The Red Bonnet by Charles Dudley Warner

Story type: Essay

The Drawer has no wish to make Lent easier for anybody, or rather to diminish the benefit of the penitential season. But in this period of human anxiety and repentance it must be said that not enough account is made of the moral responsibility of Things. The doctrine is sound; the only difficulty is in applying it. It can, however, be illustrated by a little story, which is here confided to the reader in the same trust in which it was received. There was once a lady, sober in mind and sedate in manner, whose plain dress exactly represented her desire to be inconspicuous, to do good, to improve every day of her life in actions that should benefit her kind. She was a serious person, inclined to improving conversation, to the reading of bound books that cost at least a dollar and a half (fifteen cents of which she gladly contributed to the author), and she had a distaste for the gay society which was mainly a flutter of ribbons and talk and pretty faces; and when she meditated, as she did in her spare moments, her heart was sore over the frivolity of life and the emptiness of fashion. She longed to make the world better, and without any priggishness she set it an example of simplicity and sobriety, of cheerful acquiescence in plainness and inconspicuousness.

One day–it was in the autumn–this lady had occasion to buy a new hat. From a great number offered to her she selected a red one with a dull red plume. It did not agree with the rest of her apparel; it did not fit her apparent character. What impulse led to this selection she could not explain. She was not tired of being good, but something in the jauntiness of the hat and the color pleased her. If it were a temptation, she did not intend to yield to it, but she thought she would take the hat home and try it. Perhaps her nature felt the need of a little warmth. The hat pleased her still more when she got it home and put it on and surveyed herself in the mirror. Indeed, there was a new expression in her face that corresponded to the hat. She put it off and looked at it. There was something almost humanly winning and temptatious in it. In short, she kept it, and when she wore it abroad she was not conscious of its incongruity to herself or to her dress, but of the incongruity of the rest of her apparel to the hat, which seemed to have a sort of intelligence of its own, at least a power of changing and conforming things to itself. By degrees one article after another in the lady’s wardrobe was laid aside, and another substituted for it that answered to the demanding spirit of the hat. In a little while this plain lady was not plain any more, but most gorgeously dressed, and possessed with the desire to be in the height of the fashion. It came to this, that she had a tea-gown made out of a window-curtain with a flamboyant pattern. Solomon in all his glory would have been ashamed of himself in her presence.

But this was not all. Her disposition, her ideas, her whole life, was changed. She did not any more think of going about doing good, but of amusing herself. She read nothing but stories in paper covers. In place of being sedate and sober-minded, she was frivolous to excess; she spent most of her time with women who liked to “frivol.” She kept Lent in the most expensive way, so as to make the impression upon everybody that she was better than the extremest kind of Lent. From liking the sedatest company she passed to liking the gayest society and the most fashionable method of getting rid of her time. Nothing whatever had happened to her, and she is now an ornament to society.

This story is not an invention; it is a leaf out of life. If this lady that autumn day had bought a plain bonnet she would have continued on in her humble, sensible way of living. Clearly it was the hat that made the woman, and not the woman the hat. She had no preconception of it; it simply happened to her, like any accident–as if she had fallen and sprained her ankle. Some people may say that she had in her a concealed propensity for frivolity; but the hat cannot escape the moral responsibility of calling it out if it really existed. The power of things to change and create character is well attested. Men live up to or live down to their clothes, which have a great moral influence on manner, and even on conduct. There was a man run down almost to vagabondage, owing to his increasingly shabby clothing, and he was only saved from becoming a moral and physical wreck by a remnant of good-breeding in him that kept his worn boots well polished. In time his boots brought up the rest of his apparel and set him on his feet again. Then there is the well-known example of the honest clerk on a small salary who was ruined by the gift of a repeating watch–an expensive timepiece that required at least ten thousand a year to sustain it: he is now in Canada.

Sometimes the influence of Things is good and sometimes it is bad. We need a philosophy that shall tell us why it is one or the other, and fix the responsibility where it belongs. It does no good, as people always find out by reflex action, to kick an inanimate thing that has offended, to smash a perverse watch with a hammer, to break a rocking-chair that has a habit of tipping over backward. If Things are not actually malicious, they seem to have a power of revenging themselves. We ought to try to understand them better, and to be more aware of what they can do to us. If the lady who bought the red hat could have known the hidden nature of it, could have had a vision of herself as she was transformed by it, she would as soon have taken a viper into her bosom as have placed the red tempter on her head. Her whole previous life, her feeling of the moment, show that it was not vanity that changed her, but the inconsiderate association with a Thing that happened to strike her fancy, and which seemed innocent. But no Thing is really powerless for good or evil.