Sunday, February 10, 2008

Red-Letter Day

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course, I led out with a book that was very influential to me, that I think everyone ought to re-read and give serious thought to. The theory is that, re-reading these books as a middle-aged adult, I might gain some new insights.

Well, partially correct. I now know precisely why I despised The Scarlet Letter. I couldn't quite put my finger on it before, but I sure can now. And while I'd like to say that I had the fortitude to hang with it to the bitter end, I can't. About two thirds of the way through I decided that I'd had as much of the company of the Dynamic Duo -- Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth -- as I cared to. It was indeed the rare chapter that I didn't want to reach into the story and pimp-slap the both of them. Should you ever see this passage materialize in the text, you'll know I succeeded: "Forsooth! A disembodied hand from the Future hath descended from the Heavens and smote both Mr Dimmesdale and Mr Chillingworth into unconsciousness! Prithee, what doth it portend?"

It doth portendeth that this book sucketh, Beavis.

But, with the possible exceptions of the Dazzler graphic novel and The Sixgun Samurai, nothing is entirely bereft of redeeming qualities. The book does have some good points to make.

A minister told me once that there are three fundamental problems in the human spirit: guilt, bitterness, and stubbornness. Each of the three has its natural remedy: asking forgiveness, giving forgiveness, and submission to a higher authority, respectively. We see examples of all of the above, in abundance. Dimmesdale is wracked by guilt, but is too stubbornly proud to seek forgiveness. Chillingworth is consumed by bitterness, but is too stubbornly proud to forgive. Hester seems a bit stubborn at first, but of the three she is the only one who is actually working through her problems, trying to find some kind of redemption. This went completely over my head when I was younger. Stories of loss and redemption are wasted on the youth. You really have to be middle-aged to understand, to realize that the fondest dream of a man past his first youth is for a second chance. I was able to get that now, in a way that I couldn't then, and I'd have enjoyed it better if it weren't for one lamentable fact.

There are no real men in this book.

This book is absolutely jam-packed with examples of men shirking, avoiding, and otherwise ignoring their manly duties. Part of the sympathy Hester gets is due to the fact that she is so horribly ill-used by the so-called men who should be her staunchest defenders: her minister, and her husband. Poor Hester. Stuck for all eternity in a story with only these two chimps for company. But I get ahead of myself:

Where do I begin? Arthur Dimmesdale is a mewling, crawling, simpering, craven, boot-licking coward. He knows what he needs to do, knows what he ought to do, knows the right thing to do, but can't find the backbone to do it. Instead, he wails and moans about his guilt, beats himself as if that actually meant something, and otherwise makes a nuisance of himself. The Fist of the Future has this to say to the Reverend: MAN up, 'FESS up, take your lumps, and move on. You'll feel better, breathe easier, and enjoy life more. He makes a belated, half-hearted effort at this later in the book, but true to form, isn't enough of a man to pull it off successfully.

Not that Roger Chillingworth, the amazing human urine stain, is any better ... or, to give him the proper name he abandoned, Mr. Prynne. What a cad. What a miserable oxygen thief. Let's start with the fact that, if he were any kind of real man at all, he wouldn't have sent his young wife ahead of him to break trail in the wilderness, but would have come himself and sent for her later. But he didn't, and so he gave Hester the means, motive, and opportunity to dance the naked pretzel with the good Reverend. He had an opportunity to salvage what was left of his manhood, but botched it: he abandoned his wife to destitution while he sought his meaningless revenge. Revenge for what? For your non-existent manly honor? Wasted effort, pal. Here, why don't you go swimming with these cement overshoes, and hold onto this fathom of anchor chain while you're at it? You may not feel better, but I sure will.

Anyway, you may go in for this sort of gratuitous self-abuse, but I've had all I can stand. If you want to read a historical novel about adultery, go pick up any of the Flashman novels by George MacDonald Fraser. They're far more entertaining, and far less painful, than this particular groin-stomp in literary form.

Final verdict: Not recommended. Stay away from it, unless you happen to be a high-school lit teacher, or student, in which case you have my most profound sympathy.

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