When one of my teaching pastors at church recently named his newborn daughter Prynne, I decided to pick up and re-read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hester Prynne is Hawthorne’s iconic protagonist, and one heckuva woman. While this book has always had a place on my shelf, I had previously not read it in years and had forgotten most of its wisdom.
The novel begins with Hester Prynne’s release from prison. Her crime, you ask? Well she became pregnant and was not married. She refused to give up the name of the baby’s father, so Hester have birth to her little girl and was publicly shamed and forever banished with one little letter – a scarlet A, trimmed in gold thread, which she wore on her chest every single day. A very talented seamstress, Hester makes her living and supports her family of two by living on the outskirts of own and making beautifully crafted articles of clothing for even the most esteemed members of her little Puritan community. Hester’s daughter Pearl, the “elf child”, grows up with only herself as a her best playmate.
I won’t spoil the rest of the story (however it was published 165 years ago so there really shouldn’t be any spoilers), but this little book has such a different meaning to me now than it did when I was in middle school. I didn’t understand the weight of Hester’s shame and the letter A when I was a pre-teen, but now I know it all too well. I didn’t understand the evil of Roger Chillingworth, but now I know what it is like to live in fear of someone who knows secrets and threatens to reveal them. I didn’t understand the pain in Arthur Dimmesdale’s heart when the author wrote, “To the untrue man, the whole universe is false–it is impalpable–it shrinks to nothing within his grasp,” but now I have felt that pain.
So many themes from The Scarlet Letter weave in and out of my counseling sessions. Betrayal, grief, loss, pain, shame, suffering, duplicity of the heart and mind, love lost, a mother’s sacrifice, lies, infidelity, and deceit all make up the intricate threads that are sewn together in the fabric of our broken hearts.
One of the biggest gifts Hester shares with my clients can be found in the following line: “She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.” I love the saying, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” When Hester is able to share her burden with someone else and discard the letter A, she begins to experience freedom from the darkness of shame.
I never knew the full weight of my story until I had experienced freedom from the past and to dream about the future. That is gift I hope to introduce people to hour after hour, week after week, month after month: the gift of freedom. I don’t have the gift itself or the source of it, but I get to talk about it and share it, and that is pretty astounding.