Sunday, December 18, 2005

Scandalous Women

(Today is the day for the Slaves of Golconda to post about their reading of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Jeff provides an excellent summary of Chronicle for those who haven't yet read the book; Syvia's been providing background on GGM for the past several days and she and Stefanie and Danielle have already posted their thoughts as well. Check the Metaxu Cafe for further Slave postings; we're all supposed to cross post at the Cafe.)


My son says I'm shoehorning, and no doubt I am, but because I read The Scarlet Letter and Chronicle of a Death Foretold back to back, I'm inclined to look for similarites between the two, to highlight the chatter between the books, as Sandra recently called it. (There was also a lot of dialogue between The Scarlet Letter and Play It As It Lays, as a matter of fact, but that's the subject of another post.)

A woman's venture into sexual misconduct, a stepping outside the moral constructs of her society, has been the impetus for stories dating back at least as far as the Trojan War. Even so, I doubt I would ever have connected these two versions of the story if I hadn't read them in close proximity.

Both Hester Prynne and Angela Vicario violate the sexual dictates of their society and are punished for it when the news gets out. Hester is jailed, put on public display, and made to live the life of an outcast; the scarlet letter, intended to insure that her sin won't be forgotten, undergoes a change in meaning over the decades that follow but still serves to keep Hester from integrating back into the community. Angela is returned in a humiliating manner to her family on her wedding night once Bayardo San Roman discovers she is not a virgin, is beaten by her mother, and, while the community agrees her honor has been restored after her brothers murder the man who supposedly took her virginity, nonetheless leaves town with her family due to fear of retaliation and goes to "an Indian death village" where her mother does her best "to bury her alive."

While Hester steadfastly refuses to name the father of her baby, Angela, when pressed by her brothers after she is returned five hours after leaving the wedding party to tell who has dishonored her, "only took the time necessary to say the name. She looked for it in the shadows, she found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other, and she nailed it to the wall with her well-aimed dart, like a butterfly with no will whose sentence has always been written."

Outside her family, however, no one believes the man they kill is the correct man; everyone believes she's merely named a man her brothers would not dare to kill to protect someone else. In fact, although it is common knowledge that the Vicario brothers say they intend to kill their friend Santiago Nasar, no one either takes their threats seriously enough to warn him until it's much too late or else they feel their involvement couldn't possibly stop what's inevitable. Perhaps her cousin, Chronicle's narrator, is the man she's protecting; perhaps the journalistic pose of the narrator hides a guilty conscience—he does make sure we know the town's main prostitute leaves her door unlocked for him instead of for Santiago and that he seeks Angela out years later "during an uncertain period" when he is "trying to understand something of" himself.

Maybe.

In exile, both women turn to needlecrafts—Hester sews for her livelihood and Angela is skilled with the embroidery machine. While they conform outwardly to the punishments reaped upon them for their transgressions, both women continue to think their own nonconforming thoughts and manage years after the fact to fashion lives for themselves that are to their liking: Hester travels abroad with Pearl before deciding to return to her cottage by the sea and Angela persists in writing letters to her husband until he succumbs to her loyalty and takes her back. (I wouldn't have returned to the Puritans or wanted Bayardo back either one, but there's no accounting for others' preferences sometimes.)

Religious imagry permeates in both of the books and both Hawthorne and Garcia Marquez use names that are freighted with meaning. Lots of irony in both works—Dimmesdale is a minister and Angela's honor is restored by her twin brothers, one of whom is suffering mightily from veneral disease; both are filled with hypocrites who are as guilty of misconduct as Hester and Angela, but who've managed not to get caught.

Hawthorne can't manage black humor very well; Dimmesdale's self-inflicted horrors are unpleasant to read and his near-breakdown after his meeting in the woods with Hester is painful as well, but, oh, Garcia Marquez can do no wrong in that department: in the first chapter, Santiago is horrified when the cook "pulled out the insides of a rabbit by the roots and threw the steaming guts to the dogs.

"Don't be a savage," he told her. "Make believe it was a human being."

Those dogs will be after Santiago's own intestines just a few hours later. We'll be told that the priest who performed his autopsy "had pulled out the sliced-up intestines by the roots, but in the end he didn't know what to do with them, and he gave them an angry blessing and threw them into the garbage pail."

Nice.

1 comment:

Rachel said...

thank you so much! this was very helpful in point out the similarities between the two women for my research in English literature.