Thursday, June 7, 2018

Exploding the Canon: Do Students Really Need to Read "The Scarlet Letter"?

Raise your hand if you were assigned reading The Scarlet Letter in high school. Keep your hand up if you actually read it. Continue to keep your hand up if you enjoyed it. I'm betting the raised hands are dwindling.

The Scarlet Letter is one of those works, along with The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, The Odyssey that make up the "literary canon", those classic texts we are all supposed to read. I was assigned it like everyone else. I didn't read it. Neither did most of my tenth grade classmates. Being a generally compliant student, I tried to read it, but I never got past the first couple of chapters. I suspect that The Scarlet Letter is the most assigned, most unread book in the American high school.

The book presented a great many challenges to my tenth grade mind. The greatest challenge was the archaic language and the drudgery involved in understanding what was going on. The sex, deception and community of nasty people were fine, but I just could not engage with this language and the descriptions.

My story has a happy ending. I passed the test on the book (I was really good at listening in class and was good friends with one kid who actually read it). To this day, while I still haven't read the book,  I can answer virtually any Jeopardy! style question on it. In fact, until this very public confession here, no one has ever brought this hole in my education up to me. My life, even my literary life, has not been severely impacted by my failure to read this book. Which brings me to the question, Why do we keep assigning this book to high school students?

The arguments for reading The Scarlet Letter, or any other classic, are many.
  • It's a classic. It has stood the test of time.
  • It has historical and cultural importance.
  • It has beautiful prose, timeless themes, and compelling characters.
  • If students aren't familiar with the classics, students won't understand allusions to them in every day discourse. You can hardly go a day without some reference to a classic text. If we don't study these works we are leaving kids out of participation in our cultural dialogue.
  • I had to read it, so you should, too.
I don't find any of these arguments to be compelling reasons for high school students to read The Scarlet Letter. I certainly think that college English majors and those studying to be English teachers should read the book - in college or as adults. I do think the idea that students need knowledge of the book in order to engage in everyday discourse that includes allusions to these classics is important, but do we really need to read the book to get this knowledge?

Since a classic book has historical and cultural significance, why not study it historically and culturally, as an artifact? After all, we do not need to refight the Battle of Gettysburg to understand its historical and cultural significance. We study about it. Why not study about The Scarlet Letter and read something more contemporary students might find engaging?

Here is what the culturally literate student needs to know about The Scarlet Letter.

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Date of Publication: 1850
Genre: Romantic Novel
Setting: Massachusetts Bay Colony, mid-17th century, the Puritan era
Summary: Hester Prynne, imprisoned for adultery, is paraded through town carrying her child, Pearl, sporting a scarlet letter "A" on her dress marking her for her sin. She refuses to tell who the father of her child is, a child recently born, despite her husband being away for two full years. Hester is visited in prison by her husband, who disguises himself as Dr. Roger Chillingworth and orders Hester to remain silent while he ferrets out who the father is. It does not take long for Chillingworth to figure out that the father is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is too afraid to confess his sin, but feels great pangs of guilt, not to mention being unnerved by the machinations of Chillingworth. Hester tells Dimmesdale who Chillingworth really is and they plan to escape together to England, but Dimmesdale instead confesses his sins, rips open his shirt to show a scarlet wound on his chest and dies. A year later Chillingworth dies, leaving all his money to Pearl. Hester and Pearl escape to England to begin a new life. Hester eventually returns to Massachusetts proudly wearing her scarlet letter and is buried next to Dimmesdale below a gravestone marked with a scarlet "A."
Major Themes: Revenge, Hypocrisy, Guilt and Blame, Women and Femininity, Sin.

Armed with this knowledge, students should be well prepared to parse any Scarlet Letter allusions that come up in conversation. Instead of reading The Scarlet Letter, students could learn about it. We could also show them a movie version, or an adaptation like the movie, The Easy A, which is a lot of fun.

In the meantime, teachers might be more productively engaged in getting students to actually read books that will pique their interest and contribute more fully to their becoming life long readers. Hawthorne, after all, wrote his book for an audience of adults, not high school sophomores. On the other hand, a book like Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has beautiful prose, timeless (and similar) themes, compelling characters and was written for young adult readers. All in all, if we are assigning reading to high schoolers, Speak seems like a better choice than The Scarlet Letter.

I won't argue that we should do away with the canonical literature in our classes entirely and only have kids read contemporary works, but I do think it would be wise to limit the assigning of classics to those that may have most resonance for a particular group of students and mix in plenty of high quality contemporary (and diverse) literature designed to engage readers in actually reading the book. I also think we would do a great service to our students by giving them more of a voice in what they actually read. Who knows, many of these contemporary books they do read may be part of the canon some day and they will have a head start.

For more arguments for and against teaching the classics see the article: “A Classic Debate” by Emily Chiariello in Literacy Today, May/June 2017 (Vol. 34, #6, p. 26-29),