Picking Up The (Discarded) Scarlet Letter

February 21, 2013 — 2 Comments

In keeping my classroom libraries filled with books, the trends I notice are not necessarily trends in book buying, but trends in book discarding. After exams, midterms or finals, assigned titles are discarded to make room on a bookshelf or in a school locker for new required reading. Following trends means knowing that three to four months after the curriculum unit ended, an assigned title begins to crowd its way onto the bookshelves of thrift stores such as Goodwill or St. Vincent’s or the Salvation Army.

Three copies of "The Scarlet Letter" on the shelf at Goodwill. All new; never opened!

Three copies of “The Scarlet Letter” on the shelf at Goodwill this past week. All new; never opened, bearing their $1.00 each price tags.

Since Puritans are usually up for discussion in September in American History coursework, many English departments turn to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter for their Advanced Placement or college bound students as a complementary read. Therefore, I was not surprised when, during this last week of January, copies of The Scarlet Letter began appearing, not in single copies, but in droves. I expected as much. The Scarlet Letter represents the “not keeping” trend. While a student may hesitate for a millisecond before placing The Great Gatsby or To Kill a Mockingbird or Catcher in the Rye in the “throw away” pile, I imagine there is universal delight in discarding The Scarlet Letter, a delight only exacerbated by discarding its equally loathed curriculum companion, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

The mention of The Scarlet Letter may set off groans. Woe to the teacher who attempts this book without the iron cast-backbone or the determination of an evangelist. Readers of The Scarlet Letter will need to be converted, and it is only the fear and damnation of another scarlet letter that keeps them plodding on, the scarlet “F”!

The tone of the book is set immediately with the opening line:

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

Looking further down the page for some relief from the gloom, the reader should notice that he or she is being directly addressed, as if from a pulpit delivering a parable or allegory:

Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader. It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom, that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.

Yes, Hawthorne will be delivering this sermon for 192 pages in the Dover Thrift Edition ($3.15).

Students are aware that this classic will improve SAT scores with the challenging vocabulary and complex structures of 19th Century prose, but they still seek help beyond the classroom. There are Sparknotes, Schmoop notes, E-Notes, Cliff Notes, and Bookrags available for this text, so as a result, the paperback text on the thrift store shelf may never have been opened. The copies available at thrift stores are generally pristine copies. I imagine they were purchased by parents who dutifully picked up the book because of a syllabus of some sort. Maybe this was a summer reading choice, a particularly deadening assignment. Actually, the effort in purchasing this text could have been avoided, because the text itself is online at no less than six places:

And there are free audio versions at:

But we still teach The Scarlet Letter, and our paperback collection of The Scarlet Letter distributed in class is comprised of at least 10 different editions. No student is on the same page number when the text is read aloud in class in order to share the conflicts between Dimmesdale, Hester Prynne, and Chillingsworth. Interestingly, what seems initially complex to the student is eventually understood as a really a ripping good love triangle of sex, intrigue, and irony. Once they see Hawthorne laying out hypocrisies of the Puritan society, they are more genuinely engaged. Plus, there is the lovely child Pearl, and they grow to sympathize for her.

In order to engage students in assessments, our Grade 11 teacher has organized “self-directed” projects for students to choose  and some of these have included:

  • Create a song telling the ballad of Hester Pyrnne.  You may compose the song, or write new words for an existing melody.  Share the song with the class either live or via audio or videotape.
  • Think of a sin associated with Dimmesdale and Chillingworth.  Create a badge that uses a letter or other symbol to represent the sin.  In addition, use art, needlework, or some other craft to make the badge reveal something about the man’s character, interests, or profession.  Write an explanatory caption or paragraph to accompany the badge.
  • Choose music to be the score for a film version of the novel.  Choose music for at least five major scenes.  Write explanatory notes for each selection

The harvesting of The Scarlet Letter texts from thrift store shelves is best from January-March. I can add as many as 10-12 copies during these months. Competition for the title grows during the summer, and the books are often more dog-earred by then.

But with all the negativity, why teach The Scarlet Letter? Because Hawthorne provides a bridge from this historical period to ours by using the empathy that is generated in fiction. Our brains are wired for stories more than facts, and reading The Scarlet Letter helps our students identify with characters in order to understand the politics and policies of this turbulent time when our nation was still in its infancy. Additionally, his story serves as a springboard for other stories. According to Canadian author Margaret Atwood, “The roots of totalitarianism in America are found, I discovered, in the theocracy of the 17th Century. The Scarlet Letter is not that far behind [the novel] The Handmaid’s Tale, my take on American Puritanism.”

Oh, and yes. We also assign The Handmaid’s Tale.

2 responses to Picking Up The (Discarded) Scarlet Letter

  1. 

    Brilliant, as always! I love the assignments, especially being able to create a badge for Dimmsdale & Chillingworth.

  2. 

    As a Hawthorne devotee, I really enjoyed your post. If you can believe it, I used to teach House of Seven Gables to freshmen. Why would I torture 13- and 14-year-olds thusly?—because I love Hawthorne’s prose! True, most of them hated the novel (or whatever portion of the novel they actually read), but at least I was having fun. 😉

    Now, the only Hawthorne I teach is “Young Goodman Brown” to seniors in my American Gothic course. We explore the story from a Jungian perspective—read some archetypal lit crit—then connect YGB’s psychological journey to the students’ journeys to discover themselves, to assimilate their own “shadow selves.” Most of these seniors read Scarlet Letter as sophomores–and most of them admit they had trouble with the novel. But, in the midst of our “YGB” discussions, many of them develop a belated appreciation for Scarlet Letter. Instead of overwhelming them, the archetypes become edifying.

    (At least, isn’t it pretty to think so?)

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