The Believability of a Heretic: Religion in The Scarlet Letter and The Priory of the Orange Tree

Novels that also serves as religious commentary have a long history and a continuing relevance in a world where religious extremism or intolerance are growing problems. However, the strength of these books, whether they be reflections of history or a fictional construction that mirrors the real world, lies in their believability and internal consistency. When that element of consistency is lacking the characters come across as flat and their faith as patronizing. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a masterpiece of early American fiction that captures a journey that is heart wrenchingly plausible. In contrast Samantha Shannon’s recent fantasy novel, The Priory of the Orange Tree has characters who abandon their beliefs at a moments notice making them feel contrived and sometimes frustrating. Reading these novels sets up a stark dichotomy of what a success representation of religion looks like and why these narratives are compelling.

There is a wide range in the level of restriction in any given religion or religious community but in both Hawthorne’s and Shannon’s novels the religious attitudes are conservative and fairly extreme in their reaction to different beliefs. Hawthorne is drawing from historical Puritan communities in late 17th century Massachusetts and as such doesn’t have as much work to do in his world building because his audience is already familiar with both Christianity and the extreme interpretations that the Puritans favoured. Shannon on the other hand is working within a fantasy world and, although there are strong similarities with Christianity, she has to build a religious world that is believable to her readers. For the most part this is fairly well done, her characters call on religious figures in normal conversation and show clear aversion to any form of ‘otherness’. Some of this may be that the reader is filling her constructed faith in with elements that are familiar from the real world, but there has also clearly been attention paid to the norms of Virtudom and their relationship to the world outside.

Despite extreme environments, both historical and fictional, there is change that occurs as new theology is developed and the old becomes less relevant. This is where Shannon’s construction falls apart as unlike the consistently fanatical figures of Hawthorne’s characters the supposed faithful of The Priory of the Orange Tree are quick to let go of their beliefs when an alternative is presented. In the Scarlet Letter it is only Hester’s belief that manifests meaningful change over the course of the novel, and it is a change that only happens when she is forced away from her previous beliefs. She becomes more liberal because her options are either to change or to accept herself and her daughter as products of sin that are headed for damnation. This is not an abandonment of Christianity; it is just a softening of her Puritan beliefs to adapt to the situation. It is this kind of transformation that Shannon was probably trying to achieve but her characters lack the motivation arcs that make Hawthorne’s characters so successful. Meg, Loth, and other characters who are initially presented as faithful followers of the Saint are willing to accept the validity of the alternate history that Ead presents even before there is any indication that this is going to be vital to the world’s survival. These are not characters that are being in anyway victimized by their faith, which is the impetus that makes Hester’s transformation believable, which makes their change feel arbitrary and hard to invest in.

Individual spiritual change is often contrasted with larger societal change on that front, or lack there of. It is actually a lack of change that feels more realistic when reading about extreme religious communities because of how firmly held the beliefs tend to be. Hawthorne constructs this fairly successfully in The Scarlet Letter as it is small moments of ‘mercy’ that represent the extent of the change characters are capable of. These are moments like allowing Hester to keep her child or her estranges husband’s moment of calm after Dimmesdale’s death. For a modern reader these are basic acts of common decency but with the context of the historical setting Hawthorne is creating it is realistic and powerful. Shannon also seems to realize that full scale conversions of entire nations would be unbelievable and jarring for a reader but there are still moments when the realism of a religious nation is pushed. History is full of moments where interfaith cooperation could have saved millions of lives, such as the Crusades which seem to inform parts of Shannon’s novel, but unwillingness to accept religious difference resulted in even greater violence. This however is not the world that is reflected in The Priory of the Orange Tree where alliances are made with relative ease and only minor backlash. It is not that the politics of Virtuedom and Seikii are boring to read, this is the climactic part of the novel and is executed well in other ways. Rather, the quick cooperation by not just individuals, but nations of differing faiths makes a truly immersive experience impossible to achieve.

The ways in which Shannon’s novel fall flat or the rigid puritan world that is maintained through A Scarlet Letter are not arguments that extremely strict religious communities are impossible to change or interact positively with. Instead the reading experience of these books shows demonstrates that questions of religion are complicated and difficult to handle even in fiction. By thinking about what makes representations of religion in fiction effective some of the real world challenges of inter-faith communication are made clear. Fictional worlds are made believable by their internal consistency and any discussion of religion is shaped by a willingness to consider complexity.