'In Character' On the Air

On Air: Hester Prynne

» Hear the 'All Things Considered' radio commentary

Demi Moore as Hester Prynne.

Hester help us: No, Demi Moore's portrayal of Hawthorne's heroine isn't a major part of Andrea Seabrook's essay. Hollywood Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Hollywood Pictures

We promised you a Scarlet Letter essay, and boy, did we deliver. Video clips (from two, count 'em two, movies separated by 60 years), plus half a dozen readings from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel.

A note for audiobook connoisseurs: If you think you recognize the superb consonants of actress Jennifer Mendenhall, who came to NPR last week to record the Scarlet Letter passages we used in Andrea Seabrook's piece (plus the extended excerpts we're serving up on the story page), it might be because you've taken a road trip or two with Mendenhall's alter ego, Kate Reading. She's recorded Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series, among other titles.

Or, if you're a theater geek, you may have seen her in Ethan McSweeney's new staging of Shaw's Major Barbara, running now at the Shakespeare Theatre Company here in D.C. She's playing the Salvation Army boss lady, Mrs. Baines.

Either way, enjoy.



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I suspect that English Majors (Keillor included) get murderous looks in their eye when the Moore version of The Scarlet Letter is mentioned in their presence!

Sent by Paul | 5:42 AM | 3-3-2008

I listened to about 10 seconds of "Unapologetically Harriet, the Misfit Spy" today. I never thought I'd be wispy for Frank DeFord, but I am. I guess I will use my 10 minutes before the top of the hour to enjoy my coffee in silence, because I find NPR's infotainment series entitled "In Character" to as interesting as the coffee clatchers on local television.

Sent by Ned Farmer | 9:01 AM | 3-3-2008

I loved this episode of In Character. Thank you

Sent by Anna Clark | 5:47 PM | 3-3-2008

Once,long long ago in...the beginning of your long piece you scratched at the truth or rather bumped off it when Property was mentioned.

AND long long ago... I stood at a small box exhibit at The Museum of Natural History in Mexico City and looked upon a scene of men hunting a Mastodon that could well have occurred at the spot on which I was standing. I was quickly and totally convinced that being a hunter/gather was very dangerous work, which I was very glad I did not have to do. It took no time at all to realize life expectancy then must have been something akin to combat in Vietnam in my time.

Remember, this was also the time of heightened awareness of the role of women in a world of BIRTH CONTROL, anyway I immediately realized that a reproductive female would likely go through four or five senior males in any group during a reproductive lifetime and that attrition and a long dependency period would encourage if not demand multiple sexual experiences and therefore partners in a constant and ongoing need to maximize reproduction just to counter the cost of doing business.

When my son was born I knew without being told that I would strive mightily to leave my tools to him before all others and if, for example, my tools were those I discovered and used in my labor of clearing land to raise crops rather than spears with which I hunted, well the improved land and the tools used to do it should be his.

So far so good, you say. No sooner had these thoughts flashed through than my consciousness locked on the "Willie Loman" factor. i.e. What happens if I'm in the South Forty and some traveling salesman stops by to leave free sample with the mother of my children?

Final response, scare the silly hen. Stop respecting animal's needs for food and reproduction and stop worshiping a Fertility Goddess and replace it with a
Virgin who will keep herself... and the rest is history.
I don' know who is to blame, men for being so pushy or women for being so gullible. Literature would benefit I believe if it looked toward the tragedy of religion and how it warps all peoples that it touches -- and that is, unfortunately, all of us.

Sent by Jim Cypert | 5:59 PM | 3-3-2008

Hester Prynne is a woman whom God blessed with the gift of beauty but holds a sin that few could bear. Hester committed the great crime of adultery and is ostracized by her community. She lives everyday with the reminders of her sin her daughter pearl, and her punishment, a scarlet letter A beautifully embroidered on her chest. Hester refuses to confess then name of her partner and in doing so bravely chooses to bear the sin of not only her own crime but the crime of her daughter's father.
I am intrigued by this character because she is unusual in that she bears this badge of her sin on her chest for the world to see yet beautifully embroiders it, accepting her punishment and the burden that she must bear. She shows the world that everybody lives with their own sin and that it is a burden that they can only carry themselves.

Sent by William Lehmann | 4:19 PM | 3-5-2008

Hester Prynne, this mighty martyr for her convictions with the emblazoned adulteress' insignia on her breast, both elevates and disenfranchises herself as a woman. She doesn't play the "damsel in distress" role, yet other's constantly ridicule and subjugate her. Prynne appeals to women and men alike, for her audacity and defiance of all we deem comfortable and familiar. She transcends superficial notions of Puritan women and their stereotypically deemed submissive tendencies. Prynne does not allow her circumstance to define who she is, but rather she defines herself in conjunction with her unfortunate parody. She doesn't allow society to disdain her, and she exceeds the notions of what she's capable of, as a woman, a single parent, and as an adulteress. Prynne is bold and wise, and her message of self reliance is chiseled in stone, with her adulteress' "A" forever branded on her breast.

Sent by Lindze Flowers | 4:21 PM | 3-5-2008

Hester Prynne is fascinating and has mystified readers since "The Scarlet Letter" was written. She is intriguing due to her rebellious nature and rule-breaking habits that get her into so much trouble in the first place. Readers are drawn in by this because everyone holds a keen interest to read about and see the actions of the original "bad girl". She defies human nature by displaying her humiliating sin openly and living with it. I believe this character captured the psyche of the generation the book was born into. This generations women were held back and upon reading this revolutionary text, courage and defiance welled up within them and the tide turned against male patriarchy. A great modern example of Hester Prynne is Juno in the movie "Juno". She is pregnant at a very young age which is socially unacceptable but wears this sin with pride and triumphs in the end.

Sent by David Gwynn | 4:23 PM | 3-5-2008

What killed me about the "in character" essay is how many times the "scarlet A" is mentioned. For those of us who READ books intead of just watching movies....the scarlet A never existed. In the book, the letter is always described as just that - a letter. The actual letter itself is never given. Proving one of the larger points of the book - people assume and jump to conclusions.....

Sent by Rachel B. | 11:53 AM | 4-18-2008

Rachel --

I like your theory -- the notion that Hawthorne wanted to make a point about assumptions. It's elegant; if only it were true.

But look more carefully: You'll find the letter specified early on, in the story's preamble, a framing device in which the narrator finds a bundle in the customs-house attic. It contains a manuscript detailing the events of the story, plus "the object that most drew my attention ... a certain affair of fine red cloth, much worn and faded ...

"It had been wrought, as was easy to perceive, with wonderful skill ... This rag of scarlet cloth ... assumed the shape of a letter.

"It was the capital letter A."

(You'll find the complete text of the novel, including at least three more references to "the letter A," at Project Gutenberg.)

Sent by Trey Graham | 3:50 PM | 4-21-2008


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