22 March 2010
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1991. 371 p., $4.00.
I recently decried to my wife how there are no great American authors. I love Dostoevsky, Verne, Dickens, Hugo, Wilde, etc., and I felt that American literature was sorely lacking when compared with these great authors of fiction. In response, Jamie got this novel off our bookshelves and suggested that I read it. After having read Hawthorne's classic, I must immediately retract my sweeping condemnation of American authors. My lack of esteem for this continent is due more to my own ignorance than to any deficiency on the part of America's authors. Hawthorne's exquisite use of the English language and evocative imagery are nearly unparalleled. And in dealing with a challenging subject--adultery--the author has compelled me to revisit assumptions about the public good, sin, repentance, and social welfare.
The Scarlet Letter begins ominously on the day of the trial for a woman found guilty of adultery in colonial Massachusetts. The crime is made apparent by the child in her arms, but mystery surrounds the second party who must necessarily be party to the crime. Still, the woman named Hester Prynne is condemned to wear the letter A on her clothes for the rest of her life to stigmatize her for her crime against society. The book unfolds during the next seven years with piercing insights into both Prynne, her daughter, and eventually, the father of the child. The novel proceeds almost as a mystery since one guilty party has been duly convicted of society while the other remains only in the shadows. And too, the author narrates the story as if he is unsure of the justice of the arrangement as well as the morality of the entire situation.
Throughout the novel, Hawthorne continually returns to questions concerning society's responsibility towards the wayward. What is the role of guilt in reformation? Is social ostracism the appropriate means of punishment? Or should society rather focus on reforming citizens rather than punishing them? Though the subject matter has certainly changed over time--an adultery trial today would seem laughable--the debate over our criminal justice system remains.
For me, an additional question emerged from reading this book: what is the role/purpose of guilt? From what does guilt spring? If guilt is inherent in the act of doing wrong, then the role of society would seem to be minimal at best since no one can escape the consequences of their actions. If on the other hand guilt is a social construct then society must be intimately involved in order to preserve certain norms of behavior. Part of the beauty of this novel is Hawthorne's ability to investigate these issues without trying to force his opinion across. His narration is thorough, entertaining, and informative. But it is also objective.
Finally, I was enthralled with the author's use of the English language. I have rarely, if ever, felt so jealous of an author's vocabulary or grammatical abilities. True, the sentences are complex and require real concentration, but the reward is significant. The full depth and capabilities of English are on full display in this novel. No wonder then that many high school classes read this book. I only wonder how I missed out on such a great American classic all these years.
02 March 2010
I have heard about this book since I was a young teenager. And I have glanced at hundreds of books that were shameless rip-offs in every bookstore I have ever visited. In fact, after having read this classic self-help life coaching manual, I am left to believe that every other self-help book is a plagiarized version of Carnegie's ideas on public speaking and living. Indeed, my overall impression of this book is that Carnegie's ideas are so simple and pervasive in modern business that reading the book is almost rendered unnecessary. But it is nonetheless interesting to go back to the original source.
Carnegie's fundamental thesis is nothing other than the golden rule: Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. His genius lies in showing how taking such an approach can benefit you individually. Carnegie recognizes that everyone is inherently selfish and does not attempt to deny the fact. Rather, he uses our intrinsic self-interest as a means to motivate towards better and more considerate behavior towards others. Remembering names, avoiding contention, showing interest in others, being humble all enable business owners, parents, friends, co-workers etc. achieve what they want in their interactions with others. The "secret" is simply choosing-through self-interest alone- to be the one person who is not explicitly acting in a selfish manner.
The tone of the book is positive throughout and full of success stories of individuals who applied the principals found in the book. Incidentally, the stories are a fascinating insight into the business environment of the country one century ago. Much has changed, and I suspect Carnegie's principles may be less effective in the non-personal interactions of computers, emails, and such.
The book walks a fine line between cynical manipulation and positive selflessness. The author is careful to point out at regular intervals that faking is a bad idea; to truly win friends and influence people, you have to be sincerely interested in others and be concerned for them. Despite these warnings however, the book does a poor job of showing the negative consequences of acting insincerely. A few stories showing how manipulation backfires and is morally reprehensible would have been a positive contribution. I fear however that many unscrupulous people have twisted this book's message to their own purposes. And many more have plagiarized Carnegie's style and subject material to further their own ends.
Ultimately, I find Carnegie's book an attempt to teach basic religion in a business context. While such a book can be helpful, it will likely only partially succeed because it fails to place such behavior in a broader context. Religion embeds human behavior within a narrative that supersedes any individual or community; a connection to something greater than ourselves is a basic human need that I personally believe only religion can adequately satisfy.