An Open Correspondence with a Student

Mr. Klein: (note: this is excerpted from an assignment, not originally written in the form of a letter; note on the note: this should be a footnote, but that seems to be beyond the formatting capabilities of wordpress)

Why do we refer to Roger Chillingworth as Chillingworth and Hester Prynne as Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale as Dimmesdale? I understand that the men’s names are chosen to have some sort of meaning, which explains why we use their last names, but what about Hester Prynne? I’ll just refer to everyone’s last names for the entirety of this assignment (except Pearl). If it bothers you as much as it bothers me, you can just tell me and I’ll use Hester instead of Prynne ^_^

Cheers,

H

__________________________________

Dear H

I just read your note about calling Dimmesdale and Chillingworth by their last names while Hester only gets a first name, in your discussion questions from chapters 4-8 (I’m a little behind in my paperwork, clearly). I think you raise an interesting question. I’m not sure that I have a good answer, but I’ll give it a shot.

My gut reaction is that I’ve always called those characters by those particular names because that is the way I’ve heard other people designate them (teachers, professors, etc.). But since pure habituation is not a particularly good rationale for action, I will press this a bit further. In my mind, I say all the characters first and last names when introducing them and then shorten them, keeping their most distinctive name-part for brevity. I say “Dimmesdale” because I want to highlight how dim he is, “Chillingworth” because I want to harp on Hawthorne’s insistence on attribute-names, and “Hester” because she is so mighty a character that she doesn’t quite require any other appellation…like Madonna or Prince.

I fully admit that these may be post-hoc rationalizations. I can’t be sure exactly what was going through my mind or whether this is the unconscious product of a patriarchal society, or if this is a value neutral situation as I propose above. As a feminist thinker, I certainly hope it is the latter, but I suspect that regardless of my intention, it smells like there is a structure of inherent sexism reflected in such designations. Perhaps “value neutral” is an impossibility.

I thank you for bringing this to my attention.

Best,

Mr. Klein

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “An Open Correspondence with a Student

  1. Brian Morris

    Also referring to “Prynne” might lead to some confusion of Hester vs. Pearl, depending on the context in which it is used.

  2. Ms. Stephens

    I think there is something gendered going on, though. I noticed that in the press about the two Nobel Peace Prize winners, they are (in all but one of the pieces I’ve seen or heard) referred to as “Malala” and “Satyarthi” or “Mr. Satyarthi.”

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