Book review: The Scarlet Letter

“Truth is to power what fire is to wax, that’s why power and truth are mortal enemies,” says Bangambiki Habyarimana, a Rwandan author of the book, Pearls of Eternity.

The book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is concerned with the relationship between these two adversaries, in whose battle we see inflict untold suffering upon the secrets-bearer when truth is subdued and power dominates, in the same way that freedom is the prize if truth wins.

The Scarlet Letter opens in the summer of 1642 in Boston, and is narrated in a third-person voice some two hundred years later, based upon inherited information. It is a time when the Massachusetts Bay Colony is of severe Puritan character, in which law and religion are indivisible, so that what is construed as sin is a naturally punishable offence. Against this backdrop a married woman, Hester Prynne, conceives a baby out of wedlock. Her sentence is to endure three hours of public ignominy on a scaffold in the heart of the market-place, and then to wear a scarlet letter “A” upon her breast for the rest of her life. Despite intense pressure to declare the name of the child’s father, she remains defiantly resistant.

Standing in the mid-day sun before the critical, grim judgement of the city’s inhabitants, Hester catches sight of her legally-wedded husband watching her from amidst the crowd. Two years ago, Roger Chillingworth, a scholar and physician had sent his beautiful wife from Amsterdam to Massachusetts to establish station, following their decision to emigrate, while he was himself delayed to attend to certain affairs. When he realises the nature of his spouse’s crime, as he enters the town, Roger Chillingworth is sworn to exact revenge — not on the fallen woman, but her accomplice.

Through a dramatic device the physically misshapen intellect unearths that the perpetrator of his wife’s temptation is a young, high revered minister of the parish, Arthur Dimmesdale. But, instead of publishing the sinner’s disgrace, Chillingworth perceives that the real agony of sin for the much-loved Reverend lies in the dread of its discovery.

In elegant, albeit rather dense, prose, Hawthorne describes the inmost condition of each of the four characters: Hester Prynne, (her daughter) Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. The action of the book rests not in incident but in the gradual manifestation of the people in the tale until they become totally transparent. We are asked to regard less of the plot and more of the substance, which skilfully finds semblance with our own most intimate nature under each circumstance.

The narrative crosses seven years, during which we read Hester’s thoughts as a pariah of society, watch little Pearl’s elfish, wayward growth, witness Dimmesdale’s rapidly withering health, under a cocktail of Chillingworth’s medicinal care and insidious psychological torture.

Towards the conclusion of the story, Hawthorne engages in the discourse of whether “hatred and love be not the same thing at the bottom.” He contends that each involves a high degree of heart-knowledge, each renders one party dependent for emotional sustenance upon another, and each leaves the lover/hater desolate by the other’s withdrawal.

At the end, this is a romance, whose form assumes the spontaneity of a flower unfolding from a force within, with a moral significance in which we learn that a sinner — rather than live a life of saintly deeds, or scourge himself — should be true, and openly accept his shame, otherwise be subjected to the power not only of those who take the law into their own hands, but also that in the load of secret guilt within his own heart.

Review: A Canary for One

We all know he is a deceptively spare writer — Ernest Hemingway. The famous six-word fiction: For sale, baby shoes, never worn has been largely ascribed to him. And his complete collection of short stories, comprising 71 stout-hearted vignettes, is spread over just 650 pages.

This brevity is never diminutive in substance. It was Hemingway who coined the Iceberg Theory, the idea in which only one-eighth of the iceberg is shown to the reader, while the knowledge of the story that does not make it to the page forms the bulk of the iceberg.

In A Canary for One the bulk of the iceberg is a great unspoken irony that, deliciously revealed only in the last sentence, glows from amidst symbolisms of freedom and prejudice and relationships and reflections.

The tale follows an American male narrator, as he travels on an overnight train across France with his American wife and a fellow American woman-passenger. The middle-aged stranger shows off her caged-canary, which she bought from Palermo for her daughter who, back home in New York, has been nursing a broken heart ever since the mother tore her away from her Swiss boyfriend. “No foreigner can make an American girl a good husband,” the elder-lady is convinced. “Americans make the best husbands.”

Hemingway is a master of the metaphor. It is the instrument that hints at the leviathan beneath the surface. He uses the canary as a figure of speech here not merely for the young, unhappy woman robbed of her liberty to love, but simultaneously for the mother imprisoned in her own biases.

In an ingenious stroke, the author makes the latter vaguely deaf, an expression of an infirmity, if not to her child’s feelings, then to her own coloured views. And, despite an ostensible capacity to hear the bird singing, she is oblivious to what dynamic is reverberating between her companions.

As the train races through the night towards its destination, we realise (on hindsight) that the American couple, too, are trapped in the inexorable passage towards their marital predicament. Throughout the journey, no character is granted any reprieve.

But Hemingway is not interested in reprieves. Even the landscape past which the narrative careens grows more scarred by signs of crises. The story opens with the image of a wholesome house with a garden and tables in the shade, but soon brings us to witness a farmhouse on fire, bedding and things spread in the fields, before we encounter three rail-cars involved in a wreck.

Published in 1927 A Canary for One has been suggested by Hemingway scholars to echo the writer’s own personal life; for it was the same year when his marriage with Hadley Richardson came to an end. The notion this piece had been intended as an irony leads one to believe Hemingway had attributed the matrimonial rupture to himself — a poignant (probably honest) exercise in self-reflection and blame.

Like his other fiction A Canary for One is a substantive work that achieves multitudes through minimalism. Maximalism does not require copiousness; just think about the iceberg under the water.