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A Useful Lesson About Sex From a Victorian

Scandal: President Clinton won't be wearing a scarlet letter, but he might as well be by the time the gossip subsides.

August 17, 1998|NICOLAUS MILLS | Nicolaus Mills is a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "The Triumph of Meanness: America's War Against Its Better Self" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997)

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.

Times have changed, but Clinton, too, now wears the mark of the scarlet letter, in a sense. The endless stories about his private life will continue to haunt him long after he leaves the presidency. He will live under a cloud of gossip as damaging any 17th century stigma. Who he is and the issues he has championed now have been subsumed by what he is alleged to have done in private.

Still worse is the way that the Starr investigation has corrupted all of us. The almost pornographic pleasure the media take in reporting the Lewinsky affair demeans us as a people and cheapens our whole outlook toward sex. There is on our part--as on the Puritans' part--a voyeurism at work masquerading as high-mindedness.

That a 19th century novelist describing 17th century New England should show more sexual compassion and sophistication than we now do ought to make us rethink the whole idea of politicizing sex. In contrast to Gustave Flaubert in "Madame Bovary" or Leo Tolstoy in "Anna Karenina," Hawthorne never bothers to tell us what his lovers were thinking before they committed adultery. Rather, he assumes that adultery is bound to happen and that the real test for society is how it treats violations of its sexual norms: Does it put them in perspective and move on, or does it paralyze itself by being obsessive over them?

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