Friday, May 11, 2012


Hey Hester, Happy Mother's Day

Hester Prynne, heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, never once in the whole book receivethed (this is how they spoketh in those Puritan days) a Mother's Day card. I want to send her one. Sure she's fiction, a construct; The Scarlet Letter is subtitled A Romance. But couldn't motherhood itself be subtitled A Romance, and especially on Mother's Day? Who wants to dwell in the laundry and the unsaid upsets that we mothers daily subduct into the vast molten core of our patience?

Hester Prynne is called by many critics the first feminist in American literature. (Booyah, Smithies.) But actually that's really sad, because Hester's life is one long suck on the the end of the ice cream cone of shame and bullshit. She has the short end of the stick, until near the end of the "romance" when Hawthorne has her transform (in the vast molten core of her patience) the letter A to from sinner to bodAcious. Awesome. She becomes what my daughter's preschool calls: "a community helper." Like letter carriers, and teachers.

This Mother's Day I have some mother-questions for Hester.

Like, did your daughter Pearl get an allowance? There was that Puritan edict that colors had to be somber, so did the Sadd colors have to be washed cold? Also, how is it you didn't spank Pearl when she was such a precocious little shit, always asking Reverend Dimmesdale if he might in fact be her father? I have come quite close many times with my daughter when she won't bring in her collection of My Little Ponies, but actually when I say it like that I realize your situation and my situation are so different.

What I want to say is hey, Hester Prynne, you're doing a really good job as a fictional mother, and I salute you. As a modern real-life mother, on my shirt there is an A for underpAid and 40-something and bAke sAle, and that gets really old, and is burdensome, too.

Elizabeth Bastos is a WAHM of two under 10 in the Baltimore suburbs. Her writing has appeared in McSweeneys, The Big Jewel, The Smithsonian's Food and Think blog, and Funny Not Slutty. She reviews books for Book Riot, and muses about parenting, suffering, and cheese-making on her blog, Goody Bastos. 

24 Comments / Post A Comment


Yes! The silent version is so good - hot Dimmesdale is unnerving.
I was the only person in my high school American lit class who liked this book. It's a lot less frustrating to read than the Crucible, at least.


@Amphora Ha, I was the only one in mine too.


AHHHHHH, reading this book as an involuntarily chaste 14 year old, I always wanted details on how Hester and Dimmesdale went from "Good morning to you, minister" to DOING IT. The book gave no details (from what I can remember, at least - it's been a long time), and my imagination was running absolutely wild. Tell me about the puritan lust, Nathaniel Hawthorne! Telllllllll meeeeeeeee. In my imagination, it was pretty hot.


@werewolfbarmitzvah Remember that scene in the woods near the end of the book when they're alone, and Pearl is off playing, and the good Reverend reaches over and touches her hand? My teacher was all, "I think they're doing more than just holding hands," to a bunch of tittering 17-yr-olds. We were more keen on discussing that section than we'd been about any book all year.


Actually, in doing my research for a final paper (at Smith actually! yay Smithies!), I read that it was only old people who wore somber colors and everyone else could wear bright colors. Bright colors weren't suitable for elderly people's dignity.


@4and20blkbirds Off topic, but yay Smithies! I just finished my last exam of my first year this afternoon.


@4and20blkbirds @Audley HESTER PRYNNE IS A SOCIAL CONSTRUCT! Are the kids saying that anymore? In any case, yay Smithies! Congrats on one year down, Audley!!!


@TheLetterL I assure you, little has changed. Not calling things social constructs, not the disgusting, disgusting linoleum floors in Cutter-Z.


@Audley Awesome! I've only got one semester left. Happy/sad feelings.
@TheLetterL Hahaha, they certainly are. A favorite Smithie phrase for sure.


@Audley @4and20blkbirds Aww, thanks for making me feel not so old. I'm an '05er over here, one who remembers life pre-Campus Center and house-only dining. (It was pandemonium when that was introduced. Swiping for meals?!?!?! Leaving my house for food?!?!?! Options?!?!!? Pandemonium, I tell you!)

So many congratulations to you both for surviving another semester! Last semesters are happy/sad for sure. Here's hoping you have room for a fun class or two. I was a Bio major, and I still look back fondly on the day when I walked into my advisor's office and informed her I wanted to take tap dancing and equitation my last semester.


@TheLetterL BOOYAH, SMITHIES! 10-year Reunion this weekend. I cannot wait. So, making you all feel better because I'm even older, but I don't care, because I will be there for Jane Lynch's commencement address!


I hated that book so much. So very much. So much that I kind of became obsessed with it and I've sewn a Hester Prynn costume for myself with a big velvet cloak and an embroidered "A" and I've worn it a half dozen times to various parties and then I know which people I want to talk to because they're the ones that "get" my costume and now I kind of love that book.


@Brunhilde Were there really people who did not get your costume? I guess I figured if it was required reading in my podunk NC hometown, surely every 11th grader in the US had to read it. Oh. now that I reread that sentence I'm rethinking it. I bet everyone else read it before 11th grade and had something more progressive going on by the time you were 16, didn't you?


@sox We read it in 9th grade in my podunk CA hometown. If someone asked what my costume was, and I said "Hester Prynn", I got a lot of blank stares. Most were like "Oh, the Scarlet Letter lady" when they saw the "A" or I explained it. I assume that most people just don't have strong feelings about a book they were forced to read over a decade ago and aren't really inclined to remember the character's names.


@sox I think I read it in 10th grade in Indiana, so not too far ahead of you.


@Brunhilde I love you. If I ever see you at a party I will definitely come over and talk to you.


@EternalFootwoman I'll be the one with a big red "A" on my pilgrim costume!


I just love love lovvvvvve watching the Demi Moore film version. For the shock and awe, and also for the pleasure of rereading the New Yorker review of said film.

Anthony Lane remarks that the film is, "in the words of the opening credits, `freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne,' in the same way that methane is freely adapted from cows."

many things do not fly

I unintentionally got into a weird friends-with-sexual-tension-love-triangle with two of my male friends when I was in high school. My English teacher, also the mother of one of the gentlemen, described it with a Scarlet Letter analogy in which I was Hester, her son was Dimmesdale, and my other guy friend was Pearl. It was...weird. I eventually dated the Dimmesdale friend for several years, and when I broke up with him, his mother wrote me a scathing email in which she called me "more careless than Daisy Buchanan." So, I think what I'm saying is never date someone whose mother is an English teacher?

emily eileen

@many things do not fly

Or that guy's mom needs to get a(nother) hobby?


@many things do not fly She sounds positively DELIGHTFUL!


@many things do not fly I, too, have been compared to Daisy Buchanan! I was like, "...So that means you think I'm pretty?"

many things do not fly

@D.@twitter Either that, or your frequently forget the summer solstice...that's how I chose to take it.

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