Are we defined by our own individualistic interpretations, or by those of the community?
This was the question that lingered over my consciousness while reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s famed novel, The Scarlet Letter, which takes place within a Puritan society in colonial America during the mid-17th Century.
I personally thought the answer to be our own individualistic interpretations because a community is crafted to represent a certain ideology, and is therefore biased when it comes to defining a specific person.
The Scarlet Letter is an ignominious ‘A,’ which is stitched upon the bosom of a Hester Prynne, representing her adulterous affair with another villager (Later known to be their own Reverend, Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale), and for this very transgression, the towns people scorn her a heretic, labeling her as a “brazen hussy” who had chosen to “make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for punishment” (Chapter 2, Paragraph 12) by embroidering the ‘A’ in so bold a fashion as she had done. These are obviously the community’s interpretation of Hester: A sinful, deceitful woman who is no more than a common hussy, thus is their view of her in the introduction.
What I find peculiar is Hester’s reaction to their scorn-She accepts it! As shown in Chapter 5, Paragraph 3, “she compelled herself to believe-what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England-was half a truth, and half a self-delusion, here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; And so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; More saint-like, because the result of martyrdom”.
It is an interesting arrangement; Rather than on many occasions, here the interpretations of the community and the individual intertwine. The community sees Hester as a sinner, and deserving of public shame and acknowledgment of her ‘Satanic’ ways, and she accepts her punishment. However, their perceptions soften gradually as she shows herself to be a healer for those in need. They even reference her to “A self-enlisted Sister of Charity” who has been “so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted (Chapter 13, Paragraph 5)!” What we see here is an interesting shift in community opinion; This emphasizes the sway in community thoughts, but can those of the individual be persuaded so easily?
Apparently not, according to Hester, who firmly declines this hand of friendship, even while : “Meeting them in the street, she never raised her head to receive their greeting. If they were resolute to accost her, she laid her finger on the scarlet letter, and passed on.” -Chapter 13, Paragraph 5.
Rather then follow up with their viewpoint, however, the narrator chooses to depict Hester in a sort of saintliness, as noted when describing her from a quote which I had taken previously in this analysis, to being “more saint-like , because the result of martyrdom.”
Although I do admire Hawthorne’s striking depiction of the Individual VS Community, I feel that he comes off a little extreme when referencing the protagonist to a saint while the townspeople deem her a heretic-Therefore, lacking a middle ground, which would be ever the more beneficial for the readers in determining where Hester stands.
In addition, there lays speculation over Hester’s choice in categorizing herself as a sinner rather than flow in the direction of the community’s changing views of her. I believe this illustrates a prominent relationship found within our own lives; An individual who is the object of the community’s grievances accepts their criticism with a heavy heart, yet when they turn an approving eye upon her, she does not transition accordingly.
Why? Why does she insist on wallowing in her regret when she could be reclaiming her reputation by socializing amongst her neighbors?
Simple. Let me explain by drawing a rhetoric triangle. I’ll label the three angles as Speaker, Subject, and Audience. The Speakers in the introduction are the townspeople, the Subject their condemnation of Hester’s adulterous affair, and the Audience is Hester herself. This a relatively affective triangle; The townspeople are perturbed by the scandalous affair that has shaken the threshold of their Puritan community, so they broadly state their views on Hester and that ignominious ‘A’ stitched upon her bosom to her face, and Hester acknowledges her sin and holds herself accountable.
As the novel proceeds, however, we find the rhetoric triangle to be, well, a line in fact, rather so. This line, which connects the Speaker (the townspeople) to the Subject (Hester’s disposition, which is her newfound ‘saintliness’) stands alone. The Audience (Hester) has chosen to sever ties with choosing to be cordial to the Speaker by refusing to admit to the Standing Subject. Hester has integrated herself so far into the contemplation of her sin, the community’s interpretations have receded substantially within her beliefs to the point where she is expected to comply with their previous assumptions. In other words, the rhetorical triangle was a little too effective, to say the least.
This is unlike the experience from an essay I have read, titled Just Walk on By, written by Brent Staples.
Staples, a black man, discusses his experiences while suffering under the prejudice of being labeled a criminal in various circumstances.
“The fearsomeness mistakenly attributed to me in public places often has a perilous flavor. The most frightening of these confusions occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I worked as a journalist in Chicago.
One day, rushing into the office of a magazine I was writing for with a deadline story in hand, I was mistaken for a burglar. The office manager called security and, with an ad hoc posse, pursued me through the labyrinthine halls, nearly to my editor’s door. I had no way of proving who I was. I could only move briskly toward the company of someone who knew me.”
As Staples continues, it is relevant that he is set on proving this prejudice false rather than comply with the image it has depicted of him; Which is completely incoherent to who he really is.
He says: “And on late-evening constitutionals, along streets less traveled by, I employ what has proved to be an excellent tension reducing measure: I whistle melodies from Beethoven and Vivaldi and the more popular classical composers.
Even steely New Yorkers hunching toward nighttime destinations seem to relax and occasionally they even join in the tune. Virtually everybody seems to sense that a mugger wouldn’t be warbling bright, sunny selections from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.It is my equivalent of the cowbell that hikers wear when they know they are in bear country.”
Obviously, Staples is not another Hester; He defines himself from his own interpretations, which is more definitive of his character than the first impressions the community has on him. Therefore, it is clear that in this case, the individual’s viewpoint is more accountable than the community’s, which I admire in him tremendously, especially since he does that in a way that is comforting both to him and those who may be wary of him on the streets.
This theme of prizing the individual over the community also stands in Judith Ortiz Cofer’s essay: The Myth of the Latin Woman.
This ‘myth’ of Latin women is that Latina women, she finds, particularly Puerto Rican ones, are subjected to sexual harassment and are demeaned on a wide scale, often branded as “hot tamales” who are “sizzling” and “smoldering.”
She writes: “From conversations in my house I recall hearing about the harassment that Puerto Rican women endured in factories where the “boss men” talked to them as if sexual innuendo was all they understood and, worse, often gave them the choice of submitting to advances or being fired.”
Cofer, like Staples, is determined to abort this disgusting practice in which the community unfairly judges the women of her ethnic group based upon a stereotype that belittles them to either as a “whore, domestic, or criminal.”
She says: “We cannot change this by legislating the way people look at us. The transformation, as I see it, has to occur at a much more individual level. ”
In other words, Cofer sees that the way to raise awareness against these prejudiced beliefs is reverse the roles of the Speaker and the Audience on the rhetorical triangle; She believes that Latina women must combat this myth assume the definitive role, to speak of who they really are, and to have the rest of society listen to them. Only then, will they be respected and treated equally.
The Scarlet Letter has answered my question in the sense that it provided me a base for comparison among other Community vs. Individual Relationships with the rhetorical triangle, but to rely on that source alone for uncovering the truth is difficult; With the public saying one thing, and the narrator preaching another. Therefore, reading other works of literature that illustrate a concrete stance on the question, such as the essays I have listed above, allowed me a greater clarity in formulating my response.
So Are we defined by our own individualistic interpretations, or by those of the community?
I believe we are truly defined once each party is given an equal slot of time as a Speaker and as the Audience. The community and the individual must be hear on an equal basis, and only then, is it necessary to compare the third corner of the triangle, the Subject (Which is the definition of the individual or a group), to see whose analysis matches up fitter. More likely it is the individual’s though, I’d say, because then again, who knows yourself better than you?