On the Power of Understatement I
Bill Long 10/15/07
Rereading The Scarlet Letter
A few nights ago the impossible happened--I had forgotten to bring any books to read when I was staying at my brother's home in CA. This is a "problem" because other people always go to bed before I do, and I normally have at least two or three hours of time to probe some of the mysteries of the universe before getting tired. So, I took some time poring over my brother's book collection and decided I would pick up a book I hadn't read for more than 30 years--Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. This classic of American fiction (is it still read in school today?) is set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 17th century and explores, in elegant and simply-crafted language, the psychological struggles in Hester Prynne and the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale attendant upon their breaking the rules of a rigid Puritan society. But instead of trying to "read the whole thing" or to "overindulge" in Hawthorne the way I had overindulged in ecstasy when Oregon State beat Cal (31-28 at Berkeley on Oct. 13), I decided to take it slowly, savoring the language as I went. I discovered anew what I have long believed to be true, that the power of literary expression often resides in the author's understatement of the thing s/he describes. Or, to put it differently, by understating a reality, a good author can leave it to the reader to fill out in their own minds the concept which s/he only hinted at dimly.
This became clear to me when reading ch. 2 of Scarlet Letter. It describes Hester Prynne emerging from the jail on Prison Lane with her three month-old baby to stand, fully clothed, but in a sense fully exposed, to the people of Colonial Massachusetts. In her imprisonment she had been compelled to sew a red "A" on her dress, an everlasting symbol of the shame of her sexual promiscuity. Hawthorne writes:
"On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A. It was so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore; and which was of a splendor in accordance with the taste of the age, but greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony."
Hawthorne does mention the "elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes" of the thread. But the phrase that stuck with me is the last one: "greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony." I suppose that almost everyone who reads that line would quickly skip over it. First, we don't know what a sumptuary regulation is and, because we don't, we certainly don't want to take the time to look it up. And, second, we already have a "clear enough" picture of what the "A" looked like, and so we hasten on to the action.
By pausing on that phrase: "greatly beyond what was allowed by the sumptuary regulations of the colony," you enter into a world of social class distinctions, Puritan values and, most of all, the nature of Hester's defiance and flouting of the cultural values of her day. But in order to understand any of this, we have to understand what a sumptuary law is and what it was in colonial Massachusetts.
A "Detour" on Sumptuary Laws
Sumptuary laws have existed throughout history and consist of three kinds of regulations: (1) the prohibition on wearing certain kinds of finery; or (2) a tax on the purchase/consumption of luxury goods; or (3) a prohibition on certain classes of people wearing clothes and ornamentation beyond their "station" in life. Promulgation of these laws often comes from a religious as well as an economic perspective. Sumptuary laws raise money from the wealthy (or those who want to dress or live ostentatiously); they may also implement biblical exhortations about living simply and not adorning oneself seductively.
What I didn't know about the sumptuary laws in colonial Massachusetts was that they were primarily class-based rather than religiously-driven, even though reference to dishonoring God appears in the text. Passed in 1651 by the General Court, the Massachusetts sumptuary law provided as follows (in part). First, let's begin with the social problem in mind:
"And also to declare our utter detestation and dislike that men and women of mean condition should take upon them the garb gentlemen by wearing gold or silver lace, or buttons, or points at their knees, or to walk in great boots; or women of the same ran to wear silk or tiffany hoods, or scarves which, though allowable to persons of greater estates or more liberal education, we cannot but judge it intolerable...."
That is, the thing that inspired the legislation was the attempt by the "mean" classes of people to "ape" their superiors by dressing like they did. Maybe there was a "Martha Stewart"-sort of person colonial MA trying to give the lower classes the appearance of affluence and comfort! Maybe it was Goodwife Brown or Goodwife Parsons secretly wanting to enable others to "look" like they were of the upper class.
But the MA sumptuary law tried to nip that in the bud. As you see, it went into some detail describing the kinds of dress that were unacceptable for persons of "mean condition." It reminds me of those regulations passed down by companies in the mid-1990s when "casual Friday" began to be a staple of corporate life. At first there was just the decision to allow the employees to dress "casually." But then, when the employees actually did dress casually (interpreting the word as they desired), the employers saw what that meant to their workers: flip-flops, very short skirts, t-shirts that said things like "Designated Drinker" or "Drink Triple, See Double, Act Single," etc. So, a sort of laundry list of acceptable casual attire was developed and used in places from semi-formal country club dining rooms to corporate offices all over America. While the MA sumptuary law was meant to keep the classes separate, our modern "dress codes" are meant not to embarrass clients, distract co-workers and, thus, make sure that profits continue to soar.
More on the Sumptuary Law
But the MA law didn't give an exhaustive list of what constituted improper dress for persons of mean condition. The law also provided:
"And forasmuch as distinct and particular rules in this case suitable to the estate or quality of each perrson cannot easily be given: It is further ordered by the authority aforesaid, that the selectmen of every town, or the major part of them, are hereby enabled and required, from time to time to have regard and take notice of the apparel of the inhabitants of their several towns respectively..."
Ah, now you have the "fashion police" out in force. Saudi Arabia might have the "religious police," who check to make sure that women's garb is not overly revealing, but Colonial MA had selectmen to enforce the sumptuary law. They were to determine difficult cases and thus be the living interpreters of the law. The point of the law was crystal clear, however--anyone wearing clothes above his/her station (and the "break point" in the law was having an estate worth 200 or more pounds) would be liable to an "assessment" by the selectmen for so violating the law.
Finally, as is frequently the case in law, there is an excepted class of people. Look who is excepted from the application of the law:
"provided this law shall not extend to the restraint of any magistrate or public officer of this jurisdiction, their wives and children, who are left to their discretion in wearing of apparel, or any settled militia officer or soldier in the time of military service, or any other whose education and employment have been above the ordinary degree, or whose estate have been considerable, though now decayed."
You could drive a truck through these exceptions, couldn't you? As a matter of fact, lawyers love this kind of law, because it provides wide berth for them to argue on behalf of clients whom they think fit into one of the excepted classes of people.
Well, now that you know what the MA sumptuary law was, we can return to Hawthorne, which I do in the next essay.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long