As we get ready for President Clinton's testimony before Kenneth Starr's grand jury today, perhaps the classic American novel of adultery, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter," can teach us a little about compassion about sexual matters.
Like any traditional Victorian, Hawthorne took adultery seriously. He was no liberal who thought the bedroom was purely private. Never in the course of his novel does he endorse Hester Prynne's belief that her love affair with the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale "had a consecration of its own." Their daughter Pearl, Hawthorne makes clear, has been psychologically damaged by their affair, and so has the moral order of Puritan Boston. Dimmesdale dies a broken man, and Hester takes her daughter to England, returning to Boston only in her final years.
Yet Hawthorne is even tougher on the adulterous couple's Puritan critics. In the novel's opening scene, he portrays them as men and women in sad-colored garments with looks of grim rigidity who gather in front of the town jail to stare at Hester. This harsh visual perspective of the Puritans is one that only Hester could have, and it increases our sympathy for her. Hawthorne goes on to observe of the Puritan rulers, "They were, doubtless, good men, just, and sage. But, out of the whole human family, it would not have been easy to select the same number of wise and virtuous persons less capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman's heart." In their zeal to punish, in their commitment to the letter rather than the spirit of the religion they profess, the Puritans ruin two lives and demean their own.