Detail from the painting The Scarlet Letter by Hugues Merle. 1859. Via Wikipedia.
I’ve said it before. When Republicans read Oliver Twist they think, “You know, that workhouse sounds awfully cushy.”
Now we know that at least one Republican running for President missed the point of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
You’ve probably heard that in a book he wrote in 1995 when he was running for governor of Florida the first time (He lost that one.), Jeb Bush came out in favor of publicly shaming unwed mothers and pointed to The Scarlet Letter as though it was 1. actual history, 2. a lesson in civil government, and 3. a depiction of a morally superior society we’d be well to emulate today.
This is Hawthorne’s depiction of the society so good at shaming unwed mothers Jeb Bush praised and helped try to bring back with a law he signed when he was governor (having won the office on his second try, just in time to help his brother steal the Presidential election):
The grass-plot before the jail, in Prison Lane, on a certain summer morning, not less than two centuries ago, was occupied by a pretty large number of the inhabitants of Boston, all with their eyes intently fastened on the iron-clamped oaken door. Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some rioted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child, whom his parents had given over to the civil authority, was to be corrected at the whipping-post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle or vagrant Indian, whom the white man's firewater had made riotous about the streets, was to be driven with stripes into the shadow of the forest. It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter-tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows. In either case, there was very much the same solemnity of demeanour on the part of the spectators, as befitted a people among whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful. Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that a transgressor might look for, from such bystanders, at the scaffold. On the other hand, a penalty which, in our days, would infer a degree of mocking infamy and ridicule, might then be invested with almost as stern a dignity as the punishment of death itself.
And this is how Hester wore the mark of her shame:
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore, and which was of a splendour in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony.
The public shaming of Hester Prynne that opens The Scarlet Letter is shown to be part and parcel of an authoritarian and rigidly legalistic culture based on religious intolerance, racism and white supremacy, slavery, superstition, and legalized sadism. Oh, and did I mention the misogyny? Yes, they knew how to shame unwed mothers, and they knew how to hang witches.
I’d hate to know what Jeb thinks is the moral of The Crucible.
The Scarlet Letter is about the hypocrisy and cruelty of the society and the religion that Bush appears to have been nostalgic for. Hester is the novel’s heroine for defying that society, for refusing to be shamed. The climax of the story is the revelation and public shaming of the chief hypocrite and moral coward.
Did Bush or his ghost writer ever read the book? Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter to condemn and reject what Jeb Bush is using it to justify. It’s as though he read it and said, “That Chillingworth fellow, he seems like a decent chap.”
Twenty years have gone by since Jeb wrote his book and his views may have changed and he may even have gone back and re-read The Scarlet Letter and understood it this time. It doesn’t matter, because if anything the party he wants to nominate him for President has grown even more Puritanical since then and the public shaming of women, all sexually active women, not just unwed mothers, is intrinsic to their public social policies and private religion and morality. Hawthorne would recognize them at a glance.
Shoot. As usual, I had trouble keeping up with the rest of the class. Here’s Buzzfeed doing their usual cut and paste tweet report: Twitter Had A Lot Of Fun Imagining Jeb Bush In English Class.
A gold star for Lauren: “Why is Jacob Marley being punished for his success? A Christmas Carol is class warfare on the rich!”