The Scarlet Number

How does community affect an individual’s ability to express his or her self?

First, picture a small, 17th century settlement on the northeastern coast of the United States.  To say that this community is a budding new nation is a laughable notion; it is merely the trans-Atlantic outskirts of Europe, barely qualifying as the edge of civilization.  The Puritans, having traveled too far from mother England to take much with them, built a village from scratch and are going about their everyday lives: the men are working out in the field, the women are cooking and doing other household chores and the children are helping out with whatever they can.  Daily routine is the same each day: wake up, work (attend church if it is Sunday), sleep, and repeat.  The air is salty and reeks of the overbearing smell of fish and seaweed, the people are austere and plainly dressed, and the wind as cold and unforgiving as the law of the land.  A lone woman walks throughout town, attracting sidelong glances from all, young and old.  Hester Prynne, with her red “A” emblazoned on her dress, is no rare sight in town, but the townspeople part for her as if her sin were contagious.

What does Hester Prynne’s tale, as captured in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, have to do with one’s self-expression?  Perhaps, an even better question, universally championed by students, to ask is: why does it even matter?  

To answer my first question, I started by reading The Scarlet Letter, a novel idea, I know.  The effect of the Puritan community is apparent from the first chapters.  Hawthorne introduces Hester Prynne using the gossip of the townswomen, who are waiting for Hester’s march to the scaffold in the center of the marketplace, where her sin will be put on display.  Hester, after emerging from the prison, appears “with a burning blush, and yet a haughty smile, and a glance that would not be abashed. . . ” (Chapter 2, paragraph 10).  Though Hawthorne claims that Hester has merely abandoned her shame because she knows that it is inevitably shown, this subtle shift in demeanor is based more in Puritan belief, which upholds Calvinist predestination.  Predestination is the belief that God has already decided where one’s soul is headed: heaven or hell.  It might seem odd that the Puritans were such strict and rule-adhering people because their fate has already been decided; however, one’s life has to reflect one’s destination in the after-life, so those who are destined to go to heaven must act as earthly saints.  If misfortune was to befall a person, it was God’s will that made it so; therefore, that person must be destined for hell.  This belief led many Puritans to hide their sins and put on a facade of false perfection.  Hester Prynne, though she is suffering terribly “under the heavy weight of a thousand unrelenting eyes, all fastened upon her, and concentered at her bosom” (Chapter 2, Paragraph 20), hides all traces of fear and cowering.  Instead, she attempts to save some face by not allowing her dignity to be taken away along with respect.  Hester does not accept her fate as a doomed person and resists the temptation to wallow in self-pity and guilt, which would lead to her branding as a shameful sinner.

Once Hester’s public trial is over, Hester and her daughter, Pearl, move into an abandoned cottage outside of town.  Initially, Hester is greeted with immediate alienation upon entering the town, but eventually, Hester’s calm, unintrusive behavior and performance of many good works transforms the meaning scarlet letter sewn on Hester’s attire from adulteress to “Able. . . The letter was the symbol of her calling” (Chapter 13, paragraph 3) .  In Hester’s refusal to accept her fate and her actions that support this statement, the people come to change their minds about Hester, and upon inspecting her, find not a fallen woman, but a steadfast aide of the ailing.  In her persevering effort to not succumb to society’s expectations of her, Hester overcomes most of the stigma associated with her letter and becomes more accepted in society.

Today, our society is focused on technology that will streamline our access to information.  Want to read a book?  Well you don’t have to take the time to get an actual book, you can just buy and read a book on your Nook/ Kindle.  Whoops, forgot that your friend has a birthday today?  Well that’s okay, because Facebook tells you when your friend’s birthday is, you can just pretend as if you knew their birthday all along.  Want to get in touch with that friend you haven’t called in ages?  Just give them a message on Facebook to show them that you care (somewhat).  It seems that when it comes to science, society says, “So where’s the part that will make (insert verb, like losing weight or underwater basketweaving) easier/faster?”

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Credits to Jiuguang Wang on Flickr.

 

In Facebook Friendonomics, Scott Brown warns of the negative consequences that accompany convenience.  Brown states that “friendship is biodegradable”, and by “staying connected” with old friends via Facebook, we’re desperately nurturing dead relationships and violating the premises of friendship by refusing to let friendships die peacefully.  Being “friends” with hundreds of people encourages superficial ties and hampers our ability to form intimate friendships.  Communication, believe it or not, becomes increasingly impersonal as the closest you get to someone becomes scrolling down your newsfeed absentmindedly.  The fact that people are technically connected to their friends is much more convenient than actually having to meet with friends: this way, you can have maintain a work life and have “friends” as well, right?  Not quite.

Similarly, in Malcolm Gladwell’s Small Change, Gladwell discusses the difference in today’s definition of revolution and movements for change before Internet came to be.  He recounts the a key event in the Civil Rights movement: the sit-in a Woolsworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina and compares it to today’s rather lackluster “revolutions” on Facebook and Twitter.  Though glad that pressing issues are getting public recognition, I agree that tweeting and sharing is a weak way to show support because as soon as news isn’t “new” anymore, people drop the subject and move on to the next trending issue, no matter if the previous issue was solved yet.  Early this summer, a popular tweet was #BringBackOurGirls.  Where are the Nigerian girls now?  The online community, though effective at communicating thought, cultivates no action, as Gladwell points out, because it doesn’t promote the same type of active involvement that physical protesting requires.  It’s all too convenient to express “support” for human’s rights issues today: just press retweet to make a difference.

Now what does any of this have to do with “real life”?  The issue goes beyond number of friends and number of posts to prove prolific humanitarian activism.  Each one of us is in a battle against numbers.

No, I don’t mean the AP Calculus class that you dread with a fiery passion.  I mean our struggle against being transformed into numbers and being filed away in neat, little sections in our world’s file cabinet.  If we could just be strangled, muted and stuffed into small boxes, that would be very convenient for the world, don’t you think?

As a teenager, I feel this categorization sharply.  Day after day, I am assailed by the same types of questions, “What’s your GPA?  What’s your class rank?  How many AP classes are you taking?  How’d you do on your latest test?”.  It doesn’t matter what form the questions are in, they’re always there, looming over my shoulder.  I guess here and there, getting asked these things is alright, but when it’s all that people ask, I begin to believe don’t think people see me anymore.  I am reduced to sheer numbers.

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I know though, that I am not alone.  The numbers find other ways to manifest in our lives.  “On a scale of one to ten, how cute is that guy across the hall?”  “She’s so skinny, she should put on a few pounds so she won’t look like a stick.”  “How many girlfriends has he had now, 20?”  So many of our problems can be traced back to numbers, but it’s up to us whether or not to accept our labels.  Will we take up our scarlet numbers and resign to wear them on our chests?  Or will we throw them away and make an identity for ourselves?  A community only inhibits an individual’s  ability to express him or her self when he or she does not resist quantification.  We don’t choose what kind of community we grow up in, but we can choose how we respond.

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The Scarlet Number

2 thoughts on “The Scarlet Number

  1. I. Totally. Agree.
    It is completely your own choice whether you decide to change yourself and for your community. It’s your choice whether you screw all the communities and decide to be your own individual. Think of this, aren’t communities just giant groups of individuals? So if we put it on a larger scale, the world is just made of individuals- communities, of course.
    Numbers are just easy ways to label people in our society. I mean, you’re categorized by likes, or followers, or Facebook friends. In school, we’re ranked by our freaking number.
    But I am going to say this, Maggie. People look up to you because of your sheer humbleness and of course, your number.
    Maybe you should take the ‘number’ label, and look at it in a more positive way. Of course, don’t let it get to your head, but maybe it’s not such a bad thing!

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  2. I like your whole “we are who we let ourselves be” motif; it’s really intriguing. And I am SO glad that you talked about the numbers in everyday life, because I know it’s something that every person, not only teenager, has faced at some point in their life. It’s awful that we reduce people to such neat little boxes, because people are so much more than that and deserve to be treated as such.

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