The Scarlet Letter, as I said in earlier post, shocked me when I first read it. The minister! No way! But by the time I was teaching it in the first decade of the 21st century, my students were not surprised at all; in fact, they were predicting it practically from the opening pages. And why not? They'd come of age in a culture full of news stories about philandering clergy; they'd watched countless movies and TV shows in which the preacher/priest/whatever was just about always the Guilty Guy. So the trembling Arthur Dimmesdale, to them, was practically wearing a (red) (neon) sign that proclaimed: I'M THE GUY! I'M PEARL'S FATHER! HESTER AND I DID IT!
|Back at Adams, 2004|
There is a moment in the novel that affected me deeply, every time I taught the book--every time I even think about the moment, actually. It's near the end. Hester and Arthur are in the woods, where Hester has surprised him on his return from a mission. Pearl in running around playing, being a pain (as usual). Hester is urging Arthur to leave Boston--why hang around and suffer? He sort of whines and whimpers. "Do anything, save to lie down and die!" she tells him. "Give up the name of Arthur Dimmesdale, and make thyself another .... Up, and away!"
He whimpers some more. Then says: "There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone!" A pause. Then "Alone, Hester!"
"'Thou shalt not go alone!' answered she, in a deep whisper.
Then, all was spoken!"
I got goose flesh every time I read that scene, every time we read the moment aloud in class. What a gesture! To see--in the depths of your despair, in the hopelessness you feel--a hand reaching for you, a voice saying "Thou shalt not go alone!"
I told my students, every year: "You will never read a better definition of love."
By the time the students got to that moment, they were pretty involved with the story--even though, as I said, they had known for many pages about fornicating Arthur. But the problem for all teachers of the novel is the "Custom House" section that comprises thirty-eight pages in the edition we used. Thirty-eight pages! I tried all sorts of things to enliven those pages, which, on multiple readings, I actually found entertaining. Not so my students. The sentences are long, labyrinthine, dense, sophisticated, chockablock with vocabulary they don't know (truculency, rankling, besom, and on and on).
And so I tried reading it aloud. I tried giving certain kids responsibility for certain pages to explain to the rest of us. I tried skipping all but the part toward the end where the narrator discovers the scarlet letter upstairs in the Custom House. I tried assigning it like any other text--"Read this; quiz tomorrow." Nothing really worked. The last time I taught the book--the fall of 2010--I divided pages among the kids, had them deal with those pages only. I'm not sure how valuable it was, but it surely made the section go more quickly ...