The Scarlet Letter
© 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne
In 18thcentury Boston, a young woman stands upon the gallows in the center of town, facing down the contempt of the assembled mob. Having broken the laws of her adopted Puritan home, Hester Prynn must endure its punishment for her crime: lifelong ignominy. Having conceived a child out of wedlock – and with a man not her absent husband – she will wear forever on her breast the prominent letter “A”. The Scarlet Letter is a story of morality, persecution, and redemption; an American classic whose readability belies its status as a classroom staple.
Though Nathaniel Hawthorne was writing in a setting a century before his, and including historic personalities like John Winthrope, The Scarlet Letter is less a gritty historical tale and more a legend – and, like all good myths, one with a point. Its heroine is a legend in her own time, a woman whose morality could not be contained by her community. Judged a sinner, Prynn accepts the verdict of her community, knowing she has broken its rules. She wears the scarlet letter with quiet dignity, but her own skills as a seamstress and moral center give her a strength that carries her through the years, despite being an outcast. She does not run away from her moral imperfections, nor their consequences, but embraces it, making her life’s work the support of the poor and infirm — combating passion with selflessness. Though she bears the titular mark of indiscretion, the piece’s true sinners are her husband and the local minister, both with secrets. The husband arrived in town just in time to see his near-abandoned wife on the scaffold. Perhaps it’s the months spent imprisoned by Indians, but hubby dear is a decidedly nasty sort who decides to adopt the false name Roger Chillingworth, and give himself the quest of finding out who cuckolded him and then destroying the man. The Reverend John Dimmsdale, who – as you might guess is the third part of this little love triangle — is equally responsible for Hester’s sin, but cowers from accepting it, fearful of the consequences. Though he professes an admirable concern for his congregation’s welfare, his and Chillingsworth’s actions through the piece most decidedly are not, and by its end all actions have found their inevitable fruit. Prynn is redeemed, and the others…well, not so much.
I expected dreariness of a novel set in the Puritan world, but Hawthorne’s characters are highly spirited, especially Prynn and her little daughter, Pearl. Hawthorne writes in clear condemnation of the Puritans’ severity, though it is doubtful that he condemns their morality in general considering Prynn’s decision to live in a spirit of penitence thereafter. Although the dialogue is purposely stilted (the Puritans seeming to take the KJV bible as their guide in speech), this is a novel filled with passion that roars along, with moral arguments along for the ride. The Scarlet Letter is quite laudable.
This is one of those books that I did not fully appreciate when I first read it when studying American literature as a teen in high school. Only upon rereading it as an adult have I come to appreciate the qualities that you highlight so well in your review.
Hawthorne's take on morality and redemption is as serious and thoughtful as any writer I have encountered.
I think the forced nature of literature in schools deprives the young of the opportunity to really appreciate it. When literature speaks, it's because we've sat down to engage in a conversation with it…not because we're being forced to attend a lecture.
I finished reading this for the first time a week or so ago and, I have to say, I really did not enjoy it. To me it felt like it never really got going – the narrative almost sounded like an introduction. Your review has helped me see it in a different light, though, so thank you!
Oh, you're welcome To be fair there's not a big stuff-is-happening-plot, because the important things are going on inside some of the characters.