Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (3.5/5)

The back says: 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 stands as a classic study of a self divided; trapped by the rules of society, he suppresses his passion and disavows his lover, Hester, and their daughter, Pearl. As Nina Baym writes in her Introduction, "The Scarlet Letter" was not written as realistic, historical fiction, but as a 'romance', a creation of the imagination that discloses the truth of the human heart.

I say: I am pretty sure that I’ve read this before and simply forgotten about it, because it was all too familiar and I knew what was going to happen in advance.

Either way, it was somewhat worth the re-read.

The story starts with the town being gathered in the square and Hester being brought out from prison wearing a scarlet A (for adultery) on her chest. Since she’s been allowed to sow the A on herself, she’s done it with gold thread in an elaborate and garish way. She stands in front of the people for some time, holding her daughter, while refusing to say who the father of the child is. After she is set free, she makes home in a lonely cottage at the edge of the town by the water. Soon enough she is employed by the townsfolk to embroider this or that for them, even though the still shun her.

All the while keeping her head up, her mouth quiet, the scarlet A on her chest and raising her daughter.

I really admire Hester for her resoluteness to not disclose the name of her child’s father, as well as managing to keep her head held high. They forced her to wear the scarlet letter so that people would know what crime she had committed, but instead of showing shame over her actions, she made it into something beautiful. Now, I am not going to argue that adultery is good, far from it, but since we never learn the exact circumstances surrounding the conception of her daughter, I choose not to judge. Her husband had sent her ahead and she had waited about a year for him before the conception.

But that’s not the point I’m trying to make; what I was hinting at was this quote from one of the town gossips:

“’She hath good skill at her needle, that’s certain,” remarked one of the female spectators; “but did ever a woman, before this brazen hussy, contrive such a way of showing it! Why, gossips, what is it but to laugh in the faces of our godly magistrates, and make a pride out of what they, worthy gentlemen, meant for a punishment?’” – p 51

We do find out who the father is, and it’s hinted at (if you pay attention) long before the disclosure, and though I’d like to discuss the choices Hester has to make after that, it’d be too much of a spoiler.

So, I’m giving this a 3.5/5 because of all that is mentioned above. The best part of the story for me was Hester’s strength and the way she handled herself. What I didn’t like was what happened shortly after we find out who the father is; it just ended too swiftly for me. I would have loved to know more, but I guess that would have been rather irrelevant to the “message” he was trying to send out.

All in all, a good read that I wouldn’t mind re-reading in the future.

*This is my twelfth entry in The Classic Bribe Challenge (which is an additional incentive for me to work on my 100 Classics Challenge that’s been going on for a tad too long).


  1. I keep getting the title of the Sherlock homes book, A Study In Scarlet,mixed up with this one. I don't know why. It's just one of those things that have stuck in my head. Even after reading the Sherlock Holmes title you would think I would get it right.

    It's meant I have been curious about it and I have loved your review. I think I will be adding this to my classics to read list. Thank you.

    1. Get out of my head - I keep doing that as well! It's that damn word scarlet - I hardly ever come across it and so obviously I have to confuse the two books.

      Yes, do read it so I can see what you thought of it. It was a rather short and quick read, but full of things to discuss.

    2. Sounds like just my cup of tea then. Will look into getting myself a copy.