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The Scarlet Letter

It is a little remarkable, that – though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends – an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public. 

“Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne’s concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true heroine of American fiction. Arthur Dimmesdale, trapped by the rules of society, stands as a classic study of a self divided.”

I had high hopes for The Scarlet Letter; as I begin the book, my heart sank, for it was horribly, horrible overwritten. The first 40 pages consist of huge paragraphs of descriptions of the Customs House, which have nothing concrete to do with the story itself. I’m not really sure why Hawthorne included this introductory sketch; yes, there are some amusing lines, and it sets up how he supposedly stumbled upon Hester Prynne’s story in a musty room of the building, but I imagine that it’s scared off many a modern reader. The only thing I can think of is that at the time, such a story was morally controversial, and that if Hawthorne claimed that he had found it instead of making it up, it would be more excusable. It’s also true that parallels are drawn between the initial narrator and Hester, and certain important motifs are developed. However, the style is just so excruciating to plod through.

Once one gets to the actual story, it’s significantly less dense; I mean, there are still sentences as long as a paragraph and paragraphs as long as a page now and then, but they felt much more meaningful to me, and more happens in the way of action and dialogue. I would recommend skipping the first section, at least at first, because there actually is so much action in The Scarlet Letter; it’s a tense, dramatic story of morals and shame. Right from the beginning, the tensions and hatred of the Puritans is revealed; they condemn Hester for her sin, yet seem to be secretly glad of the excitement, clustering around the scaffolding where she must stand for three hours while being stared at. It’s not that some of those “goodwives” necessarily wish they were brave enough to do something like that, but more that it gives them something to be indignant about and moralize over. The harshness of the Puritans and their utter lack of leniency towards those who have strayed is chilling to behold; they have such strict morals but are not hesitant to brutally punish those who don’t follow them.

Symbols abound in this novel; right from the beginning of the story Hawthorne is sort of whacking us over the head with the symbols he’s using. For example, it’s like you could hear him in the modern day saying, “See, there’s a beautiful rosebush in front of the prison and it’s red and it symbolizes beauty and innocence and purity! And the letter A sewn on Hester’s breast is also red and beautiful and ornate yet it symbolizes shame and sin! See what I did there? See?” Nevertheless, it was an effective and arresting symbol, showing the duality of things. Other manifestations of it appear; Pearl, Hester’s child, is the very embodiment of the scarlet letter, the symbol of Hester’s shame and her transgression both literally and metaphorically. Many of the townspeople often remark on it. 

The characters in The Scarlet Letter are all fascinating and complex. I loved Hester; she is both aware of the crime she has committed, and determined not to give up Pearl or be too cowed by her alienation from everyone else. She certainly must suffer so much over the years, and the saddest thing is that her lively young child shares in her fate; no one will play with Pearl. Pearl is so interesting too; she’s described as being almost fairy-like, as if from another world. It’s also deeply ironic that a child “conceived in sin” is so bright and lovely but also impish. We also have Arthur Dimmesdale, the pastor, who is so deeply conflicted about everything relating to Hester, and Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, although no one but the two of them knows this. This tableau is added to by the harsh people of the Puritan community, determined never to let Hester forget her sin.  

Hawthorne writes with compassion and understanding of Hester’s plight; it’s really quite progressive considering the time. His symbols, despite their obviousness, are indeed quite effective; that scarlet letter stitched on her “bosom” (as he puts it) represents so many things to her and to others. Several times, she feels as if it burns into chest, burns into her when someone else with a secret sin passes by. Pearl is also fascinated by it, and fixes onto it as something to hold and throw flowers at (no, really). And of course, Hawthorne ties in anything red in the town with that letter; Pearl’s gay attire (in the old sense of the word), and various rosebushes throughout the town, from the prison, to the governor’s house. And despite its connotations, Hester is ultimately loath to give it up, mainly because of Pearl.

Ultimately, I absolutely loved The Scarlet Letter; it’s a moving, evocative portrayal of one woman’s shame and heroism. There are some long-winded digressions, but I would recommend the novel nonetheless. I don’t know why so many people love to hate it. 

228 pages.

Rating: *****

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