The Scarlet Letter Lecture


Good Afternoon, Jonathan. I understand that you missed my lecture about the Puritans and their relationship to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Is that right?

Yes, that is why I am here Mrs. Sabraw.

Great. Do you have your notebook and materials to take notes?

Yes, I do.

OK. To begin, the Puritans were a religious group whose beliefs originated from the teachings of a Swiss minister, John Calvin.

I know.

In England, members of the Church of England who believed that the Puritans’s views were too extreme  abused them.

Yeah, I know.

Wow. You know quite a bit for someone in the 11th grade whose main focus is girls. Well, in 1642 a group of Puritans left England after its friends were tortured for their religious zeal. They had been branded with B’s for Blasphemy, had their noses slit and parts of their ears cut off. The Puritans, such as John Winthrop, were willing to risk scurvy and beriberi in the long and arduous trip to avoid such torture.

I know.

We are going to be reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter which tells the story of a puritan community in which the minister has an affair with a married woman and they produce Pearl, their impish odd daughter who dresses in scarlet clothing and asks pertinent questions and thinks critically.

Yeah, I know this.

Hmmm..I imagine that if Pearl were going to school here in California, she would be GATE identified; that is, she would be a mentally gifted minor, an avid reader, and terrific critical thinker who would perform at the top of her class.

I know.

But Alas, Pearl will be insecure and worried about her place in the world, not just because she is the product of her parents’ sin, but because she is so smart. Often times really smart people live with a profound sense of insecurity because (Now, Jonathan, I want you to listen really hard here) they know what they don’t know, as Socrates expressed, and that fact creates an awe about the entire life experience, a respect for all who have been and all who will come after us.

Yeah, I knew that too.

The children who teased Pearl were average human beings who felt A-OK about life because they thought they knew it all.

I know.

So, to wind up my lecture, Jonathan, the point of it all is that sometimes torture over beliefs causes people to leave their comfort zone and venture into new territory. Often, great authors decide to personalize those harrowing journeys in fiction. One such author was Hawthorne who wrote The Scarlet Letter in 1850 and created one of the strongest female characters in American literature. I just wanted you to know that I know that you know all of this material before you start the book.

I know.

About Cheri

Writer, artist, cable television host, grandmother to four!
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20 Responses to The Scarlet Letter Lecture

  1. Davis says:

    oh, how I long for my days in college…

  2. andreaskluth says:

    What a wonderful way of framing the book and our relationship to it.

    I am going far back in my memory to recall the details.

    You are setting up Pearl, born out of a transgression and singularly (+ scandalously) discriminating and sharp, as a Puritan Socrates, “born” out of a Delphic Oracle that told him there was none wiser and singularly (+scandalously) discriminating and sharp.

    Pearl/Socrates as the truth-loving individualistic misfits; Puritan Massachusetts/Athens as oppressive “know-it-all” conformism.

    Above all the irony that most people reading the book, by statistical necessity, will be Puritans/Athenians (“I know”) rather than Pearls/Socrates (“But why?”)

    • Cheri says:

      Most people I teach are the Puritan/Athenian model, as you call it.

      Wish I could go back and teach the novel using Socrates, but my public school days are over.

  3. Glorybelle says:

    This post makes me want to read The Scarlett Letter again. It has been decades!

    I like what you said in the last paragraph of your entry, “Often, great authors decide to personalize those harrowing journeys in fiction.”

    I have so much inner angst, pain and pent up emotion that stems from my childhood and someday I will be brave enough to write about it all – fictitiously, of course. Even if no one ever reads it, writing it will help me move on.

    I’ll be visiting the library today. 🙂

    • Cheri says:

      Writing is a painful way to release pain without the cost of a therapist (who are usually dealing with their own pain…_

      You can be brave, Glorybelle!

  4. Christopher says:

    That “……..really smart people …….know what they don’t know…….” was obviously known also by Donald Rumsfeld, who famously said “……there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know…….”

    When I went to (high) school, a girl like Pearl who was “……an avid reader, and terrific critical thinker who would perform at the top of her class………” was shunned by boys because they only liked “dumb” girls.

    Thus smart girls, wishing to have boyfriends (didn’t they all?) acted “dumb” when with boys. I’m not sure that this dynamic has entirely gone away. But you’ll know better than I (me).

    Yours is a terrific introduction to “The Scarlet Letter”, which I’ve never read, but now will.

    • Cheri says:

      The dynamic is alive and sick and makes for a lovely reason for a smart woman to attend an all girls’ school.

      Looking forward to your thoughts as you read The Scarlet Letter.

  5. Foreign Toe says:

    If I were better
    I’d read the-“Scarlet Letter”
    Come the Revolution.

    Victorian C of E
    Made no-one flee.
    Come the Revolution!

    Some even let in
    Old Charlie Darwin.
    Come the Revolution!

    No thought
    Of this sort
    Come the Revolution.

  6. Cheri says:

    Struggling with big issues is an internal revolution, don’t you think?

  7. Richard Manchester says:

    I’m really sorry, Cheri, I told him not to worry you. Come on Toe. Everything’s OK over at HB. The nasty man’s going now. You forgot your tablets. That’s better. Bye for now Cheri.

  8. lichanos says:

    I guess you know the story of Socrates and the slave? The one in which he leads the slave boy on with his questions to show that the boy already knows geometry because he, like all of us, was born with certain innate knowledge?

    Sooo…maybe your student…?

  9. wkkortas says:

    I have often wondered…is it possible Hawthorne was just kidding? I think you can read “Rappaccini’s Daughter” or “The Minister’s Black Veil” as black comedy. I wouldn’t go far as to write a thesis on it or anything, but a part of me suspects Hawthorne wrote with his tongue squarely in his cheek.

  10. Cheri says:

    This is a thought that is new to me. Honestly, in all those years of The Scarlet Letter, Young Goodman Brown, The Birthmark, Rappaccini’s Daughter and The Minister’s Black Veil, I never considered Hawthorne’s intention anything other than a stern and cynical look at the rules.


  11. Christopher says:

    I see that I posted a comment almost six years ago (July 2009- see somewhere above) in which I said I would read “The Scarlet Letter”. Well……..I still haven’t. I still intend to, though, and will check back here in another six years (July 2021) with my thoughts on it.

    In your posting you said: “……really smart people live with a profound sense of insecurity because……they know what they don’t know……”

    Not being smart, I’ll have to take your word for this. But, being now three-score-and-ten, I now know I know almost nothing. The thing is, twenty years ago and more when fiftyish, I thought I knew nearly everything. I was no doubt arrogant.

    I don’t think, though, I was much different in this respect from most other fiftyish year olds. It has long seemed to me that men (and women too, I suppose) at this stage of their life’s journey are at their most arrogant. They are know-alls.

    Having journeyed through the arc from knowing nothing when born, to knowing nearly everything when fiftyish, to now knowing (almost) nothing when three-score-and-ten, I’m seeing ever more clearly the piercing truth of what TS Eliot said in one of his poems (I can’t remember which):

    “……..the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time…….”

  12. Cheri says:

    “Not being smart, I’ll have to take your word for this. ”
    If ever a misstatement were made on my blog, it is this one!

    The quotation that you pulled from that post referred to my gifted students who I tried to teach for over 35 years. I still agree with that statement…the older I become, the truer it is.

    Now that I have left education and am retired, I have never met so many know-it-alls. One of the problems with people who sincerely believe they know it all is their lack of curiosity. They become the most boring conversationalists. I agree with you that this behavior–which we have all exhibited at some time in our lives–is arrogant.

    Your T.S. Eliot quotation is a beauty. Thank you for posting it here to the blog.

    The Scarlet Letter still has relevance today. I hope you do find time to read it because I would love to know what you think of it.

    • Christopher says:

      As a (an?) habitual book-reader, you just may like *this article*.

      It rings very, very, true for me.

      • Richard says:

        This is an excellent article, Christopher, by the founder of LibriVox and Pressbooks, services I had never previously heard about.

        His concerns are about the addictive lure upon him of social media and the destruction of concentration, which, in turn erodes the will to read books. He refers particularly to Facebook, Twitter and emails.

        Apparently, the compulsion derives from the release of dopamine and the pleasure so experienced. When rats are fitted with electrodes to stimulate the release artificially, they lose interest in food and sex.

        The effect on us humans is to compromise focus and we develop what, I suppose, we call “Grasshopper minds”. The ability to multitask is a myth. We neglect our infant children to pick up our iPhones and tablets. We write long emails at work instead of doing the real work. This flipping from one thing to another in rapid succession is what causes exhaustion whereas ordered concentration on finishing one thing at a time is less tiring and achieves more.

        We all know, don’t we, that interruptions are destructive and more often than not the cause of error. We can do little about this, what with expectations in business these days: it all started with the telephone.

        The article proposes a strategy to restore the ability to read books, which is proving successful.

        Nowhere does the article mention blogging, which is comforting, having regard to the benefits I have derived from it over the years, particularly here.

  13. Cheri says:

    Thank you for sending this article. I shall read it!

  14. Pingback: The Scarlet Letter (again) | Notes from Around the Block

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