Book Simple: EASY A vs THE SCARLETT LETTER
Growing up in Marblehead, Massachusetts, next door to infamous Salem, meant that our high school English teachers were contractually obligated to cram a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel down our throats every September, followed up with a yearly breeze through The Crucible. Once I’d escaped that dreary tradition I assumed I would never read any Hawthorne (or Miller for that matter) again. But this Friday I saw a movie that changed my feelings for Hawthorne and even high school entirely, a movie that I am so eager for you to watch that I am willing to do the unthinkable: read The Scarlet Letter again.
The movie is Easy A, starring Emma Stone, a young actress whose charm and adorable smile makes you want to try being eighteen again, but this time with even a tenth of her confidence. Seriously, imagine high school lived as a glorious madcap romp. I’d have thought it was impossible, but then I watched Easy A on Friday, and its afterglow floated me through the weekend. Frankly, I may, like Barney in How I Met Your Mother, tell my new friends in DC fictional stories about my teenage years that begin, “Well, my gay friend was being picked on, so we decided to pretend to have sex at the popular kids’ weekend party to make him look straight.”
The story that follows this premise does such an amazing job of examining the modern resonances within The Scarlet Letter about the role of reputation and the damaging power of secrets that I’d really rather that you stop reading my column and head to your nearest movie theater. However, as many of you are gainfully employed (Hi fellow cubicle dwellers!) you’ll have to put up with me instead.
Hawthorne begins his morality tale in Boston, near to his own hometown of Salem, where he claims to discover a “mysterious package” containing “a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded, [with] traces about it of gold embroidery, which, however, was greatly frayed and defaced, so that none, or very little of the glitter was left.” The object is accompanied by the history of Hester Prynne, to whom we are introduced as she is led out of prison to the jeers of her fellow townspeople. “There are few uglier traits of human nature than this tendency” Hawthorne notes “[of men] to grow cruel merely because they possessed the power of inflicting harm.”
Hester has borne a child out of wedlock. The Puritan courts convict her as an adulteress and condemn her to wear a scarlet letter A, ensuring that “every gesture, every word, and even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere.”
Hester’s story shows us the cruelty and hypocrisy of authority, the dangers of keeping secrets, the futility of flight from our own history. As I re-read the book, I began to see why teachers would imagine it a useful one for high school students, despite its rather aged prose. The best lesson, I think, is that Hester adapts to her circumstances. Expected to grow “dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, [Hester’s detractors] were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped.” Remaining an outcast, Hester raises her daughter Pearl alone, refusing to name the child’s father. Pearl, “an imp of evil, emblem and product of sin,” grows up a living embodiment of the scarlet letter – truthful, fearless, and utterly cut off from societal constraints.
In Easy A, Emma Stone’s Olive becomes both Hester and Pearl at once, both Angel of Mercy and wild impish outcast. Agreeing to keep secret after secret, Olive finds herself like Hester “made the common infamy, at which all mankind was summoned to point its finger.” And when she asks at last to be freed from her web of concealment, Olive finds herself betrayed or abandoned by the same people she has helped, which becomes the premise for the best literary joke I’ve ever seen in a movie.
Seriously go see it. It’ll make your week better. It’ll make your life better. It’ll make you want to wear a scarlet letter.
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