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STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

Exploring the gray areas of morality

'The Scarlet Letters': A Novel; Louis Auchincloss; Houghton Mifflin: 178 pp., $24

November 18, 2003|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

The letter "A" from Hawthorne's classic novel is all over Louis Auchincloss' 59th book, "The Scarlet Letters," though Auchincloss' A's seem written in invisible ink. No longer proclaimed in bold letters on the front of characters' clothing, the same kind of immoral actions and hypocrisy that Hawthorne mined in his timeless work form a web that connects Auchincloss' characters and their dilemmas -- yet the stain associated with Hawthorne's tale seems hardly worth the trouble of concealing in "The Scarlet Letters."

The novel, set amid the moneyed ranks of 1950s Wall Street and Boston aristocracy, kicks into gear from Page 1 as Ambrose Vollard, managing partner of the venerable law firm Vollard, Kaye & Duer, learns that his son-in-law and chosen heir, Rodman Jessup, is having an altogether too public affair with a middle-aged Manhattan socialite "of fading charms and loose behavior." That Rod, who had been known for his impeccable morality, would act in this way seems utterly out of character and throws the entire law firm, not to mention the Vollard family, into disarray. But as Auchincloss artfully shows us, immorality -- like its virtuous cousin, respectability -- is not always what it appears to be.

To make this point, the author backs up the tale to Ambrose Vollard's own coming of age and his choice of Hetty as a wife, a selection predicated not on love or romantic attraction but pragmatic concerns. An alliance with Hetty's father, a well-respected and wealthy Boston preacher, would further Ambrose's career, a fact both partners acknowledge in the businesslike arrangement they forge. But when Hetty proceeds to give Ambrose only daughters, he can barely conceal his disappointment. "Hetty knew that the gamble she had taken in wedding a great man who cared less for her than for his own greatness would have paid off in full only if she had given him the family he wanted." When Ambrose's favorite daughter, Lavinia, marries the up-and-coming Rodman, Ambrose finds in him the son he'd always wanted. That is, until the adultery. But is Ambrose's own disingenuousness any less harmful than Rod's affair? Or is one just better concealed than the other?

The novel, at its core, is an allegory pitting morality against appearances. As the plot moves forward, Auchincloss uncovers, character by character, the secrets hidden from prying eyes, the damning initials that are worn if not on one's garments then on the flesh itself -- for even if his characters are unconcerned with morality, the effects of their actions cannot help but skew their lives. Hetty, for one, misses the days of good behavior and modesty. "Boston had no hostility to heresies that were veiled; Boston cared only for form, for propriety. Boston -- and Hetty welcomed it as her salvation -- didn't care what you thought or even very much what you said so long as your outward demeanor conformed to the accepted norm."

The characters -- many of whom are either shysters, adulterers, consumed with green-eyed envy or just plain blind -- are paraded before the reader, who must reckon with their choices, which may be cloaked in moral terms. Rodman, for instance, decides to undertake the squalid affair in order to shield his wife from the consequences of her own immoral actions and thus believes he's justified. But the effects of his actions are not lost. His high ideals, in fact, cause as much trouble as the downright corrupt choices made by those around him.

Is morality a question of sticking to the letter of the law or to its spirit? Is it better to clothe less-than-noble pursuits in a mantle of respectability to make them palatable or to let appearances be damned? Auchincloss raises these issues in a narrative whose tone is so old-fashioned as to be almost anachronistic and which goes beyond bedroom morality to foreshadow our contemporary era of Enrons and WorldComs, as he depicts the seeds of corporate greed taking root in the 1950s.

Throughout, the author explains events with detailed exposition rather than showing readers the story unfolding. It's a strong authorial tone, one that ties this tale into archetypal stories that have preceded it -- Othello, Swan Lake and the biblical tale of Samson -- but it lacks immediacy. Events that seemed black-and-white at the beginning, like Rodman's affair, become -- and remain to the very end -- muddied.

This may be an accurate reflection of today's morality, but it makes for a less than satisfying conclusion. The narrative, in fact, comes to an abrupt halt, as if the author had ceased to write, unsure of where this mess of jumbled morals might take us. Which, perhaps, may be the novel's essential point.

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