The Danger of Being an Individual

…or “Why I Wrote The Scarred Letter”

Background

A high school English teacher, I taught The Scarlet Letter year after year. For some students (too few), it became a favorite book that they remembered even years after graduating. For others, Hawthorne’s sentence length, ornate language, and complicated concepts made the reading too difficult to complete or appreciate. Early in my teaching career, I decided to write a modernization of the text. Each year as I re-read the book with my students, I kept track of major character arcs and conflicts, themes, and the rich symbolism used by Hawthorne.

I periodically did Internet searches to make sure no one else was writing a modernization. Several years ago, when I learned that a movie “modernization” was being made, I put this project on the back-burner. When Easy A was released in theatres, I was relieved to see that it was not similar to the plot I had in mind, and I continued my project. (In fact, I was disappointed to see that Easy A wasn’t even school appropriate for most districts. Why make a modernized version of Hawthorne’s original if it can’t be shared with high school students?)

When I wrote the modernized version of the tale, I integrated as much of that original essence as possible while still allowing the story to stand independently of Hawthorne’s original. My hope in writing the modernized version was that teachers could use the text as a bridge to help students understand the rich themes and symbols of the original, instilling an appreciation for Hawthorne, one of my favorite authors–but that if it was not possible or practical to teach the original, my story could at least emphasize what I love so much about Hawthorne’s.

What I Love About Hawthorne’s Original

I love the way Hawthorne was obsessed with the Puritans. Having an ancestor involved in the Salem Witch Trials (as a member of the court) scarred him in a permanent way. His obsession makes his writing almost paranoid in its intensity, especially as he examines the internal workings of individuals living within society. The passion comes through in his rich imagery and dense symbolism, which was meant to be quite obvious to readers of his time. But it’s a little much for a modern high school reader: the language is sometimes so dense that Hawthorne’s passion gets lost.

What I wanted to share with modern readers is the strength of Hawthorne’s main character. Hester Prynne’s family in England was forced to marry her to Roger Prynne (who later chooses the name Roger Chillingworth to hide his identity). Hester enjoyed life in England and had no desire to move to the cold, stark Puritan community in the New World. But she is forced to obey her husband, and she is sent ahead of him.

Although she has an affair with Dimmesdale, she does this only after enough time has passed (and evidence presented) to believe that her husband died in a shipwreck. From a social standpoint, she is a sinner. From an unbiased moral standpoint, she has done nothing wrong; in fact, she is a victim of her expected role in society. But she is too strong to be a victim.

Hester chooses to remain in the small Puritan settlement despite her poor treatment by the townspeople. She earns her own living and raises her daughter as she sees fit. She volunteers, and she never snaps back when others treat her poorly. In many ways, she is more “Puritan” than the Puritans. And all this amidst the terrible hypocrisy prevalent in the town. Even when Chillingworth and Dimmesdale become weak and co-dependent, Hester keeps her strength and her identity.

The Danger of Being an Individual

I wanted to capture that strength. In today’s world, few people are brave enough to truly be themselves. Indeed, I often question whether I am being myself at any given time, or if I am simply behaving the way society expects me to behave. Do you ever feel that you are “acting” a part rather than being yourself? In The Scarred Letter, I asked the question: what if someone were uninhibited in being herself… all the time?

Scarred Leter FinalHeather’s father, who during the book is estranged from Heather and her mother, has chosen the more difficult path in life. He is openly honest and insists on the truth. He will not live a lie even in order to bring a family back together. This is something we are not taught to value–as early as kindergarten, I remember being taught the concept of a “white lie.” Heather is truly his daughter, and to the frustration of her mother, she chooses to follow her father’s teachings.

When she finds out about steroid use at her school, she sees Adam acting as her foil. He finds it easier to complain privately and “suck it up” publicly in order to stay under the radar, remaining an accepted part of the team. In The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale (sometimes appeared that he) wanted to do the right thing, but he was terrified to stand up against an entire society, even with Hester’s support. Adam is the same way.

Though his experience has created a true crucible for him, Adam’s situation is in many ways what all of us encounter every day. How many of us have silently complained about something, only to give in rather than standing up? I think of examples in history in which people have collectively accepted what they are told, or have feared standing up so that they appear to have accepted an unpleasant truth.

It’s why characters like Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield resonate with me. Though not perfect, they constantly question what they are told and what society values. It’s why I admire characters like Hank Rearden and Howard Roark: they act as individuals without allowing their identities to be influenced by others. It’s why we all adore Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games and Tris Prior from Divergent: they stand up against a system that’s meant to squash individuals, doing what most are terrified to do. These two young women see a system designed to make the individual lose, and they decide not to choose the “lesser of two evils,” but to change the system itself. (How many of us have quietly left the polls on election day, feeling disgusted that, once again, we voted for the lesser of two evils even with the knowledge that the system lends itself to corruption and limited choices?)

Emerson and Thoreau wrote often about the importance of remaining an individual and acting upon one’s own individual values and beliefs. But it seems an inherent trait of humanity that standing out as an individual is less preferred than giving in to the path of least resistance. But what if we lived the way the Transcendentalists advocated? What if we all became Huck Finns or Katniss Everdeens? What if we did not allow ourselves to be so influenced by what everyone else claims to believe? What kind of world would we create?

These are questions I sought to answer in The Scarred Letter. I admire protagonist Heather Primm greatly for her individuality and her strength. If there were more of her in society, I think the world would be a better place.


 

You can read the first four chapters of The Scarred Letter for free here. There’s also a code for a 35% off coupon when ordered directly from the publisher. The Scarred Letter is available in paperback and ebook.