort to crime to feed their families.  Yet the efforts fail, and, as a result, they suffer more than ever before.  Those who would rebel against Louis XVI cry out for a more humane and charitable society, one founded on human rights.            

            But Louis XVI ignores the pleas of the people, even going as far as to subject them to forced labor.  Doctor Manette, Lucie’s father, has a secret that is revealed during the trial that sentences Charles Darnay to the guillotine.  He recounts a tale in which a dying young man is telling him about the harsh abuses of the nobility: “…obliged to work for him without pay, obliged to grind our corn at his mill…and forbidden for our lives to keep a single tame bird of our own” (Dickens 323).  The people are virtual animals of the French nobility; not only are they required working for countless hours, but they can’t even keep their own earnings.  Those in power reap all the benefits that the lower classes produce, a very unfair system.  The people are in desperate need of the right to have their own property.  The nobility have become tyrants over the actual living of French subjects.  This forced labor even goes so far as to become slavery.  Slavery exists through many parts of France, unlike Great Britain, which begins to outlaw the institution during the late 1700’s.  France holds several colonies outside of the country, such as the Caribbean, amounting to a total of five-hundred thousand slaves that are responsible for transporting sugar (HistoryWiz).  The institution of slavery, though cruel and inhumane in many ways, provides France with a power structure in the world, particularly against their enemy, England.  But the French do not put up with these abuses for long. Efforts are made to abolish slavery in France.  Blacks from around France send their petitions for freedom to the National Assembly; however, even though blacks have support in the National Assembly, the revolutionaries are not behind the cause all too much.  Slavery slowly makes its way out of France, but not through easy solutions.  Dickens opens people’s eyes to a very real historical problem in that of slavery, one which, in the eyes of the people, ought to give way for African Americans to have as much civil liberties as their white counterparts.       

Even religion is susceptible to abuses in eighteenth century France, for the corrupt ruling class steeps itself in traditional Christian practices.  Dickens describes a character by the name of Monseigneur Evremonde, who is related to Charles Darnay.  He abuses the citizens of France, even leaving the scene of an accident involving his carriage running over an innocent child in the street.  Yet how the man is portrayed is significant: “‘The earth and the fullness thereof are mine, saith Monseigneur’” (Dickens 106).  This statement is originally applied to God in the Psalms of the King James Version of the Holy Bible.  Therefore, Dickens implies that France has a nobility that is reverenced even for their pious religiosity. But in the second half of the century, the citizens of France begin to lose their trust in religious authority.  The Church oversteps its boundaries with the people in ways that become problematic in nature.  Most of the criticism directed towards the church comes from The Philosophies such as Denis Diderot (Betros).  Religious matters, according to these writers, should be based more on reason and not superstitions and theological matters that serve no purpose for the country.  It seems as if the Church does not have valid concerns for France, even though the French satirist Voltaire commends nuns for their charity to the sick and the poor (Betros).  True religion, according to the revolutionaries, ought to be a matter for claiming civil rights and equality for man and women of all ages. Failure to do so only serves to show the Church’s hypocrisy.  There is also the troubling fact that religious authorities hold around six percent of the land, leaving people with less space to have farms and homes of their own (Betros).  Why does the Church claim love yet take as much land form the needy as possible? Do they not care for those who struggle under tyranny?  Balance between religion and secular life becomes the ideal that the revolutionaries will follow as they rebel against Louis XVI, though there will be a tendency to push religion further away from life later on in French history.         

When the people have been oppressed for too long, then they begin to rise and rally to further their cause of liberty.  This rebellion in France results in mob violence that horrifies Dickens.  He describes the chaos that erupts when the citizens of France come together in their wrath: “Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it” (Dickens 212).  Ironically, even though the people are rebelling in the name of liberty and prosperity, their actions are so violent that innocent lives are swept away in their fury.  The people only serve to increase the pain that Louis XVI brought upon the people due to his own tyranny.  “Demented” is the word that expresses Dickens’ emotions about the revolt; it is chaotic in nature and at its worst, demonic.  People are not acting according to Enlightenment values of reason and respect but rather like animals.  The word “sacrifice” sounds patriotic, yet in this context, sacrificing has nothing to do with honorable intentions but meaningless bloodshed. “Passionate” describes the misplaced zeal the people have for a revolution. It would be more pure, according to Dickens, if it wasn’t so violent. But as things stand, the revolution has gotten out of control.  Thomas Carlyle, a deep inspiration Dickens has to write A Tale of Two Cities, describes how the people come together to rage: “Raging multitudes surround the Hotel de Ville crying ‘Arms! Orders!’” (Carlyle 187).  The people’s strength comes from their large numbers, and their strategy is to rush straight towards the people they despise so much and get rid of them.  A new order must be imposed, and an attempt is made to ratify a new constitution for France. The ruling class does not stand a chance against this new brute strength. But the revolt is mindless all the same.  Dickens would rather the people work out a peaceable solution to reform, for he is always an opponent of mob violence. 

The storming of the Bastille, France’s most important prison system, often serves as a picture of the people’s violence during the French Revolution.  There are a variety of reasons the people wish to take over the Bastille; one is so prisoners who are not guilty can be free as well getting their hands on any stored weaponry they can handle in order to increase the power of their rebellion. Dickens condemns the harsh rioting when he speaks of the chaos that ensues at the Bastille: “‘The Prisoners The Records! The secret cells! The instruments of torture! The Prisoners…the billows rolled pass, threatening death if any secret nook remained undisclosed” (Dickens 214).  The people are running through the streets of Versailles, shouting cries of reform, yet they oddly punish anyone who gets in their way. The “billow” comparison allows the reader to visualize a sea that is raging on a shore; the people propel themselves to the Bastille, climbing over its walls and slaughtering the soldiers who stand guard to protect it.  The persons that eventually take over the Bastille number to around nine-hundred and fifty-five citizens (Godechot 221).  Though the prison system is guarded by a number of cannon systems that flank the walls, the people still manage to siege the Bastille (Godechot 218).  Such a victory for the revolutionaries gives them an insurmountable advantage over the ruling class. But at the same time, they have become just as vicious as their oppressors.  What will keep them from tyrannizing the people who they deemed as evil now that the weapons are in their hands? Dickens is not convinced of any innocence regarding this monumental rebellion.

The people’s fanaticism begins to rise to a destructive pitch in that the guillotine becomes the sole instrument for punishing people that are deemed treacherous to the progress of the Revolution.  Charles Darnay, by attempting to stand up for a friend in France, ends up being arrested by the revolutionaries.  Because he is tied to the ruling class that gave France so much trouble, he is sentenced to death by the guillotine (even though he has avoided being sentenced to death twice).  Dickens describes the immanency of death in France: “Six tumbrils carry the day’s wine to la Guillotine. All the devouring and insatiate Monsters imagined since imagination could record itself are fused in one realisation, Guillotine” (Dickens 367).  The “day’s wine” is the general service France receives each day, services that are supposed to be seen by the revolutionaries as ample patriotic acts. But Dickens refers to the guillotine as a “Monster” that is so demonic that even the mind cannot conceive of its horrors.  They cannot even be “recorded” in history since history has never witnessed bloodshed on such a monumental level before.  All of life ends up leading to death for anyone opposed to the reforms in France, so one must be careful of whom one crosses.  Yet the violence is so widespread that avoiding being labeled as a traitor is almost impossible.  One such person who serves in using the guillotine is Robespierre.  Robespierre has considerable political influence in France to the point to where he is able to assemble his own squad of people to further the violence.  Robespierre’s legacy is famously referred to as “The Reign of Terror.”  Thousands of royalists, bourgeoisie, moderates, and even a few of the revolutionaries themselves are beheaded (Streich).  Among the many people executed is Louis the XVI himself and his wife Marie Antoinette.  Marie will die shortly after her husband, after being mocked by the torturers. The reason was that she is claimed to have told the people to “eat grass” as a response to their needs. In 1794 however, Robespierre’s regime will come to a halt. Most scholars speculate that his downfall results from his having no strong base of support; he has no generals or army men to further his causes of revolution (Streich).  Yet even though the vengeful politician is out of the scene, the damage has been done. It is estimated that thousands died due to the guillotine under Robespierre.  For Dickens, how can the revolutionary cause be seen as a positive change of realities when clearly there is only more despair and bloodshed? 

Even women take their share in the French Revolution in order to create more equality for females everywhere.  British writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft have already argued for women’s rights and the movements of feminism spread to France over the years.  Compared to Great Britain, women gain rights quicker, for France, overall, is more liberal than England at the time.  In fact, England grows distrustful of French women and men for their violent tendencies to untraditional liberties. Females in the eyes of Charles Dickens can sometimes be seen as vicious women furthering a destructive cause.  One character in the novel, Madame Defarge, helps the Frenchmen storm the Bastille and murder as many enemies as possible with a deadly knife.  She exemplifies the typical female revolutionist: “…she did not often make mistakes against herself in any of the reckonings over which she presided” (Dickens 35).  Women have more control over matters than they have had in the past. The furor of women to rebel against the ruling class is so that they can have equal rights.  In this sense, they mirror the efforts of African Americans to have their own freedom.  Their main goal is to halt the ant-revolutionary efforts of the royalists, who want the people to remain loyal to the French crown (Rose). The numbers are against the ruling class and they can only sit and wait as their absolutist society is dragged down by both men and women.  Madame Defarge becomes a symbol of women who rebel in France; when the revolution first breaks out, militant women storm Versailles on October 5th, 1789, armed with murderous clubs and pickaxes (Rose).  They are no longer seen as inferior to men in the act of causing and leading a revolution. Anyone who is ready to revolt against Louis XVI is more than welcome to do so.  The French Revolution marks the beginning of political organizations for women, such as The Society of Revolutionary Republican Women (Rose).  Yet with all the “progress” for women’s rights, why resort to cruel measures whenever women themselves sometimes complain about harsh abuses from males (at least in Dickens’ view). Dickens would rather women to hold to the old code of womanhood in that a woman should be peaceable and gentle to her fellow man, like Lucie Darnay, and not in the excessive revenge as Madame Defarge.

So if the ruling class, with its insistence on order and stability, creates a hell for the people of France through vile abuses, and the revolutionaries rebel with violent revenge, how can there be any positive change? There is only continual death, symbolized by the Guillotine. Yet Dickens believes he has found a solution to the problem France faces: Love. Only love can be the bond that unites people in the name of peace, prosperity and happiness. To illustrate this view, Dickens gives the reader Sydney Carton, the drunkard who sacrifices himself due to his love for Lucie Darnay.  He takes Charles Darnay’s place in punishment by disguising himself as Lucie’s husband. Lucie gives him a farewell kiss, blessing him for his deep generosity.  Dickens imagines Sydney giving a final epitaph: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known” (Dickens 372).  Sydney makes up for his drunken lifestyle by his love for Lucie and all the people of both France and Great Britain. He also holds a view that makes its way into many of Dickens’ novels: the theme of religion. In this case, Dickens preaches the doctrine of the resurrection, in that souls are made eternal and will rise once again. This occurs through the love of God Himself.  When one loves their neighbor, they possess a power far greater than any revolution.  What Sydney does is “better” in that it avoids needless abuses and bloodshed. The French Revolution need never have happened if people had been willing to care about one another; the ruling class would have governed with respect and dignity, and the subjects wouldn’t have resorted to extreme measures to insure the demands of justice.  When humans fail to see one another as important as themselves, then war and despair will be their only consolation.       

Works Cited

Betros, Gemma. “The French Revolution and the Catholic Church.” History Today.com. History Today Ltd., 2010. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.

Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Print.

Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004. Print.

Dickens, Charles. “The Solitary Prisoner from American Notes.” Critical Essays on Charles Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Ed. Michael A. Cotsell. New York: G.K. Hall and Co., 1998. 23-32. Print.

Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. Print.

Godechot, Jacques. The Taking of the Bastille July 14th, 1789. Trans. Jean Stewart. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. Print.

Rose, R.B. “Feminism, Women, and The French Revolution.” Australian Journal of Politics and History 40. Supplement s1 (1994): 173-186. John Wiley and Sons, Ltd. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.

Streich, Michael. “The Reign of Terror in the French Revolution.” Suite101.com Suite101.com Media Inc. 2 Jul. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2012.