Tante: On she who was not as Demi Moore playing her but who could have been a Hester Prynne

Part 1 of our series on "Grandmothers in Our Words and Works"

More from this series to come...

Heba Elsherief, University of Toronto

Heba Elsherief is a PhD student and holds an MA in English from the University of Toronto. She researches perceived links between reading habits and ideology formation in Muslim/Diasporic contexts. She tweets @iamsheba.

Heba Elsherief is a PhD student and holds an MA in English from the University of Toronto. She researches perceived links between reading habits and ideology formation in Muslim/Diasporic contexts. She tweets @iamsheba.

Lonely as was Hester’s situation, and without a friend on earth who dared to show himself, she, however, incurred no risk of want. She possessed an art that sufficed, even in a land that afforded comparatively little scope for its exercise, to supply food for her thriving infant and herself. It was the art,—then, as now, almost the only one within a woman’s grasp—of needle-work.
Nathanial Hawthorne, The Scarlett Letter (1850).

For a class in late 19th Century U.S. fiction, I read Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlett Letter. Set in a Massachusetts 17th century Puritan settlement and published in 1850, it tells the story of Hester Prynne who, having been separated from her much older and ill-matched husband, has an affair with the local pastor.  A daughter is born out of wedlock and the community punishes Hester by making her wear the letter “A” on her chest wherever she goes.  It is assumed that the “A” stands for adulteress, but interestingly Hawthorne’s narrator doesn’t explicitly state as such.  Indeed, the letter comes to symbolize a number of concepts and characteristics embodied by Hester as the story progresses.  Hester takes it upon herself to ornately embroider the “A” so that instead of it being a marker of her shame, it becomes a thing of beauty.  When she demonstrates her charitable nature, the “A” becomes akin to “Angel” and the narrator tells us it had the “the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom.”  Finally, when Hester (in spite of the hardship and ostracization plaguing her) succeeds in making a life for herself and her daughter, the “A” comes to represent the word “Able.”

There was a Hollywood movie based on the book which stared Demi Moore in the role of Hester Prynne.  Many of my classmates lamented that they could not, in their minds, separate that interpretation from the novel itself.  I hadn’t seen the movie and was told that I shouldn’t, that it would ruin the book for me.  In any case, I was seeing someone else entirely while reading anyway.  In Hester Prynne, I saw my grandmother, mother of my mother.

Hester Prynne, as it turns out, has been heralded as a strong feminist character.  Some suggest that Hawthorne was inspired by women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; others suggest that he was inspired by his own mother.  Regardless, Hester (and her feminist consciousness) is rendered as lovingly as one might expect from a mid-19th century male author.

What I especially appreciated about Hawthorne’s rendition of Hester was the way in which he endowed her with strength.  Reading her, we knew that her strength, even in moments of confusion or weakness, would carry her through the trials.  Hester was tough, she would survive.  My grandmother was the same.

Let me tell you about my grandmother:

My grandmother was not perfect −for most of her life.  She loved me, yes, and was good to me but that does not mean that she could not also be harsh to others because she might have been.

My grandmother was illiterate −for most of her life.  She could trace sewing patterns from Burda magazines like it was nobody’s business, however.  Like Hester, she was a needle-wielder, her incredible (self-taught) sewing skills providing handsomely for herself and many of her family.

My grandmother lived in Egypt −for most of her life.  She peppered her Arabic with foreign words.  She refused to let me call her grandmother, insisted on the French word for aunt.  I do not know why, though I always just assumed it was because she did not want to seem old − but I think I may have been wrong about this now.  I called her Tante.

I think that she must have brushed up against British imperialism at some point (or maybe my training in postcolonial theories makes me think this) but she only spoke highly of her European friends and customers.  She spoke of them… almost dreamily.  There was one, married to a Soviet diplomat or royal, jaunting around Russia in a burgundy velvet cape with gold buttons made by grandmother.   There was another, a business capitalist from Sweden, who had promised my grandmother her own boutique, but proper young Egyptian women did not go off to live by themselves in Sweden (or anywhere else) back then.  

My grandmother was divorced −for most of her life.  This was a cultural taboo.  She married a younger man afterwards.  This was also taboo.  Some say she had to alter her birth certificate to make it culturally acceptable but gossip is never a good idea.  Although she and husband #2 stayed together until their respectful ends, she did not exist as his Mrs., and refused even the most innocent attempts of subjugation.  

My grandmother was superstitious −for most of her life.  On days when something important was on the line, especially, she would take precautions.  I am not sure what all those precautions were but I knew that if the first face she saw after heading out to work was one she thought pretty, all would be well.  

My grandmother found religion −near the end of her life.  She made the pilgrimage to Mecca, started praying and praying.  There are 5 prayers per day for a Muslim but she did them each twice.  To make up for those she missed in her previous life, she said, even when she was told that God forgives what happened before. What happened for most of her life.

I loved my grandmother dearly (she passed in 2006) but this piece is not meant as an ode to her nor is it a celebration of women who, like Hester (whether fictional or otherwise), inspire me or other women in the contemporary milieu to live a life of “Able”-ness as it were (even as “needlework” is not the only trade within our grasp).  Rather, this piece seeks to trouble the static representations that “grandmother” signifies in order to demonstrate the complexity and richness of experiences that we can draw on to enrich our own lives and work − or to make our own brand of “art.”  The grandmother trope can and should be akin to that shifting “A.”

Hawthorne, N. (1850). The scarlet letter. London and Newcastle-on-Tynedat: Walter Scott.