22 December 2011
A new riff on The Scarlet Letter has just been published. The novel is called When She Woke, and the author is named Hilary Jordan.
The biggest difference between the new story and the one we all remember from high school (showing my age there, I’m afraid) is that Hawthorne grounded his tale in a real society set two hundred years in the past, whereas Jordan’s cautionary tale is a dystopian vision of the future.
A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review calls the new version of the American literary classic a “chillingly credible tomorrowland.”
Here is the synopsis from Amazon.com:
Hannah Payne’s life has been devoted to church and family. But after she’s convicted of murder, she awakens in a new body to a nightmarish new life. She finds herself lying on a table in a bare room, covered only by a paper gown, with cameras broadcasting her every move to millions at home, for whom observing new Chromes—criminals whose skin color has been genetically altered to match the class of their crime—is a sinister form of entertainment. Hannah is a Red for the crime of murder. The victim, says the State of Texas, was her unborn child, and Hannah is determined to protect the identity of the father, a public figure with whom she shared a fierce and forbidden love.
A powerful reimagining of The Scarlet Letter, When She Woke is a timely fable about a stigmatized woman struggling to navigate an America of the not-too-distant future, where the line between church and state has been eradicated, and convicted felons are no longer imprisoned and rehabilitated but chromed and released back into the population to survive as best they can. In seeking a path to safety in an alien and hostile world, Hannah unknowingly embarks on a journey of self-discovery that forces her to question the values she once held true and the righteousness of a country that politicizes faith and love.
As it happens, it has been 25 years since Margaret Atwood trod very similar ground in The Handmaid’s Tale (Houghton Mifflin, 1986). So, one way of evaluating the credibility of the world depicted in When She Woke would be to ask how Atwood’s predictions have held up over the past quarter century.
Not so well, I’m afraid. The last time I checked, the current occupant of the White House still bore little resemblance to Cotton Mather.
I suppose one can’t be too careful. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and all that.
Still, it seems remarkable that this particular paranoid fantasy of the left continues to be recycled every few decades. I suppose that in 2036, we can look forward to another iteration of the theme—if there is anyone left by then who is able to read at all.
* * *
I do not mean to imply that the left has a monopoly on paranoid fantasies. The right is susceptible to this disease, too.
How do I know? I recently discovered some interesting evidence in a dusty, disintegrating notebook, which was in an old trunk in my attic.
This barely decipherable manuscript is undated and unsigned, but on the basis of internal evidence (a passing reference to Hemingway’s suicide), it must have been composed circa 1961. It contains a truly fantastical vision of the future, 50 years on.
I suspect the author must have been deranged. Here are just a few of his truly paranoid predictions:
- Today, young people dance the “twist”; in the future, they will dance the “grind,” in which they simulate intercourse.
- Today, young people fall in love and gradually explore the “bases”; in the future, they will casually “hook up” on the first date, with “no strings attached.”
- In the future, a fifth of all adults will read at or below a 5th-grade level.
- In the future, 44 countries will have a higher literacy rate than the United States.
- In the future, one in six Americans will receive welfare or another form of government assistance.
- In the future, 40 percent of all children will be born out of wedlock.
- In the future, over a quarter of all children will live in single-parent households.
- In the future, half of all marriages will end in divorce.
- In the future, a favorite pastime will be watching on television as men and women dive into tanks filled with cow’s blood to retrieve beef hearts with their teeth.
- In the future, another favorite pastime will be watching on film as human beings are sewn together, anus to mouth, to create a single continuous digestive tract.
- In the future, it will become socially unacceptable to say “Merry Christmas.”
- In the future, it will be illegal to display crèche scenes on public property.
- In the future, it will be illegal to display the Ten Commandments in government offices.
- In the future, it will be illegal to question Darwinism in the public schools.
- In the future, one third of all women will have abortions.
- In the future, over a million fetuses will be dismembered every year.
What sort of twisted soul can my anonymous author have been, to dream all this up? Thank God it is all just the ravings of a right-wing lunatic.
When it comes to paranoid fantasies, the right has the left beat cold.