The first time I read The Scarlet Letter, I was unimpressed. I was fifteen years old, and sitting in a stuffy classroom, dreaming of being anyplace but in my English class. Nothing can kill a great work of literature quicker than being forced to listen to the droning voice of an exhausted high school teacher as she dissects each word and phrase, laying out all the little pieces of meaning for us to observe. It was almost physically painful to sit through.
Decades later, I came across a copy of The Scarlet Letter, lying on a “free” table in the laundry room where I live, and decided to give the book another try.
Most of us are familiar with the basic story. It’s the 1840s. The setting is Boston, which then was a very conservative small town. Hester Prynne was pregnant, but was not married, and this was absolutely scandalous.
It was against the law to be an unmarried mother, so Hester spends time in prison. The book starts the day Hester is let out of prison, carrying her infant daughter in her arms, to a raised scaffold. Part of her punishment includes allowing the entire town to stare at her, the bright red letter A that is affixed to her dress, and her infant.
While standing on the scaffold, Hester is questioned by the authorities (of both the legal and religious variety) about the identity of the father of her baby. Hester declines to reveal who it was, leaving the entire town to gossip and speculate about who it might be. Some believe the baby’s father was none other than Satan himself.
Example after example is given of how difficult Hester’s life has become after having her baby. She becomes an outcast. The scarlet A on her clothing serves as a constant reminder of both her crime and her shame, preventing anyone from forgetting about the scandal, or moving on from it. Hester lives a lonely life, with only her daughter, Pearl, for company. She struggles to find work, because no one wants to hire a woman like her.
The father of Hester’s baby remains untouched. Since he hasn’t been identified, people treat him with as much respect and admiration as they always have. I won’t reveal who he is, other than to say he was a prominent and popular member of the community.
While he feels some anxiety about the situation, it isn’t enough to make him step up and be known as Pearl’s father. He doesn’t reveal this fact to the townspeople until minutes before he dies, thereby preventing himself from experiencing any and all responsibilities as a parent. He completely avoids having to cope with the gossip, the scorn, and the isolation that the townspeople inflicted upon Hester.
The difference between Hester, and Pearl’s father, is vivid. Pearl’s father has the opportunity to choose to remain anonymous, to sidestep any potential legal repercussions that come from fathering a child out of wedlock. He gets to carry on with his life as though nothing happened. His reputation is unharmed.
Hester, because of biology and the lack of reliable birth control back then, does not have the opportunity to make the same choice that Pearl’s father made. She bears the full weight of the legal and social repercussions that are inflicted upon single mothers.
No one forces unwed young mothers to embroider a scarlet letter onto their clothing today. Few (if anyone at all) assumes that Satan himself is the biological father of a child born to an unwed mother. Society still points and gawks, however.
We’ve all watched television programs where a desperate young woman is trying to discover who her baby’s daddy is based on the results of paternity tests. The studio audience laughs as she cries, and shames her for having had sex with so many different men. No such ridicule is directed at the young men, however.
We watch documentaries showing how stressful, lonely, and boring life can be for teen mothers. There aren’t any documentaries about teen fathers. Teenage girls who become pregnant often get kicked out of school (and told they are a bad influence). Teenage boys who impregnate their girlfriend are allowed to finish their education, and are never told that they are a bad influence.
Sadly, not much has changed, even after all these years.