This is a well-known classic, and one that probably most people have read. It’s required in most high schools, but somehow I managed to avoid being required to read it. (I also missed Catch 22, Fahrenheit 451, Animal Farm, Dracula, and many other classics. I haven’t yet decided whether this was a good or bad thing. If I had read The Scarlet Letter as a fourteen-year-old, would I have enjoyed it or appreciated it as much? And would I be willing to read it again? Maybe not.)
Anyway, I’m very happy I read it now. Yes, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s prose is often laborious, but I was struck by his subtle humor and wit. He seems to poke fun at some of the ridiculously rigid Puritanic laws. He points out the flaws in the Puritans’ over-zealous and legalistic faith, while still applauding their morality. Conversely, he understands human frailty and passion, yet upholds Christ’s standards. Beautiful.
I’m not going to bother summarizing because I assume most people have read it before. I’ll just share my reactions. Look at the title page from the original publication:
I was really surprised as I read to discover that this was a romance. The only thing I’d heard about the novel was that a woman who’d committed adultery was forced to wear the letter A. I thought it was all about punishment and repentance. Certainly, those are wonderful themes throughout the book. But I appreciated it so much more as a love story in addition.
I’m not going to lie – I did not see it coming that Reverend Dimmesdale was Pearl’s father! This is a sad evidence of my cultural training to look for strong, handsome, powerful lovers. I didn’t clue in to Reverend Dimmesdale because he was described as a weak, pale, quiet minister. Hawthorne even says that although he was young, he was revered and treated as if he were an old man. Not exactly the picture of a dashing hero. But that’s a good thing. Go Nathaniel Hawthorne for breaking down my unrealistic expectations.
The point is that both Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale were basically good, but flawed people, like everyone else. Hester Prynne wore the mark of her sin on her breast all the time, and was looked down on by the people in the town. Arthur, too, always had his hand over his heart, where we learn later that the letter A had been carved into his chest (whether by divine punishment, or self-punishment, or simply the obsessive guilt of his conscience, we don’t know). But, as Hester Prynne observes, all people would wear a letter if their sins were known. This is so true.
I love that the story so profoundly explores the effects of sin. It literally eats away at Arthur’s heart. Roger Chillingsworth, Hester’s husband, is so consumed with hatred for Arthur that he dies after Arthur dies. Hester loses her faith and her beauty. It’s a shocking demonstration of what sin does to us, on the outside and inside. It reminds me of The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
The scarlet letter is almost a character itself…it both confines and frees Hester. Arthur says that she is lucky because her sin is already known – she has confessed and can rebuild her life, while his life has been built on deceit. Yet the letter also keeps Hester apart from society, and she loses all of her femininity and beauty. The one time she dares to take it off – in the forest, when she and Arthur have resolved to run away together – she seems to recover some of her liveliness and youth. But then Pearl does not recognize her, and she has to put the letter back on.
Later, after everything has been revealed, Hester still chooses to wear the scarlet letter. I’m not sure why. It’s caused her so much pain. But Hawthorne writes that by the time Hester is older, the Scarlet Letter’s meaning has changed.
“The scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a might trouble.”
In some ways, our failings shape us to better help others who go through the same temptations we faced. I think Hester continues wearing it as a sign of what she’s been through, so that people will know who they can talk to honestly and openly. It’s so important to have those people in our lives, and to be that person for others.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was a very wise man.
Speaking of scandal, I’m very excited to be starting Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes. How’s that for a title? This book is basically celebrity gossip for those of us for whom dead authors are celebrities. It’s going to be great!