Every time I teach the survey of American Literature to 1865, I stubbornly assign the entirety of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This is foolhardy. Most students show up to my class having already experienced a Scarlet Letter flogging in high school, and they have already asked and answered questions like: What does the ‘A’ symbolize? (Adultery? Able? Angel? All of the Above?). They are, to say the least, resistant. That’s what I want. The week before they read it, I beg – I insist – that they read it again. This is not a book for kids, I explain, or even those in early adolescence. This is not a book that teaches you about the Puritans (those straight-brimmed, rigid moralists), even obliquely.
I tell them: This is the book for those of us who have not been good, a book about what that feels like in the aftermath. It’s about what can happen in one brief moment of temptation, desire, anger, sadness, you name it, and the consequences of that moment. Put differently: This is a book for all of us who have spectacularly fucked up. And, dear Avidly reader, perhaps this includes you, too.
The best part of the novel is how it represents the shame that attends bad decisions. Shame has always organized my first lecture on the novel – particularly around the shaming of Hester by the community and the subsequent way that shame opens up within her an intuition about others’ hidden sins. Shame and sympathy, I tell the students, are intricately woven together. Shame teaches sympathy. My lecture turns, though, just as the novel does, in the inverse direction: sympathy, even when well meant, can also screw in more shame. Chillingworth’s sympathetic grasp of Dimmesdale’s secret shame, and his ability to manipulate and exploit it gives him power over the pathetic minister. Sympathy and power, shame and manipulation: Hawthorne dug deeply into these concerns.
But what Hawthorne also works through is the shame that arises when shit is your fault. And here I mean the shame that comes from transgression and not just the guilt. These two reactions, in fact, may be diametrically opposed. Guilt gropes for atonement, for release; shame washes the body in a continual repetition of the event. As Eve Sedgwick and Adam Frank aptly describe it, shame is a “precarious hyperreflexivity of the surface of the body” that “can turn one inside out—or outside in.” We need think not simply of the scarlet letter imposed on Hester’s bodice but also Dimmesdale’s more secret branding, in which the inner shame manifests outward on his chest. Hawthorne renders this shame symbolically and thus it can appear a bit static. Shame’s embodiment, however, is much more mobile. It is pleasure remembered and revolted; the body at once aware of the new person the transgression produced and reliving the process by which that happened. Embodied shame refuses to sit still. It travels the body from gut to fingertip and back again, with quick electric shocks, and it renders one vulnerable and exposed.
That Sedgwick and Frank describe shame as the body turned inside out (or outside in) suggests that shame makes sense only in relation to publicity and privacy, a concern that’s perhaps even more present now, in this era of social media. Indeed, Hawthorne’s investigation of shame in the novel is at once fully in keeping with and yet also orthogonal to the way our online culture trades in shame these days. On the one hand, the novel’s triad of shames – the community and Hester, Chillingworth and Dimmesdale, and Dimmesdale secretly with the whip – seems akin to, if we are to take it blithely and in the common argot of social media, slut shaming. It’s easy to see The Scarlet Letter as a screed against slut shaming avant la lettre. And popular culture has lionized Hester and her letter for just this reason, from the scarlet A’s sewn on the cheerleaders uniforms in Nirvana’s video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (rendered into Anarchy symbols) to Easy A starring Emma Stone (an inversion of the novel’s premise in which Stone’s character remains a virgin but gains and uses a bad reputation).
The subtle difference between “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Easy A, though, points to a transformation of shaming in our world of social media, smart phones, and incessant texting and tweeting. While the cheerleaders’ ‘A’ emblems in Nirvana’s video unite a messy, grunge anarchy with a rejection of the sexual double standard, Emma Stone’s character is still, albeit secretly, a virgin. The premise of the movie exposes a double standard but never asks its audience to feel uncomfortable with what the A symbolizes beyond shame: women’s disruptive, sexual bodies. This seems in keeping with the new internet discourse about social shaming, from which arise such terms as slut-shaming, body-shaming, etc. These articles tend to assert that bodies are “natural,” for instance, and thus make it seem unreasonable to feel (or make someone feel) shame about their appearance. They treat sexual choices as private, and beyond the realm of legal sanction or communal taboo. These denunciations strike me as inadequate to the way in which shame operates, as Hawthorne’s novel so keenly represents. Such anti-shame pieces follow from what you see in Easy A:what we might call a logic that is emotionally hygienic —they want to keep our feelings very sterile, very orderly, very clean.
Don’t get me wrong – the goals of such anti-shame articles always appear laudable to me. But it is the tone, not the message, that makes me pause. The optimal position – the point of identification – is the outsider who turns the tables on would-be shamers and tells their targets that there is nothing, as the saying goes, to be ashamed of. The position outside of shame (outside, too, of guilt) that our culture of outrage encourages is, for lack of a better word, neat and clean. Of course, that sounds ridiculous – it’s also heated, angry, vociferous, and self-righteous. But at the center of this culture of outrage stands a cold disregard of weakness and error, and ultimately a secret pleasure: in which outing others’ sins becomes a gratification circulated and shared.
The hygienic approach to shame these essays take is therefore very appealing, tapping as they do into the pleasures of denunciation. But Hawthorne helps us understand that the very tidiness that makes them appealing also makes them inadequate to the job. Because, as Hawthorne shows, shame is never tidy: shame is mobile, and so is the responsibility shame creates. Hester may be shamed for a sexual choice, and Dimmesdale hidden from such punishment, but the novel is also preoccupied with the shame and regret derived from the cascade of decisions and results from that first, off-stage transgression. Hester’s struggle, in the end, is not just with the shame foisted on her by the community but the assumption that she can adjudicate or shield others’ experiences of shame – in other words, that she can tidy up the fallout. When Chillingworth offers Hester a choice – point to the man and publicize his sin or shield him and I will find him – she chooses the latter. And it is disastrous. Her decision not to name Dimmesdale, she finally decides, was “a defect of truth, courage, and loyalty on her own part.”
So when I ask my students to reread The Scarlet Letter, I constantly pose to them exactly the kind of reading experience we professors and teachers so often deride these days. I ask them to identify, but to do so through shame – not to stand outside or above the position of moral weakness. I ask them to see how the novel begs its readers to reject the shameless, guiltless position. Indeed, Chillingworth, the resident villain, is perhaps the closest we can come to someone who lacks real shame or guilt at the beginning. He revels in that position. The villainy of Chillingworth is the villainy of being hygienically, morally pure.
As the students discover, emotional discipline, relational hygiene – these are such cruelties in Hawthorne’s psychological world. If Chillingworth’s villainy is his hygiene, Dimmesdale’s untenable hypocrisy is that, unlike Hester, he cannot radiate forth even a sign of shame that does not get interpreted by his congregation as saintliness (or, as Hawthorne pithily puts it, the minister was a “subtle, but remorseful hypocrite”). In the end, it is Dimmesdale’s handling of shame – the ambiguity of what he displays to the world before he dies – that supplies Hawthorne with a way to imagine a position that acknowledges the embodiment of shame and its potential to create sympathy without cruelty. As the narrator compresses all the possible morals of Dimmesdale’s death, he calls to the reader: “Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!” To be true is to share weakness and error; even if you can’t shout your confession from the rooftops (and Hawthorne would shudder at such an idea) emblematize this weakness, keep it ever at the front of who you are in public.
Justine Murison, Lazy Enthusiast