Friday, June 2, 2017

The Scarlet Letter

I haven't read this classic since I was in high school.  I liked it then, and I like it more now.  Sadly, my children not only detest it, but they don't comprehend it.  Since it is a requirement of their high school English curriculum, I'm reading it to them.  To keep them engaged and check their comprehension, I stop every so often and ask them questions about what I just read.  Here's how it went this morning.

Me (reading chapter 12):
Walking in the shadow of a dream, as it were, and perhaps actually under the influence of a species of somnabulism, Mr. Dimmesdale reached the spot, where, now so long since, Hester Prynne had lived through her first hour of public ignominy. The same platform or scaffold, black and weather-stained with the storm or sunshine of seven long years, and foot-worn, too, with the tread of many culprits who had since ascended it, remained standing beneath the balcony of the meeting-house. The minister went up the steps.
(pausing for comprehension check): So what is happening at this point in the story?
Blank stares. 
Noah: Umm....the minister is...doing something?
Me: Be warned, I'm not in the mood to tolerate dumbness today.
Noah: Then don't ask us any questions!
Me:  Yes, the minister is doing something. He's going somewhere. Where is he going?
Noah: Uh...he's going...upstairs?
Me: In his house?
Noah: Umm...yes?
Me: No.  Where is he going in the middle of the night?
Sarah: To the bathroom?  That's the only place I ever go in the middle of the night.
Me: No, people! He is not going to the bathroom!  I'm going away for a few minutes.  By the time I get back, I want you two to read the paragraph, put your brains together, and figure out where Dimmesdale is going.

I went away and breathed.  Pictured my high school English teacher.  Breathed again.  Stared out the window for several minutes.  Prayed.  Breathed.  Went back to the students.  

Me: So, where was he going?
Sarah: To the balcony!
Me: Ok, well that's a better answer than "to the bathroom".  It's actually a platform, the same platform of shame that Hester Prynne was forced to stand on in front of the whole town. 
Sarah: So, it's not a balcony, like the one off Grandma and Grandpa's condo in Florida? 
Me: No. He was not going there to see the sights.  He was going there to punish himself.  But we'll get to that.  Let's continue: Why, then, had he come hither? Was it but the mockery of penitence? A mockery, indeed, but in which his soul trifled with itself! A mockery at which angels blushed and wept, while fiends rejoiced, with jeering laughter! He had been driven hither by the impulse of that Remorse which dogged him everywhere, and whose own sister and closely linked companion was that Cowardice which invariably drew him back...
Good example of personifcation here.  Hawthorne casts Remorse and Cowardice as siblings. So Dimmesdale goes to the platform of shame out of remorse, but what prevents him from confessing his sin in broad daylight?
Noah: the governor?
Me: No.  Remorse's sister.
Noah: Huh?
Me:  Who did Hawthorne say was Remorse's sister?
Noah: Oh! I forgot.
Me:  Dimmesdale was a coward!
Noah: Yeah! The coward!

I recognize that this is a very difficult book to understand and that my kids are probably too young for it.  I rather regret starting it at this point, but I don't want to abandon it now, so I'm mostly reading it to them and then translating it into words they can understand, and then we're able to have some good discussions.  I think Hawthorne is a brilliant writer, but I can understand the kids' frustration with his verbose descriptions.  For example, after reading this:
His eyes, however, were soon greeted by a little, glimmering light, which, at first a long way off, was approaching up the street. It threw a gleam of recognition on here a post, and there a garden-fence, and here a latticed window-pane, and there a pump, with its full trough of water, and here, again, an arched door of oak, with an iron knocker, and a rough log for the door-step
Sarah said, "Get to the point! We don't need to know every little tiny thing the light hit!"

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