Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Genre: Classics, Historical Fiction
Publisher: Ticknor and Fields
Number of Pages: 272
When we meet Hester Prynne, she is standing on a raised dais in puritan Boston with a baby in her arms and a bright red “A” embroidered on her chest.
While it is perfectly natural for a young puritan wife to have a child, the church and town officials of Boston know for a fact that it’s been far longer than 9 months since Hester saw her husband. In fact, no one in Boston has ever seen her husband. It seems Mr. Prynne sent Hester to their settlement by boat from England, but hasn’t yet gotten around to making the journey himself.
Armed with the clear evidence of her crime, the local officials set out to make an example of Hester Prynne. She is forced to embroider her own badge of shame—a bright red letter “A” for “adultery” so that neither she nor anyone she meets can ever forget her awful sin.
The book follows Hester as she raises her spirited daughter Pearl in this highly repressive society.
NOTE: I hadn’t really thought about it before, but the book is set about 200 years before it was written, so it really is historical fiction.
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: Bradbury and Evans
Published: Serialized March 1852-September 1853
Number of Pages: 1017
This is one of those novels that is actually several interwoven stories at once. There is the never-ending story that is the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce—a question of legal inheritance that has ripped a family apart for generations. There is the story of Lady Dedlock, a woman who is rich, beautiful, and bored out of her mind—but who has a secret that no one must ever learn. There is the story of Caddy Jellyby, whose mother cares more for Africa than she does for her husband and many children. There is the tragedy of Jo, an orphan crossing sweeper who is perpetually forced to “move on”. At one point, an entire murder mystery gets swallowed up into the great web of stories. The one through-line of the novel is Esther Summerson—niece of the late Miss Barbary, ward of John Jarndyce, and friend to just about everyone she meets.
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: Dystopian, Epistolary
Publisher: McClelland and Stewart
Number of Pages: 311
The Handmaid’s Tale is widely considered classic dystopian fiction right alongside George Orwell’s 1984. Set in the near future, the novel depicts the story of Offred, a handmaid in the newly-formed Republic of Gilead. In a reality where she has been stripped of everything from her liberty, to her child, to her own name, Offred struggles to walk the line between maintaining her sense of self and staying alive.
NOTE: This book has been selected as one of the 100 finalists for The Great American Read.
The Ties That Bind
Warning: Spoilers follow in the form of details and plot points.
Due to the natures of these stories, it is impossible to point out the connections between them without including these details.
These stories are set more than 100 years apart from each other and describe very different societies. Each book, however, contains an extramarital relationship that results in a daughter and explores societal expectations and reactions to these circumstances.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester is publicly punished for giving birth to a child who clearly does not belong to her husband. She and her daughter are shunned by the rest of the community and the local officials consider taking Pearl away from her mother. Pearl herself is portrayed as the living embodiment of the scarlet letter—her mother’s badge of shame. It is only by leaving Boston that Hester can hope to give Pearl a life free from public stigma.
In Bleak House, Esther initially knows very little about her parents. She is raised by a woman she calls “Godmother”. One of her few early memories is of this woman telling her, “Your mother, Esther, is your disgrace, and you were hers,” (Bleak House, Pg 11). Esther eventually learns the identity of her mother and even spends an afternoon with the woman. However, it is necessary for both women to keep their connection a secret so that they can maintain the positions they have in society.
*NOTE: I’ve just noticed that “Esther” is an anagram of “Hester”. It probably means nothing, but it’s an interesting coincidence.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred’s child was taken from her at the start of the new governmental regime when the U.S. became Gilead. Much of this book was told via flashback, so the timeline is a little vague. By the time Gilead takes over, “Offred” and the father of her child are married. When they first got together though, Luke was married to another woman. Even though Luke divorces his first wife and marries “Offred”, their marriage is viewed as “illegitimate” by the Gilead government.
In the society of Gilead, infertility is rampant and women like “Offred” are seen as a valuable commodity due to their proven ability to bear a healthy child. With their marriage nullified by the authorities, the child is taken away to be raised by a “more suitable” household and Offred is sent to the Red Center to become a handmaid. In this role, she is forced to become a living incubator for other people’s babies.
NOTE: It just occurred to me that both Esther’s aunt and the “Aunts” at the Red Center considered it their duty to empress upon their charges just how shameful their pasts were. Esther’s initial guardian did such a good job that the girl has zero self-confidence by the time she is grown. The Aunts at the Red Center engage in active victim-blaming for rape and stress the importance of obeying those who are more pure.
Taken as a whole, these books trace public opinions regarding extramarital affairs/love-children over the course of over three centuries starting from the times of the Salem witch trials and extending from the present into a hypothetical near-future. These mothers and daughter face outright disapproval and ostracism in Puritan Boston, utter secrecy in Victorian England, and general acceptance in 1980s America. This promptly devolves into a state even more repressive and punitive than Puritan New England when Gilead takes over.
The characterizations of the daughters change through the course of time as well. Pearl is portrayed as free-spirited and almost demonic in accordance with the wicked way in which she entered the world. Esther is, as an adult at least, seen as a paragon of good. Offred’s little girl is simply that—a little girl, regardless of the relationship of her parents.
BONUS BOOK: I recently read The Snowman by Jo Nesbo which included similar ideas, but from a very different angle.
Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen and Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson