They say that literary characters take on a life of their own in the minds of their creators. This is true. What happens, though, if characters created by another writer invade your life and your thoughts?
Like most high school students of my generation, I was forced to read and analyze classic literature, whether I wanted to or not. In my case, Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” were among the elite chosen pieces of great literature that Sister H., our English teacher, made us read because it was part of the curriculum. It was part of the curriculum because it was “good for us.”
In later life, I learned to appreciate “The Scarlet Letter” for its entertainment value (if you skip that long chapter about The Old Custom House, which takes forever to get to the point). I learned to love Shakespeare, too. As a teenager, I would rather have read “Catcher in the Rye,” but they weren’t teaching that in Catholic schools. In my small circle of friends, there was one copy, which was passed around disguised inside a Nancy Drew cover.
Two nights ago, I decided to do some late editing of a humor piece I had just written. I opened the door of my home office/den and turned on the lights.
I was shocked to see a man and a woman there, peering at my computer screen. When I turned on the lights, they both gasped and jumped. They were dressed in a peculiar style, reminiscent of 17th Century New England. The woman had a large, bright red “A” on the front of her dress.
“Hello,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I think you know who we are,” said the man. “I am Reverend Dimmesdale and this is Hester Prynne.”
“Okay,” I said. “I get the joke. Who put you up to this? Come on, confess!”
“Nobody put us up to this,” said the woman. “It is by our own will that we have come.” She emphasized this statement by holding up her right hand, which first disappeared, then appeared again.
“Yes, said the man. Mr. Nathaniel Hawthorne told our story well, and we are distressed that so many of your youth find us tedious instead of titillating.”
“But you’re fictional characters,” I said. “You don’t exist. How can you be distressed, or anything else?”
The man and the woman looked at each other, and the looks on their faces told me that I had better take back what I said or I would be in serious trouble.
“Uh … well, I didn’t mean that you have no feelings. Of course, you do … “
“Mr. Hawthorne gave us life. He cared about us,” said the woman. “Well, at least he cared about me. I think he would have liked to see Reverend Dimmesdale tarred and feathered and run out of town. But that is not the important thing. Your youth of the present would rather read the biography of Khloé Kardashian than Mr. Hawthorne’s master work. And you were one of those youth. We know all about that copy of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ that you and your companions shared when you were supposed to be reading about us.”
“’The Catcher in the Rye’ is considered a great modern novel,” I said in my defense.
“Oh, but nobody knew that when you were in high school,” said the man. “It was simply looked upon as a dirty book. You would not have read it otherwise.”
“We are here to teach you a lesson,” said the woman. “Hold still. It won’t take long.”
The two phantoms began to advance toward me, with menacing looks and arms held straight in front of them.
“Wait!” I shouted. “I’m not the same person I was back in high school. I have read your book from cover to cover, and I loved it. Really! I even wrote notes in it. There it is, over there on the desk.”
“You did?” asked the woman.
The man picked up the book and thumbed through it.
“It’s true,” he said.
“Well then,” said the woman, “We’re wasting time here. Please accept our apology for bothering you.”
“Yes,” said the man. “We are very sorry that we mistook you for an illiterate fool.”
“It’s okay. I’ll just pretend it never happened after I go and get myself a stiff drink.”
The woman faded away and disappeared, followed by the man.