“The Scarlet Letter” The Custom House + Ch. 1-4

I read The Scarlet Letter in high school, but it’s funny how much of it I forgot until this re-reading. As I was reading I continually kept thinking “Oh, yeah! I forgot about that!” or “I think this will be important later.” I’m actually looking forward to re-reading and remembering why I liked this novel in the first place.

Early on we get an image of a rose bush that just happens to be there by the prison door. This was one of the images that I thought might come up a few times. Hawthorne somewhat hints at its significance He says,

“It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow,” (34).

Maybe this symbol was places early on in the book to foretell the tone of the rest of the story. Hester Prynne will of course be mocked and hated for what she did, but throughout there may also be a hint of mercy that pops up in places as well.  It could represent the other side of the punishment and harshness. Religion plays a big role in the story, and the rose bush may represent the forgiving aspect. Though Hester will have to wear the scarlet “A” for the rest of her life, that doesn’t mean that she can’t gain forgiveness for her actions. And to show the rose bush in contrast to the darkness of the prison door is important, especially since the rose bush has apparently stayed alive throughout history. I thought it was an interesting symbol to place in this negative situation.

A part I thought was really interesting was how Hester’s long lost husband returns while she is standing before everyone and says to the people:

“‘A wise sentence!’ remarked the stranger, gravely bowing his head. ‘Thus she will be a living sermon against sin, until the ignominious letter be engraved upon her tombstone. It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not, at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. But he will be known!–he will be known!–he will be known,'” (44).

Then the man hold a finger to his lips so that Hester doesn’t say anything, but she seems to only vaguely recognize him. It isn’t until later we find out that he is her husband, and he doesn’t seem to thrilled to find out that Hester had a child with another man. He is so determined to find out who the man is, yet he was the one who disappeared. We are also left wondering why Hester is keeping the man who broke the law with her a secret from everyone. Why would she want to protect him and get in trouble alone? Perhaps he has a reputation to uphold. And when her husband asks her to keep the secret about who he is, Hester agrees to. Why would she also want to protect the identity of her husband? Will she keep these secrets?

At the end of this reading section, it seemed to me that Hester’s husband was already planning his schemes because when Hester asks if he intends to ruin her soul, his response is: “‘Not thy soul,’ he answered, with another smile. ‘No, not thine,'” (53). I am curious to see where this subplot goes (thought I think I might remember what happens). Hester’s husband seems intent on ruining the soul of the man who got Hester pregnant.

I’m also concerned about the mysterious drink that he gave to Hester and the baby though Chillingworth insisted that he doesn’t mean to kill them. Maybe so that Hester can continue to live in shame? Regardless, there are some fishy things going on with that man, and the name Chillingworth seems rather appropriate to me.

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman

This poem intrigued me because Whitman’s inspiration is the death of Abraham Lincoln. Maybe it’s because I have not experienced a presidential death in my time, but I thought it was strange that he was so deeply affected by this death as if he knew the president personally. But what I found most interesting is how Whitman, unlike most authors we have read previously, relates death with spring. That isn’t a concept we are used to. He writes,

“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d, / And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, / I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring,” (3312).

Not only does Whitman mourn during that particular spring, but he will continue to for every spring to follow, which increases my curiosity about why Whitman was so damaged by this death. Spring has been tainted for the poet which tells us why he associates many commonly positive symbols with death instead, such as the bird and the flowers and the land. Whitman singles out a “gray-brown” bird in the poem as his singer of death which struck me because it sounds like such an ordinary bird of no significance or relation to death. Of all the birds in nature, Whitman chooses the most ordinary to represent death and sing death’s song. Aside from the crow or raven, I have never heard of birds representing death, so that is just another example of how Whitman is unique in his spring symbols.

Then we get into the actual song that the bird sings, which is also quite different as it describes death as something soothing and good. He goes as far as to call death the “Dark Mother.”

“Dark Mother always gliding near with soft feet, / Have none chanted for thee a chant fullest welcome? / Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all, / I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly,” (3317).

Whitman gives the Dark Mother soft feet and a glorified nature. The bird sings of praising the Mother above all else which makes it seem like nothing is better than death and that we should view death as a warm embrace or something to find comfort in. One could argue that the Dark Mother isn’t a comforting symbol because of her darkness and sort of creepy description, but I think the fact that she is called a Mother and is soft and joyous is meant to be a positive symbol.

The song continues to praise death as it goes on, making it sound like something wonderful. This is interesting when related to Whitman’s association of death with spring. He still describes nature in depth and includes many aspects of it, but he taints it with the birds singing of death and the images of the family members suffering as the poem is almost finished. This poem is unique in the way it does not associate spring with life. This is a definite change from Thoreau and Emerson.

Whitman’s preface to “Leaves of Grass”

I thought this preface was interesting because Whitman mainly talks about what makes a great poet. Some of it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t remember if I’d read this before or not. Regardless, I enjoyed some of the points he brings up in the reading.

Whitman brings up the idea of past, present, and future in a way I liked. One of the quotes that stood out for me was in that section.

Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is. He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet…he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you.

This reminded me of how people will sometimes say that individuals or characters will live on in writing. It’s the idea that when you’re reading a poem it doesn’t matter when the narrator or characters lived because a great poet should be able to transfer their poem to any present. In that way, I like that Whitman refers to the past, present, and future as joined. Perhaps Whitman also believed that by calling the past to the present he might learn something new about that time or even himself. When he talks about consistence of what is to be, has been, and is, it seems like he is again reinforcing the connection between past and present and future. I know other poets have given their various opinions about what makes a great poet, but I don’t recall any referring to this connection.

Another part of the preface that I took not of was when Whitman brings up the idea of poets and non-poets being on equal terms.

The messages of great poets to each man and woman are, Come to us on equal terms, Only then can you understand us, We are not better than you, What we enclose you enclose, What we enjoy you enjoy. Did you suppose there could be only one Supreme? We affirm there can be unnumbered Supremes, and that one does not countervail another any more than one eyesight countervails another…

Before I get into my analysis, the “Supreme” he mentions reminded me of a TV show, American Horror Story: Coven. In the show a coven of witches are all fighting about who should be the next Supreme after the old one dies. It’s been made a sort of joke with people, which is why I kind of laughed when I read the Whitman line. Moving past the humorous part, I really liked the quote though.

supreme chart

I found this interesting for Whitman to say because he isn’t taking on that elitist stance, thinking that great poets are above the rest of society. He even addresses both man and woman without putting man ahead of woman. That’s something we haven’t seen in our readings yet. Usually woman don’t get mentioned at all or they are referred to as lower than men. Whitman is saying that both man and woman can understand the great poets, indicating that he believes woman can be intelligent as well and can be on equal understanding terms. Whitman definitely tries to make the idea of a great poet something important but not something so important that people wouldn’t understand unless they too are a great poet.

He even says that they enjoy the same things as everyone else, revealing that he and other great poets aren’t constantly on some higher up wavelength of thinking. Then he goes on about the Supremes and how there doesn’t have to be one single Supreme because there is not one single way to see things ever. He tells us that one opinion doesn’t have to override another.

Whitman seems to be taking a stance that the previous poets we’ve read about haven’t. He talks about equality and connecting the past, present, and future. I enjoyed reading about what makes a great poet in his opinion.

Thoreau’s “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” & “Spring”

Before I bring up my quotes from the two pieces, I can’t help but make a connection using one of my favorite bands.  In “Spring,” Thoreau describes for us the process of winter becoming spring and how that makes him feel. On page 2021 he states, “I looked out the window, and lo! where yesterday was cold gray ice there lay the transparent pond already calm and full of hope…” This, along with several other instances, show how Thoreau views the new season and all of the hop it brings. That reminded me of a part of a song that I like, Winter Winds by Mumford & Sons. The line says:

And if your strife strikes at your sleep

remember spring swaps snow for leaves.

You’ll be happy and wholesome again

when the city clears and sun ascends.

After these lines, the song builds up with the use of trumpets, and the effect is extremely hopeful. In the music video, they even have parts where the band is being one with nature. Immediately, my mind wandered to this when I read “Spring” even if the rest of the song doesn’t relate as well. Though there is a hopeful tone throughout the entirety of the song.

Beyond that long ramble, the actual quote that struck me from “Spring” is on page 2027.

I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one. It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves.

I really liked this quote, particularly the second part of it, because it addresses something that many people can relate to, including myself. Once we find ourselves getting into a specific routine, it can be hard to come out of that because we start to build strict comfort zones. But what I find most intriguing about this sentence is how Thoreau uses the word “insensibly.” Is it insensitive to ourselves? The people around us? If he is talking about the self then it’s almost an encouraging line because it’s as if Thoreau is urging us to think of ourselves and have respect for ourselves because to fall into an easy path won’t bring us to the success we are capable of if we instead did something different for a change.

This explanation could be true if we look at the first part of the quote as well. He’s said that he moved out of the woods because he has more lives to live, and this might be a hint at his way of not staying on his beaten path. By living different lives he could be experiencing more of life and nature in a different way. I just like that Thoreau addresses this natural human tendency because it’s not necessarily something I think about all the time.

In the other piece, “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For,” there is a line on page 2002 that I enjoy.

Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail.

This quote stuck out to me probably because I try in my own life to not get stressed or worry about too many problems/assignments at once. I always think to myself that I will either get something done or I won’t, and I probably will. If I don’t then I still probably won’t die. Of course, this is easy for some people and extremely hard for others, but I like Thoreau’s instance on simplicity and keeping affairs to a minimum. Often, people get so preoccupied by all of their problems that it takes away from enjoying one’s self. I relate it back to the quote from “Spring” because if we are constantly worried then we will never get off the beaten path that he mentions.

Going off of this, I also liked a quote on the next page that sort of related. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry.” I think this is applicable to modern times especially because everyone is concerned with their own lives and how they can advance and get ahead of everyone else. Sometimes it’s okay to just slow down and take a breather and get off the beaten path.

Margaret Fuller from “Women in the 19th Century”

I thought this was an interesting essay about women, written in a unique way. I especially enjoyed the historical aspects as well as Fuller’s mention of the Roman gods (1959). That part where she brings up Proclus’s ideas about power and spheres was something i never would have thought of while writing about this topic. But the part that was most memorable for me was on page 1947 where Fuller includes the conversation about the man discussing a woman in the household.

“Have you ever asked her whether she was satisfied with these indulgences?”

“No, but I know she is. She is too amiable to wish what would make me unhappy, and too judicious to wish to step beyond the sphere of her sex. I will never consent to have our peace disturbed by an such discussion,”

Then the conversation continues when he says, “Am I not the head of the house?” She says, “You are not the head of your wife. God has given her a mind of her own.” And he says, “I am the head and she the heart.”

I thought this bit of dialogue demonstrated the problem the author wanted to explain. It says a lot about the time that the male cannot see the woman as anything more than the “heart.” He doesn’t see her as his equal and he ignores the fact that she has a mind of her own because woman weren’t thought of as intelligent or powerful in that time. I like the comparison of the heart and the head because usually those two part of the human body are thought of as being equally important and working together. They may oppose each other, but they often go hand in hand. The way the comparison is used here is in a negative way, though the male may not even realize this. He believes it should be an honor for the woman to be the heart, but in reality they should both play heart and head equally in order to create a marriage of equality. Each one should possess head and heart and neither should be more dominant than the other.

Those ideas relate to the second quote that I felt contributed to the main point of the article.

Yet, then and only then, will mankind be ripe for this, when inward and outward freedom for Woman as much as for Man shall be acknowledged as a right, not yielded as a concession.

I liked this quote because it could almost be a response to the former quote where the man and woman are discussing the idea of consent. The quote doesn’t say that a woman should hold more power over man or that a woman is more important. It says that they should both be acknowledged as equals because being equals would be a basic human right rather than something to consent to. This reminded me of the head and heart idea and how woman and man should build each other up as well as build off of each other. Each sex is its own entity, independent of the other. That doesn’t mean one has to be inferior to the other, but that they should each recognize that they are their own person and own mind.  Then men will stop assuming things about a woman’s feelings or mind and understand that they are allowed to think and have opinions just as strongly as a man.

Emerson’s “Nature” Ch. 1-5

I read a little bit of Emerson in my junior year high school English class, but at the time I didn’t really think about it too much. Coming back to it now, I can appreciate it more after having further experience with nature-based literature. There were several quotes that stood out in these five chapters, but the two I chose made me stop and ponder the longest.

“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to influence. Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort  her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all of her perfection,” (1827).

This quote creates a very mystical image with the mention of stars and impressions and the idea of perfection. I felt that Emerson was giving nature a humanistic description, but at the same time I understood that it was something beyond my containment or control. I was introduced to the idea that nature is so vast and complex that though it may always be present, there is no way to access or grasp all of it at once. Nature is described as so perfect and important that even the wisest man can never truly understand it completely. That line is what really struck me because there are countless aspects of the world that humans are able to understand with the use of intelligence, but the very earth itself is beyond our capacity. I related this to the rest of the sections by thinking about how mankind can see nature as so many different things, but the fact is that truly understanding it is an entirely different concept. There really is no way to know all of nature’s secrets, and that might frustrate some people, but I think it’s fascinating to consider and discuss.

“Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul, he calls Reason: It is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men. And the blue sky in which the private earth is buried, the sky with its eternal calm, and full of everlasting orbs, is the type of Reason,” (1834).

I think it’s interesting that Emerson refers to Reason as the “universal soul” because it belongs to nobody though we all belong to it. Again, I thought the tone was sort of ethereal in talking about the earth and the sky and orbs and the universe. That’s something I highly enjoy in writing because it makes me sense that there is so much more to the universe than just mankind. It makes the topic Emerson is talking about feel big and important, yet somehow almost not real.

To call the universal soul Reason seems like a bold statement, but Emerson makes me believe it the way he describes how we as humans are property to it. He also talks about calmness in relation to the earth which I think about with encounters of nature. Nature makes the universe seem calm. It’s also interesting that Emerson brings up Justice, Truth, Love, and Freedom because these are virtues that we hear about over and over again. They’re like the big four (especially in Greek thought). But we don’t often hear about Reason as much. That is what made the quote stand out for me.

I enjoyed reading about nature and how Emerson described it.