In the final scene of Charles Larson's latest novel, the guilt-haunted minister who is named in the book's title mounts the scaffold in Puritan Boston where Hester Prynne had stood years before, carrying her infant daughter Pearl and wearing on her breast the scarlet letter that was the badge of her shame.
Anyone who has read "The Scarlet Letter" knows how the scene will end. Dimmesdale will confess, in rolling Bible-imbued rhetoric, that he is the monster who got Hester with child. He will tear open his clothing to reveal the scarlet letter imprinted by God's hand on his own flesh (though, years later, some witnesses will say that they saw nothing), and then he will fall dead with only enough time for a few parting words to his partners in this chilling, symbolic drama: Hester, little Pearl and the enigmatic, diabolical Roger Chillingsworth.
In Larson's treatment, the scene is recognizably the same, but he cuts it off before Dimmesdale has said a word to the confused people of Boston and there is no hint that he will die at the end.
Instead, Lawson hints at a happy ending, though he does not quite insist: "There was no trembling within his body as there had been before, no sense of duty or obligation fraught with unresolved turmoil--only a great light that appeared to be coming toward them from some omnipotent source overhead."
In a sense, you might say that Larson had produced a workable Hollywood version of "The Scarlet Letter." You can almost hear the sound track in the background, chorale-like; perhaps a variation on "Praise God from whom all blessings flow," and follow the camera's eye up to the clouds overhead with a shaft of sunlight breaking through. Larson has rewritten the classic to suit the taste of our time, and if he has debased it in some way that is partly an indictment of that taste.
To give him credit, the author of "The Insect Colony" and "Academia Nuts" has chosen a tough assignment for his third novel; there is no way he can avoid close comparison with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Many readers may enjoy him more, but few will admit it.
Larson changes the story in many ways, often modernizing the dialogue in scenes that occur in both novels and adding quite a bit of material passed over by Hawthorne--including a flashback to the seduction scene, in which it turns out that Hester was actually the instigator, luring the unwitting minister to his destruction. His focus on Dimmesdale rather than Hester is not that radical a departure from his model.
Hawthorne might, in fact, have titled his novel "Arthur Dimmesdale," had he chosen, but he probably (and quite correctly) saw bigger box-office potential in "The Scarlet Letter." The simple fact is that most societies find less interest in a man's adultery than a woman's--possibly because men do not become pregnant but more likely because women have been traditionally regarded as property, men as free agents.
Where Larson will gain points with many readers is in his modernizing of the style. He has produced a trim, fairly fast-moving contemporary novel on his old-fashioned subject, and in a face-to-face comparison he makes Hawthorne sound chatty, repetitious and frequently downright obtrusive.
The convention in most novels since Joyce and Hemingway has been to make the novelist almost invisible, and Larson respects that convention. In contrast, Hawthorne opens with a substantial chunk of autobiography, ostensibly to tell how he learned about Hester but actually to get some personal resentments off his chest. Throughout the novel, he closes the curtain every few pages and steps out front to remind the reader that he is dealing in heavy symbolism or to deliver a little monologue. Larson simply gets on with his business of telling us what happened next.
In keeping with his modern style, Larson is more explicit and less suggestive than Hawthorne; he does not work his symbols quite so heavily, and his writing is considerably less atmospheric. Ultimately, it makes little difference that he disagrees with Hawthorne on whether Dimmesdale was present at Gov. Winthrop's deathbed.
But it may bother some readers that his characters talk more like people of the 20th than those of the 16th century. This is not too bothersome when they are speaking basic English, but it grates when they indulge in specialized modernisms: the use of "persona," for example, in a sense that did not become current until the early 20th century, or of "ploy" in a sense that was invented by Stephen Potter for his books on gamesmanship.There is also the repeated mention of a "flintlock" (which was part of a rifle) rather than a tinderbox, which Arthur Dimmesdale would have used to light his candle.
Hawthorne lived in an age of tinderboxes and less contaminated English, so that he did not have to worry about such points. Larson, as a modern writer returning to a period much more remote, should have worked harder.