Sunday, February 10, 2013

Red Badge

Lets talk about your high school. Was it one of those fine institutions where you came out ready to quote great books in your church talks and your letters to the editor? When people drop names like Jo March or Count Vronsky or Lucy Manette, do you nod smugly, knowing exactly what books these characters come from?

Let's talk about my high school. Let's ask how I got my diploma and tassel and went out into a world where people talk about Jo March or Count Vronsky or Lucy Manette and I have no idea whether these folks are their neighbors or the anchors on the local news or what-all.

(Actually, I know these are characters in books. I just looked them up. But I'm already straining to remember which books, except for the Jo March one.)

So, you probably read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter ages ago, but I just got around to it last week. I'll bet I can't tell you anything that you don't already know about it.

But let me just say that, around this house, we have threatened to fine people that use unnecessarily big words to say something so simple as, "That bird scares me." To wit:

"With the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl, she appears, by the fierceness of her beak and eye and the general truculency of her attitude, to threaten mischief to the inoffensive community . . . "

I would think paper and ink would be hard to come by in Hawthorne's day, but he seems to have used up plenty.

Next, Hester Prynne (who commits adultery, but you knew that), refuses to name her partner in crime. And I don't get why. I should think she would want him to share in the infamy. But a good author, as we know, holds back the best stuff just to keep us reading. Except that he drops so very many hints that we know who it is quite before the child he has fathered --

"[W]ith strange rapidity . . . arrive[s] at an age that was capable of social intercourse." (Learns to talk.)

I guess The Scarlet Letter stands firm in the canon of great books because it explores the question, "What is just punishment? When does it become unjust?"

So, since you've probably already read Hawthorne's classic, I think I'll just recommend the Mormon scarlet letter, Carroll Hofeling Morris' The Broken Covenant. It's a few years old, but it kept me up nights, mourning the downward spiral of the heroine, if you could call her that.

Meanwhile, here's a great soup that gives me an excuse to buy one of my favorite foods, flour tortillas, and eat up all the extras not needed for Chicken Tortilla Chowder


  1. Hmmm. High school gave me a few licks of classics. Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, Tale of Two Cities, some Shakespeare.I caught up on some Steinbeck on my own after marriage. I have the Hoefling book. Tried Anna Karenina, couldn't do it.

  2. I escaped from high school without reading many classics at all, except, perhaps, a little Steinbeck and Hemingway. But I really enjoy reading your blog.

  3. Thank you, Kevin. Maybe classical education died out in our decade.

    Jocile, I'm awarding you points for reading classics in high school, plus extra credit for the post-high school reading.