I suppose I’ll have to admit it now, since it might be noticeably audible during the live broadcast: I get choked up every time we read through the ending of “The Scarlet Letter.” The final correspondence between an elderly Hester Prynne and her grown daughter, Pearl, gets me every time. It’s a little embarrassing, and more than a little baffling; I’m not usually the first actor in a room to be moved to mistiness so easily. If anything, I more often have trouble letting go of my own ironic distance from the material in my hands.
I’ve figured out why this resonates with me, but it took hearing Michael Harris (our villainous Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband) drop some heartbreaking nuance into this exchange with his wayward wife during a recent rehearsal:
“True, it was my folly! I have said it. But up to that epoch of my life, I had lived in vain. The world had been so cheerless… Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false an unnatural relation with my decay…”
Nevermind the noxious criminal code of colonial Boston. We all know Puritans weren’t nice people; that’s not interesting. All of the evils visited in our characters start with a sad, lonely old man roping a young girl into a loveless marriage in a desperate attempt to salvage his empty life. A chain of people end up with their natural ties to humanity severed brutally. Isolation is a poison for most human beings, and the toxic desperation and anger that follows are what drive our ensuing slow-motion tragedy.
We are social animals. We hear it said all the time, but we don’t always think about what it can be like to be cut off from even the most basic contact that we take for granted. It’s probably one of the worst tortures you can inflict on a person over the long term. Try to imagine being the prisoner in solitary confinement for a year. Try to imagine being a gay teenager in an Evangelical small town in middle America, or for that matter anywhere at all in Russia or Uganda. Try to imagine being a victim of sexual violence in Taliban country, punished and shamed for someone else’s inhumanity. Try questioning your faith in place where that’s a crime, written or not. Try, most of all, to remember that there isn’t a way out, nowhere to go, nobody on your side. Bitter yet?
In spite of the fact that he brought it on himself, Chillingworth succumbs to the temptation to act on his rage born of a lonely life, a betrayal, and a healthy dollop of modern-day sexism. I think that succumbing to the bitterness is a recurring character flaw in Hawthorne’s Puritan world. I’ve found myself fascinated with Mistress Hibbins, the Governor’s witchy sister who openly brags about going into the forest and cavorting with the Black Man, a sort of universal Satanic bogeyman figure to Puritan society. I have my own personal theory about Mistress Hibbins: somewhere along the line things went wrong, and she ended up on the bad side of some Puritan stigma. Her coping strategy: own the rage. Flout the society that has put her out, snipe at it from the sidelines, tip their sacred cows, and hope against hope to find someone else just as bitter with whom to commiserate. The not-so-better angels of my own nature wishes she had found a friend in Hester.
This is what sets our heroine apart from everyone else. Not the totality or unjustness of Hester’s isolation, but her stiff-backed refusal to lash out in anger like Chillingworth, Hibbins, and even young Pearl. Her genuinely Christian behavior outshines everyone else in this profoundly religious place. I’d venture that even applies to her pastor and (spoiler!) lover Arthur Dimmesdale, given his self-absorbed obsession with his own guilt. But then, it’s not really just her nature, is it? Hester’s a firebrand- it’s easy to see her taking the Mistress Hibbins route, lashing out and fighting back. It’s her daughter Pearl who’s keeping her in the world. She tells Hibbins herself, “…had they taken her from me, I would willingly have gone with thee, and signed my name in the Black Man’s book too, and that with mine own blood!” Her love for Pearl keeps her from collapsing into a singularity of righteous rage. In turn it’s probably only Hester’s love that allows the contrary, spiteful little girl to escape her poisonous childhood and grow into something better.
If I were to take anything from that, it is that the only escape from the horror that loneliness can wreak on a person is to unconditionally love something outside yourself. So if you’re wondering why I’m a little hoarse in the closing narration on the 28th, there you go.