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Critical Essay by Thomas Matchie
SOURCE: "Louise Erdrich's 'Scarlet Letter': Literary Continuity in Tales of Burning Love," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 113-23.
In the following essay, Matchie discusses similarities between Tales of Burning Love and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.
In an address on National Public Radio, Amy Tan said she would rather be recognized as an American author than classified among multi-cultural writers as Chinese American. Perhaps for some the same might be said of Louise Erdrich, "the foremost practitioner of Native American fiction." She is most often represented as a mixed-blood, and much of the critical analysis of her fiction centers around her use of Chippewa mythology as a key to illusive meaning in her novels. It is also true, however, that Erdrich is an ardent student of American literary history and culture. One has only to look for references to Melville's Moby-Dick in Love Medicine (1984), Flannery O'Connor's notion of the Christian grotesque permeating Tracks (1988), or Lipsha's language and naiveté resembling those of Huckleberry Finn in The Bingo Palace (1994). And I would like to suggest that her latest novel, Tales of Burning Love (1996), is her contemporary answer—or parallel—to the classic American romantic love novel, The Scarlet Letter.
Those familiar with Hawthorne's plot know that Hester Prynne goes through many stages, manifesting in different contexts various "selves." There is the past self with her husband, Roger Chillingworth, a physician for whom she feels "no love" and leaves behind in Europe. Next, there is her past secret self with the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, including a sexual act she later claims had "a consecration of its own." Ironically, though some would brand her with a "hot iron" for her "sin," she emerges as a kind of saint, an image of "sinless motherhood." A third tragic self is the Hester who promises Chillingworth she will keep his identity "secret," while he pursues his destructive vengeance on Dimmesdale. Still, another more assertive self surfaces in the forest with her pastor. After confessing her "deception," she throws off the scarlet letter and confronts Arthur directly with the "weight of misery" that this society has laid on him. Her honest talk of love and freedom (their leaving together for Europe) triggers in him a radical change—a "revolution" of "thought and feeling" that borders on the comical. But Hester's most pervasive self is the practical role she plays in public. In spite of either man or her own "shame," her sewing and other service causes the townspeople to "love her," and in this context she outlasts the other major characters in the novel. All things considered, there are at least five different postures (selves) that Hester takes toward reality in Hawthorne's Puritan love story.
Tales of Burning Love is a contemporary romance set in "the beautiful bleak landscape" in and near Fargo, North Dakota. It depicts not one but five "sharp portraits" of women with "fully individualized voices," all married to but one man, Jack Mauser, a mixed up, mixed-blood construction engineer. Neither religious like Dimmesdale, nor scientific as is Chillingworth, Jack is Erdrich's rendition of the modern (rather than a Puritan) male—one who has unfortunately buried "the Ojibwa part" of himself. But it is through him, or the relationships of the women to him, that Erdrich explores such Hawthorne-like themes as the mystery of love between the sexes, the inner and outer worlds through which it is manifested, the dubious connection of sexuality to religion, and how various types of personalities enter into and affect a marriage or lovers' union. In fact, if one takes these women separately, they might be seen as Hester's different selves relating to "a man," in this case, Jack, as well as to the public. Less moralistic and more humorous than Hawthorne, in Tales Erdrich may have written her "funniest, sexiest, most optimistic" novel. But she is every bit as much the romantic as Hawthorne, filling her plot with images of nature, particularly sunshine and snow, but especially fire, to accompany each of the wives' distinctive, "burning" tales of love.
Jack's first wife is June Morrissey. In Love Medicine and Bingo Palace, and now in Tales, June jumps from a truck near Williston in 1981 to get away from its drunken driver, apparently after meeting him in a bar only hours before. We now know from Tales that that man was Jack Mauser, and that he and June were united in a "one-night marriage." The episode is important, not only because June's presence permeates at least three of Erdrich's novels, but because it exemplifies a particular kind of love, one not far removed from that characterizing the marriage of Hester Prynne and Roger Chillingworth. That, too, happened in the past. Never feigning love, she fled to America apparently to escape her relationship with a cold old man; in Erdrich's novel, June had jumped from the pickup and walked away to her death. Roger pursues Hester anyway; and in Tales we learn later that Jack thinks regretfully of his botched sexual affair with June. Later, having burned down his house and faked his own death, he comes to the rescue of his mourning ex-wives caught in the snowstorm in which each has been telling her tale of love. On the way he imagines June "wearing a wedding dress" and "bringing him home." Though some see Jack as simply "a loser," Michael Lee says Jack's other marriages represent a long-time effort to "recapture the love" he had for June, one (unlike Chillingworth's) that is finally fulfilled in Eleanor.
The woman in Tales most concerned, even preoccupied, with sex is Eleanor Schlick, Jack's second wife. As with Hester, Eleanor has a curious sexual past, ironically coupled with a "saintly" present. Nobody in the Puritan community shares Hester's private life, for the object of her love remains "a riddle," and of him Hester "refuseth to speak." As time goes on, however, Hester emerges as a virtual saint, in spite of the Puritan authorities and the people's initial scorn. In her "Divine Maternity" she walks among them as the mother of Pearl and sews garments for the rich and poor as a virtual New Testament model. Stubbs says Hawthorne represents her as a "madonna of Renaissance art" that contrasts with the rigid Puritan code. Others speak of a "spiritual greatness" that transcends her own weakness, the Puritan society, and Hawthorne himself. This is not to say that Hester is a saint, any more than it is true or likely that she and Arthur will get together as lovers, for their motives—which Crews says are "inaccessible to the conscious will"—are different. It only suggests that Hester's protecting the identity of her lover—who does not share her transcendental vision—is in itself a sacrifice of self that is the stuff of saints rather than sinners.
In Tales Erdrich in turn juxtaposes Eleanor's sexual past with the present in the context of sainthood, though her method is different, often comic. A novelist whose "eye for sensual detail is impeccable," she even shares with the reader graphic aspects of Eleanor's former erotic life, including intimate thoughts she remembers from her diary:
He turns me on my back carefully and kneels, his thighs just under my hips…. He comes into me, comes again, quietly and emotionally, looking into my eyes. "You're the one," he says … and we keep going, fuck ourselves stupid….
We also know a great deal more about Eleanor's past than we do Hester's. Specifically, her mother, Anna, was rejected by her father, Lawrence Schlick, a noted funeral director in Fargo, over a past sexual affair between Anna and Jack Mauser. Strangely enough, Eleanor herself then had an affair with Jack and faked being pregnant as a way of getting her parents back together. She even dressed like a kind of "passive martyr," or "Holy Mary"—a virtual parody of Hawthorne's representation of Hester. After leaving Jack, Eleanor went into teaching, but that didn't allay her "sexual need." Fired for seducing a student, she is now nourishing her spiritual life at a convent retreat house in Argus, north of Fargo, while doing research on the first potential mixed-blood saint, Sister Leopolda—whose own story appears in Tracks and Love Medicine. It is in this context that the spiritual dimension of Eleanor's love life comes into play.
While walking in the convent garden with the saintly nun, whose own prayer is ironically "a tale of burning love," Eleanor has a "miraculous" experience connected to her past sexual life. Jack, an engineer, catapults over the convent wall in a backhoe bucket at midnight to visit his ex-wife. In a hilarious episode, including "lightning" and thunder, Eleanor and Sister Leopolda (quite ignorant of what is really happening) end up "worshipping" Jack wrapped in a cloak standing on a pedestal being prepared for a statue of the Virgin Mary. If the whole affair seems like another comic version of something sacred, it also mirrors in a mythic way the union of all great lovers—from the Greek Leda (the name Jack and Eleanor hoped to give their baby) to Hawthorne's own Hester and Dimmesdale. In each case a dubious sexual union, symbolically if not really, seems to have the blessing of the gods.
After Leopolda expires, Eleanor and Jack meet inside the convent where they continue to discuss their love, often realized in secret, but which they have never been able to make work in marriage, any more than have Hester and Dimmesdale. In Jack and Eleanor's case, though they truly loved each other, "fury burned through" their love; "we fought over how we couldn't fight," she says, so she left him—went home to mother, entered college, even flew overseas. In speaking of Hester and Dimmesdale, Hawthorne himself claims that love and hate are often very close; and the same might be said of Eleanor and Jack. Unlike Hawthorne's lovers, however, these two eventually do get together. Late in the novel, after the snowstorm in which she walked away from the Ford Explorer stuck on the airport road in Fargo, Eleanor imagines that the saintly Leopolda appeared and "saved her life"—a life which eventually involves her return to the arms of Jack. Dave Wood notes that the novel, the author's "most sensual," ends with sex on a religiously symbolic staircase, testifying once again to the close relationship in Erdrich (as in Hawthorne) of sexuality and religion.
Jack's third wife is Candice Pantamounty, D.D.S., a dentist, "A professional!" Blonde, beautiful, and "brisk," she is interested in her own career and dependent on nobody. Free, but self-absorbed, her only companion is her dog, Pepperboy. Candy represents that part of Hester that relates to Roger Chillingworth after he comes to America. Hester, too, is free, for no individual or system—not Roger or the Puritan hierarchy—can touch her being. But then something happens. Chillingworth, who has no "household fire" in his heart, commits Hester to secrecy about his identity, whereupon he becomes Arthur's "medical advisor," a role he uses to undercut the man he suspects to be Hester's lover. His approach, motivated by revenge, and done with scientific precision, hits at the "heart's entire substance." In this way Chillingworth destroys Dimmesdale's chance at a full human relationship with Hester, and likewise Hester's with Dimmesdale.
In Tales, a similar pattern occurs. After a hysterectomy, Candy (a scientific type herself) enjoys frequent sexual episodes with men, for there is no risk of pregnancy. An old classmate of Jack's, she meets him again through a dental appointment, has sex with him, and goes hunting with him along with her dog; then they are married. What kills the marriage is Jack's abuse of Pepperboy. After being bitten, he hits and eventually kills the dog, not realizing what that does to Candy. He thinks it is accidental, "a goddamn freak occurrence," but she loses respect for one who misuses "helpless things." Hester's tragic flaw is that, in effect, she permits Chillingworth to tantalize her loved one, Dimmesdale, and only realizes it too late. It is that self of Hester's that Candy represents in Tales—the part that allows another's abuse of someone or something one loves, and indirectly undercuts a burning love of one's own. Candy is more conscious than Hester of what is going on; in Tales it is Jack who doesn't make the connection, but in either case the abuse drives the woman closer to her real lover—in Hester's case Dimmesdale, in Candy's another wife of Jack's, Marlis, who is pregnant with the child Candy would love, but can never have.
Marlis Cook is Jack's fourth wife. She has no Native blood (like June or Dot—Jack's fifth wife), no intellectual/spiritual bent (like Eleanor), no professional expertise (like Candy). She is simply a black-jack dealer at the B & B Bar—a pastime familiar to Erdrich—who meets Jack by accident. Quickly she gets "a thing" for him, and becomes pregnant—the only one of the wives to do so. His reaction, however, is to abuse her—"twisted my arm…. Shoved me. Hit me," she says. What distinguishes Marlis, however, is the direct way she responds. She treats Jack like none of the others; she not only tells but also shows him what he is like. Marlis is that side of Hester who, when the opportunity comes, speaks directly to Dimmesdale about their relationship. It happens midway in the book when they go into the forest together. Here, in letting down her hair and throwing off the letter A, she shows him what it would take to transcend his Puritan rules, to be free, to share her spirit. Sandeen calls this show of passion the "most moving" part of the book—a time when love itself transcends sin, guilt, shame, hypocrisy. And Hawthorne accompanies the event with a "burst of sunshine" in the sky. For Fogel the sun is a natural symbol, "real and indispensable," that is connected with love and never controlled by human law.
In Marlis' tale, she meets Jack quite by accident. She is knocked out after touching an electrical cable and Jack revives her. Later, he again "Dutch-rubs" her paralyzed face, giving her new (physical) life. Grateful, she marries him. "I love you so deep," she says. "Love me back." But he doesn't. In fact, he doesn't stop manhandling her, psychologically or physically—criticizing her makeup as well as twisting, hitting, and shoving her when he learns about the baby. In one way "childlike," but in another "mature-beyond-her-years," Marlis finally concludes: "What the hell do you know about being a woman?" She is much like Hester who through her language and gestures gives Dimmesdale a lesson in being a human being, not a product of a religious system.
Marlis' method, however, is unique. She and Jack are in a motel where she wraps him in duct tape while he is sleeping. When he is powerless, she pierces his ears, plucks his eyebrows, waxes and shaves his legs, and forces him to put on high heels in order to demonstrate what a woman has to go through. Her tactic is a bit different from Hester's with Dimmesdale—external rather than internal—but as with Hester it works, at least temporarily. In the woods Dimmesdale is elated and dances back to town, a new man, determined to become "wholly the lover and flee from all his obligations to the community." In Tales Jack is furious with Marlis, but he gets the point. Later, when Marlis wants to make love, he sees that her action was not a personal vendetta. "I'm using you," she says, and now he responds differently to the "taste" of her hair. Late in the novel, Jack, amid "snow" and "sun," comes to understand and accept many people he had heretofore neglected. He develops a new fire for John, Jr.—"a baby's indignant spoiling squawl of hunger," as well as "a piercing love" for a statue that looked like his mother, June, Eleanor, "All the women he'd ever loved." Though all this may be the result of a religious experience, much of the credit goes to Marlis. Like Hester, she is a good teacher because she is honest, personal, and direct, though in a modern, violent way that is as shocking as Hawthorne's more subtle psychological approach a century and a half ago.
When Tales of Burning Love opens, Jack is married to his fifth wife, Dot—the young arrogant girl in Beet Queen married in Love Medicine to Gerry Nanapush, now in and out of prison. Like Candice, an old high school acquaintance of Jack's, Dot is still impulsive, marrying Jack on a dare. If Hester's needle makes her a valuable part of the community, Dot's "accounting skills" save Jack's business, making her more a "business associate" than his wife; they even "make love with efficiency." Like Hester, Dot is "loyal" to her mate, and if people love Hester because she makes garments for everybody from Pearl to the Governor, Dot (who also knits) is the most practical among the wives. After Jack's mock funeral—he burns his house as a way of avoiding bankruptcy—Dot insists on seeing and handling Jack's ashes (which don't really exist), pays the funeral bills because she is Jack's latest wife, and drives the others to the B & B Bar in West Fargo to get Marlis' vote on what to do with what is left of Jack. In Hawthorne's novel, Hester is the one character, says Baym, "truly concerned with society and human relations"; Dot performs a similar mission in Tales. Less passionate than the other wives, she is the self who functions best in public.
Though the community "cannot do without Hester," says Sandeen, she still feels like a "pariah." In Erdrich's novel, Dot is also the loner in the group; June is dead, Eleanor is the object of Jack's passion; Candy and Marlis have each other—Candy having helped deliver Marlis' baby in the absence of Jack, and the two are together as lovers in the back seat of the Explorer during the storm. Never really divorced, Dot's "first love" is Gerry, but he is gone, or appears only periodically; in Tales he is the hitchhiker who joins the four women in the red Explorer where, "alive in the wrecked cold" after surviving a plane crash, he appears and "sealed her mouth with his."
But such moments are rare for Dot. More significant is that she capitalizes on her distance from Jack. In her alienated state, Hester cultivates a special knowledge of "the hidden sins" in others, the "unsunned snow" that contrasts with her own "burning shame." Dot does something equivalent. Unlike the intuitive Hester, she is aggressive, inquisitive, and brash, but this is her way of exposing others. Initially, she gets Jack to admit that she is "the goddamn fifth" of his wives, and almost stabs him with her knitting needle. "I don't know you from shit," she says, while exposing his secret past with Eleanor. Often the mouthpiece of Erdrich's "pungent and smart" dialogue, Dot abhors superficial talk. At the funeral when Eleanor says Candice looks happy, Dot (a former classmate of Candy's) replies, "Scum floats." Finally, it is Dot who sets the rules for each wife to tell her tale while marooned in the north Fargo blizzard. The least romantic of the wives, Dot is the firebird who sets ablaze the others' secret lives.
Though fond of Jack, Dot finally sees him as her "burnt hope," which is Hester's ultimate view of Dimmesdale. Recovering in the hospital after the storm, it is Dot's mother Celestine, not Jack, who comes to her side. Erdrich seems to use Dot to assert, not sex or romance, but the extended family so important to Native Americans. "Solid, responsible … brusque," Dot reserves her most genuine affection for Gerry, and a big priority in her life is to raise Shawn, whom she views as simply "my part of the deal." Real life, after the romance is over, is Dot Nanapush's role, much as it finally becomes Hester Prynne's, who continues to mother Pearl while serving others after her lover is gone.
So that is Erdrich's story—the five faces of Hester, so to speak, as reflected in the five wives of Jack Mauser. If Hester has a past marriage that has failed, causing her to flee across the sea, that is June Morrissey setting out in the snow near Williston in 1981. If Hester has had a secret life, where the passionate and sexual are intertwined with the spiritual and the saintly, that is Eleanor as she works out her relation to Jack in the convent garden in Argus in 1996, and later (after a vision of Leopolda) in the passionate scene on the stairs with Jack which ends the book. If Hester errs by allowing her estranged husband, now in America, to torture her new lover to the point of death, that is Candice, who is not able to sustain her relationship with Jack because he physically abuses her Pepperboy. If Hester needs to speak directly to her beloved and so takes him to the woods, where her words temporarily free the man from his rigidities, that is Marlis who ties up Jack and literally shows him what it feels like to be a woman. And if Hester must still maintain a public face, in spite of all her inner worlds, that is Dot, the "live-in accountant" of Jack Mauser, for whom personal love is not so important as the daily companionship of a man, the love of her family, and the knowledge that she can makes things work.
There is an irony in Tales that may also be a modern comment on The Scarlet Letter, as Erdrich like Hawthorne focuses on her favorite themes, "the salvation of love" through "the power of narrative." In Tales, two of the women, Candy and Marlis, struggle with each other. Candy, who would like a child, fawns on Marlis' baby—the baby she cannot have. If Jack has a problem with the pregnancy, Candy calls it "a treasure," and it is she, not Jack, who helps in the delivery room. Though at first Marlis resists Candy's concern and affection, eventually their struggle—an important factor in both Hawthorne and Erdrich—brings them together where their "first kiss tells everything." Finally, in the back of the Explorer in the snowstorm, they make love, having come to understand and accept each other as women—something Jack cannot seem to accomplish. For the author it is "an intimacy that rivals any lover's union." This love affair serves as a foil for Hawthorne's portrayal of the relationship of Chillingworth and Dimmesdale—a story of revenge, hatred, and manipulation that destroys both men. It involves a different type of dispute, but the implication is that men have to control, whereas women's struggles lead to self-sacrifice and love. It is another kind of tale of burning love—sinful and scandalous, perhaps, in the eyes of many, but also respectful and caring, much like that between Hester and Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter.
The Scarlet Letter is a romantic novel that represents a landmark in the history of psychological love. Though deprecated by Hawthorne's critics at the time, the novel made a much deeper impression than his other works. One of the reasons, says Cotton, is that "the symbolic" is different from "the real." Hester may have violated the Sixth Commandment, but she emerges as a free spirit who has integrated her sexual life into her being and now, Dimmesdale notwithstanding, lives a rather Christ-like life in public. She has faults, however, as does he, and because of them, the story is tragic—a conflict between religious repression and sexuality. What lives on in the reader, however, is a less-than-rigid notion of sexual love and its relation to holiness. Baym says that society's coming to love Hester shows its willingness to "make room for the human heart and its private needs." And Sandeen claims that in her public life she "bears the burden of man's affective nature, including outlawed passion," which the Puritan society tries to suppress "but cannot do without." For these critics, The Scarlet Letter is, above all, a love story wherein the heroine transcends her culture.
In Tales of Burning Love, Louise Erdrich uses The Scarlet Letter mythologically to paint a rather complex picture of love in a post-Christian era. Jack Mauser may be a flawed human being; toward the end he is still dealing with Lyman Lemartine, the money-driven entrepreneur "planning for a casino" whose devious ways are developed in The Bingo Palace. But Jack is convincing as a modern male, a "satisfying multi-dimensional character." A less-than-successful engineer, he is greedy, he drinks too much, he is egocentric, but he likes and needs women in many ways. June is a fellow mixed-blood Chippewa with whom, even in her fragmented life, he momentarily identifies and ever after pursues her spirit. Dot, too, is connected to the reservation, a steady companion more than a lover, but still there, a crucial part of his work-a-day life. Jack's abusive side surfaces in his relationship with Candy, and it takes Marlis to teach him something about feeling with a woman. It may be in response to her that he ultimately comes to appreciate other human beings—their son, his own mother, all his wives.
In the end, however, Eleanor is his real Hester Prynne, the one for whom his love smolders throughout Tales and finally bursts into flame. Lee says she represents "the passionate reversal" of his "sexual failure" with June. In contrast to Hawthorne, Erdrich makes sexuality, religion, and nature work together, so the ending is not tragic. Early on, Eleanor says:
Her love for Jack was still alive, disguised as everything. It ached pulled from the ground, it drew the air for her chest, sat of her head like bricks, closed across her lips like the wings of a moth.
Later, in contrast to The Scarlet Letter in which Hester departs for the forest after her lover's death, Erdrich in Tales actually brings "the forest" to bear on Eleanor and Jack; they consummate their love at the top of a stairs while outside "spears of grass rustled in their sheaths." If Erdrich is a "master of the heightened intimate moment," that skill comes through such lyrical passages.
One of those coincidences in the novel that perhaps "stretch credulity" is a miracle that sets up the finale—a phenomenon, says Max, Erdrich is "not afraid of involving" in her plots. Having survived the falling statue of a "stone woman"—a mysterious event testifying to the sainthood of Eleanor's idol, Sister Leopolda—we are told he "felt an unbearable heat of emotion, a jet of fear and joy." So both Jack and Eleanor experience epiphanies that change their lives and bring them together sexually, with the stairs adding spiritual significance to their passion. Moreover, says Lee, the images surrounding the encounter suggest a Chippewa-like identification with the earth that Jack had suppressed.
That may be, but the seasons, too, are ever changing and unpredictable. Jack is still a modern male, a businessman, "charming, preening," and "self-destructive." None of these women satisfy him completely, nor does he them. Eleanor says at one time that maybe "we each married a different man," as though it is Jack who has the different selves. Sister Leopolda tells Eleanor in her vision, "You and your sisters are blind women touching the vast body of the elephant, each describing the oddness beneath the surface of your hands." If that is so, then it may be that any one woman, given her needs, must go through five individuals to find one good man. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester's love remains tragically unfulfilled, though symbolically she transcends her loss. Erdrich's love story ends with Eleanor's passionate fulfillment. But it borders on tragedy that her counterparts must find other ways to keep the fire of love burning in a contemporary world, less Puritan but more complex than Hawthorne had ever imagined.
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