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Back at the Table with Author and Professor Karen Swallow Prior

Hello friends,

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce a second interview with Professor Karen Swallow Prior (you can find the first interview here). The last two volumes of her classics series are out, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Scarlet Letter. We went deep into topics regarding the current upheaval in the church, hypocrisy and disillusionment, censorship and shaming and so much more. I hope it’s a conversation you love as much as I did. I hope it inspires you to pick up one of her beautiful volumes, and I hope it blesses you. Thank you, Professor KSP, for joining us once again. It is always an honor to have you on.



Modern Witnesses (“MW”): These last two volumes in your classics collection are out! Tess of the d’Urbervilles has many tragic elements. The Scarlet Letter also has its darkness. What led you to choose The Scarlet Letter and Tess?

Karen Swallow Prior (“KSP”): Yeah, it’s bittersweet, but exciting. I do like dark literature, so there is definitely kind of a preference there. I picked out the six books that I was going to do for the whole series, and then, I had to pick an order. I think I really just picked and started with the books I had most recently taught and re-read just because they were fresh in my mind. When it came down to the last two, I knew I was going to do Tess because it’s one of my favorite novels ever. I knew it was going to be hard to do for a lot of reasons, but mainly because Hardy’s vocabulary is so big, obscure and archaic. I didn’t know—I hadn’t decided on the very last book, the sixth one. I had a few contenders. American lit is not even my specialty, and so I was a little bit nervous, but I thought, Well, readers probably want American lit, and I had taught The Scarlet Letter a long time ago.

Both of these novels are especially timely for the church now, because they both deal with somewhat ambiguous situations of sexual assault and abuse. Some situations are so clear—violent rape by a stranger, but there are a lot of situations, I have been learning in the past few years, about just how power dynamics work and how purity culture works and all those questions. I thought both of these books have so much for us to think about and consider in these conversations.

“Both of these novels are especially timely for the church now, because they both deal with somewhat ambiguous situations of sexual assault and abuse.”

MW: They really do. It’s interesting because there are interesting differences and similarities between how the writers tell us these stories. I like them both. You talked about abuse in the church, and so I will go to that question.

Abuse in the church and in religious circles has more of a spotlight on it, these days. I saw you had a piece in The Dallas Morning News that was about The Scarlet Letter. It was something along the lines of: The Scarlet Letter isn’t about adultery. It’s about the greater sin lurking underneath. Can you tell our readers more about what you explored in that piece, for those who don’t have membership or access to this paper?

KSP: I would be glad to talk about that. I do want to say there will probably be a few spoilers here for anyone who hasn’t read The Scarlet Letter. I mean of all the ones in the series, I think that’s the one most people have read, even in high school– maybe they didn’t really get it then, I don’t think I did. I think everyone knows, even if they haven’t read it, that the ‘scarlet letter’ is the letter “A”, and it stands for adultery because Hester (Prynne) lived in a Puritan culture, and she committed adultery and so she was punished by wearing this letter “A”. That’s really the main essence of the plot.

I hadn’t read this book for like 20 years when I sat down to re-read it and edit it for this series. Again spoiler— Hester Prynne’s lover is her pastor/minister (which is woven throughout the story, there is kind of a reveal at the end, but it’s pretty obvious. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler). She wouldn’t reveal his name and so forth, but he was her minister. And I think we understand and there is so much more research now and understanding on clergy sexual abuse and adult clergy sexual abuse, especially, and when we have traditionally thought that, “Oh, a man or woman have an affair, and it’s equal sin.” That’s not true when there is a power differential like that with a clergyman.

There is a line early in the novel, which I quote in this article in The Dallas Morning News, where Hester says to her pastor, with whom she has committed adultery, “Thou hast care of my soul.” And she is pleading with him. She is saying he knows her soul intimately. I was talking with a survivor of adult clergy sexual abuse about this book, and she told me when I was writing this article, “He knows her soul not because he is her lover but because he is her pastor.” And that is just a kind of exploitation that is so sinister and so invasive and very, very different from a typical adulterous affair. So, there are levels of depravity and levels of accountability that we see in those situations, and that is essentially what I wrote about in that article.

MW: It’s interesting because when we look at the Puritans in Hawthorne’s work, we see a group that shamed and ostracized and not much has changed today. We also see this play out in other ways. We still live in a time of great moral divides, censorship, and shaming/canceling. What do you think people today and the church today can gather from this tale when we look at those aspects?

KSP: We really haven’t changed as human beings. We don’t have the stocks or the pillory anymore, but we have our electronic digital ways of shaming people and canceling them and marking them with a letter. It’s just a human impulse. We all have it, and when we talk about cancel culture, it’s usually one side of the political spectrum complaining about the other, but it happens on both sides. I think we all struggle with it. And it has become even more pervasive, I think, in the past few years, as we are going through this kind of cycle in our nation where we are being overly polarized and divided. It’s like something I have never seen before and maybe we’ll go through it and find some more unity in the future but this is just where we are right now. I think reading this novel can help us think about what does shaming someone do, not just to the person shamed, but what does it do to ourselves. And Hawthorne just explores that so brilliantly, I think.

“I think reading this novel can help us think about what does shaming someone do, not just to the person shamed, but what does it do to ourselves.”

MW: Hardy’s work has like a—I like your introduction where you talk about how he has this disillusionment, right?—and I think that because of where we are today, whether it’s politically or in general, these are very polarizing times, and there is a lot, and rightfully so, being put in the spotlight. Things like abuse and other things that maybe weren’t as talked about– they are definitely more front-and-center and accountability is really important. But I have also noticed there a lot of people fleeing from the church. People are very disillusioned with the church. I was wondering, what would you say to someone disillusioned with the church, these days? And I acknowledge that accountability is important if we are going to clean house and actually be what we are supposed to be, but I have noticed people are kind of over it, and that has been interesting to see.

KSP: Yeah, it has been. And because, again, this also feels like something that is unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. Again, I do think that things go in cycles. It’s helpful to look at history, and if we go back as far as the Reformation, obviously there were a lot of people disillusioned with the church at that time. I study English literature, and there is a whole English civil war where people were burning one another at the stake in the name of the church and in the name of doctrinal truth, and so it shouldn’t be surprising that we are having this sort of sifting and this reckoning. It’s hard and it is disillusioning. I count myself among those who feel that way, but it also feels necessary.

America had sort of these golden years in the middle of the 20th century after the war, and there was economic prosperity. There was this sort of vision that we had of ourselves, which may or may not have been true. That vision is crumbling, too. And because it was kind of an illusion, it was a façade, and it doesn’t surprise me that the church is kind of going through a parallel disillusionment, and again it’s hard, but it’s like any kind of pain or cancer or injury that needs to be dealt with in order to heal. So, I would encourage people, and I encourage myself, that we just need to stick through the hard part so we can get through to the end and hopefully see some kind of purification or some sort of revival, and then if the Lord tarries, we will probably go through that again, or our descendants will go through that again.

“[I]t doesn’t surprise me that the church is kind of going through a parallel disillusionment, and again it’s hard, but it’s like any kind of pain or cancer or injury that needs to be dealt with in order to heal.”

MW: The cycles keep on going. Do you have a favorite scene in Tess? And why is it your favorite scene? Is there anything that stands out to you—that maybe when you think of the book, that is what comes to mind?

KSP: Well, I really don’t want to give this spoiler because I really want everyone to read this book. It’s so powerful, so I will try—it’s a pivotal moment in the book, which is kind of the whole moment where Hardy was trying to expose in his culture, again this spoiler I don’t want to give, but you know Hardy was addressing—and I talk about this in the introduction—he was addressing the kind of hypocrisy of his age, the late Victorian age, and in particular, one area of hypocrisy that he saw was the sexual double standard that demanded a level of purity of women that it did not demand of men.

There is this climactic moment in the novel when that hypocrisy comes to a head and when two characters are faced with the results of that belief that what is ok for a man is not ok for a woman. Everything takes a tragic fall after that moment of revelation. It’s very powerful. I will never get that scene out of my mind. It’s so painful and powerful because part of how tragedy works, and this is a classical tragedy, is there is this sort of series of events, that cause-and-effect, one event inevitably leads to the other event, but it’s like at any moment, if anyone had done something different, just made a different decision, at that moment, a small thing, like the butterfly effect, everything could have changed but no one does that, and you are just sitting there going, “No! No! Make a different decision here!”

MW: Do you ever think that God looks at us that way?

KSP: Oh my goodness, yes. I think that is a powerful thing that Hardy is showing us in this novel. Even though he has really rejected religion in his own life and is criticizing it in this novel, really, he is taking on a God-like role as an omniscient narrator of this tragic story.

MW: Yeah, it always felt that way to me. Now that your classics collection is complete, do you have any upcoming projects?

KSP: I am working on my own book, now. It’s a book that will be kind of a cultural history of Evangelicalism seen through the major images and metaphors that the movement draws on. I am working on that book, and it will be out next year, Lord willing. As soon as I was done with this project last summer, I started the new book.

MW: Seems like a lot of research and a lot of interesting things because I feel like no one really knows—you have to really focus on that topic to gather all that information. That’s so interesting.

KSP: It is a lot of research.

MW: What inspired it?

KSP: What inspired it was teaching these novels. In particular, teaching the Victorian era novels. Whenever I teach Victorian literature, I would find myself, whether it’s an introductory class or an upper level English class, because I teach in a Christian school, most of my students grew up Evangelical and they are recognizing things from the Victorian age that seem like things they grew up with. They are seeing it for what it is– kind of a cultural understanding of the expression of Christianity. I found myself over and over saying, “Well, this isn’t Biblical; this is Victorian.” And so that is the germ of the idea. The Victorian age was really shaped and formed by the early Evangelical movement, and it still continues today, and so I thought: What if I really do a deep dive on this and look at the main ideas that Evangelicals brought to bear in the past 300 years, and why do we have those ideas and what’s good about them and what is true and biblical and where did they go wrong.

MW: That is so interesting. Can we have you back on to discuss that one? (Me, already pitching a future interview).

KSP: Oh, absolutely.

MW: We had some questions from our awesome community. I want to make sure to get those in. What advice would you give to someone who believes God has called her to be a lit professor?

KSP: That is a great question, so obviously, you need to study literature, so that means majoring in English and as much as you can, choose literature courses rather than writing courses. I find a lot of young people really want to be writers, and that’s wonderful. I am a writer, but it’s really more important to study good writing of other people, as you develop your writing skills. So be an English major, and most professors do have to go on and get a Ph.D.

There is sort of a good news/bad news situation. With the explosion of online teaching, a lot of schools do hire people with Master’s degrees, and they hire adjuncts, but that is a very different world. It’s really kind of a side gig, more than being a full-time professor. So those positions are fewer and fewer because so many people are getting advanced degrees and teaching online. And so, you have to kind of go in with your eyes open, I think, and make sure it’s truly a calling and that you understand that it’s like everything else. It’s based on supply and demand, and I think higher education is sort of going through an upheaval like everything else is.

But if God is calling you to it, you just have to pursue that and He will use it, and trust Him. Be wise and make sure you know that—my life verse has been, ever since I was in grad school: “The mind of man plans his way but the Lord directs his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9) So make your plans, but know that God is the one directing them, and He can take you in unexpected directions. Many times.

MW: So true. The next question is: “My homeschooled teens cannot graduate without reading (pick one book aside from Scripture)…”

KSP: Like works of classic literature that are a must-read? I mean, there are so many good books out there to read and so many works of classic literature. I do like to tell people and students to read something that interest them and holds their interest more than other things. I think any of the classics in my series are great. I do think that sometimes, the classics are too much for high school students, and sometimes, it can turn them off. Exposure is good. Maybe The Scarlet Letter. It’s hard to read, but it is a story that sticks with most high school students. I would say Jane Eyre is an excellent choice.

There are lots of modern classics today. I am not really up on those, but The Iliad and The Odyssey are great works of literature, Dante’s Inferno. There are a lot of different versions of these books, so even if it’s like a modern, easier-to-read version, I think that’s helpful because it exposes students to the stories. It would be hard for me to pick one. Probably one of my favorite lists out there is The Modern Library List of Best Books. I can’t remember if it’s 50 or 100, but it’s a good amount of just classic works of literature that I think is a solid list.

MW: You mentioned Jane Eyre, which I love, and we talked about it last time. I have to ask, did you watch the most recent movie? Did you like it?

KSP: What is the newest one? Is it several years old?

MW: Yeah, I was tardy to the party.

KSP: None of the movies capture the whole story because it’s just too long, but I have liked all of the Jane Eyre adaptations. They have their strengths and weaknesses, but they are actually better than the Pride and Prejudice ones, for the most part.

(We both laugh).

MW: I really liked it. I cried. Anyway… Is there anything you are reading right now? I know you are doing a lot of research but anything that has caught your attention that you are enjoying?

KSP: What I am reading for fun right now, and it’s taking me a while because I am doing all of the reading for research—I do try to read newer literature to stretch myself, and there is an award-winning novel called There There by Tommy Orange, which is a debut novel by an American Indian, and it’s actually really, really fascinating because it is a great story, but he somehow draws in some of the history of Native Americans in this land and how they were treated and the effects of that. It’s a beautiful and moving novel, and I am learning a lot from it too.

It’s not a pleasant novel. It is dark, like the other ones that I like. If you are looking for something cheery, I seldom recommend books that I am reading because my taste is not what most people are looking for.

MW: Do you find that stuff that is darker—going back to these books– I feel they tend to have, not to be cliché, but the most depth? Why do you think you gravitate toward that kind of literature? What do you see in it that appeals to you?

KSP: I guess, because I have studied and written about virtue, which is really kind of a moderation between extremes. I think that people who have lived dark lives filled with pain and suffering, they find it harder to read dark literature, and I totally respect that. So, they may want to read something lighter and more optimistic. Personally, I have had a pretty good life, and so I feel like the darker literature helps me see the rest of the world that I maybe am not exposed to. Maybe, I have been exposed to more of that in recent years, but there is a realism about it. I don’t enjoy fluffy or romantic at all. And so, whether it’s literature or film, I just like to think and face the darkness and be thankful that it’s an art and not my life.

“And so, whether it’s literature or film, I just like to think and face the darkness and be thankful that it’s an art and not my life.”

Make sure to follow KSP through the links below:

Twitter: @KSPrior

IG: @karenswallowprior


Books: The Scarlet Letter, Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Frankenstein and Jane Eyre

Karen Swallow Prior is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012), Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, 2014), and On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Literature (Brazos 2018). She is co-editor of Cultural Engagement: A Crash Course in Contemporary Issues (Zondervan 2019) and has contributed to numerous other books. Her writing has appeared at Christianity Today, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, First Things, Vox, Relevant, Think Christian, The Gospel Coalition, Religion News Service, Books and Culture and other places. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project, a Senior Fellow at the Trinity Forum, a Senior Fellow at the International Alliance for Christian Education, and a member of the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States.

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