The Scarlet Letter
Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Published By: Barnes & Noble Classics
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
Every so often I like to pick up a classic that I was never assigned to read in school. When people talk about the classic novels they usually complain about trudging through old English and boring text and can barely recount the stories that they read. When they discuss them with me, I often feel sad that I was never “forced” to read these novels. These folks usually think I’m crazy to pick up the novel on my own and read it for pleasure, but I feel that this literature is what helped to shape present day fiction. So what if the writing is flowery or fanciful. This time around, I decided to pick up The Scarlet Letter, a book I had heard a great deal about, but never read.
The Scarlet Letter is one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most well-known novels. Published in 1850, the story takes place during the 17th Century in Puritan Boston. Although Hawthorne was born some two hundred years later, he knew something of this time period. This was a time when people were tried for witchcraft and violators of a very constrictive Puritan law were dealt extremely harsh and stiff penalties, many ending in death. One of Hawthorne’s ancestors, John Hathorne (Nathaniel added the “w” to his name in later years), was a judge during the Salem Witch Trials. Thus, the story opens with a broken law and a price that must be paid.
Hester Prynne, believing her husband to be lost at sea, has had relations with another man. This may never have been discovered but for the fact that Hester became pregnant with that man’s child. Puritan Boston is a small town and everyone knows that Hester’s husband has been gone some time, so whose child could this be? Hester is convicted of the crime of adultery and her punishment is lenient thanks to the fact that her husband was missing and feared dead. Otherwise, the act could have earned her a turn at the gallows. Instead, Hester must be an example for all, wearing a scarlet colored “A” at her breast at all times. An effort is made to persuade Hester to reveal her cohort in this crime, but she refuses to do so.
A stranger is present at the sentencing of Hester Prynne, one who knows her very well. He approaches her later, revealed as her long-lost husband. As Hester still insists on keeping the name of her daughter’s father secret, her husband, now known as physician Roger Chillingworth, vows to discover then name and exact revenge upon the fellow. Hester, meanwhile, is to tell no one that Roger is in fact her husband. She is to live as though he did not exist, raising Pearl, the product of her sins, a gorgeous child whose impish actions and often times inappropriate behavior cause others to believe that she is a product of the devil.
As the story goes forward, little by little, we are given hints and clues as to who the fellow adulterer may be, until finally it is revealed to the entire town. Such a shocking revelation is hard for members of the town to accept and soon fantasy stories are created to soften the blow.
The Scarlet Letter does start off a bit slow. One must remember that this book is written in the flowery speech of the time period. Most of us nowadays do not express ourselves with words like thee, thine, verily or forsooth. Hawthorne’s descriptive nature takes some time getting used to. For example, people don’t just knock on doors in this novel, but rather they lift “the iron hammer that hung at the portal” and “gave a summons.” Once you get used to this style of writing however, the book flows like water.
I was surprised with how quickly I finished this book and how much I enjoyed reading it. Despite the fact that I had already solved the puzzle of Pearl’s parentage after only a couple of chapter, I was captivated by the story and the moments leading up to the revelation. Chillingsworth’s single-mindedness in his search for revenge is reflected in the very name he has chosen for himself.
Hester Prynne’s punishment in wearing the scarlet letter and her subsequent shunning by the town folk serve to strengthen her resolve and turn Hester into a forward thinking woman. She begins to realize that the current way women are treated in society is backwards and must change and she is bound and determined to be a conduit of that change if not for herself, then for her daughter. Her character is respected at once by the reader and eventually gains the respect of the whole town in the way she works to put food on the table for her child as well as the charitable acts she performs for those even less fortunate than herself.
I am surprised that I was never assigned to read this book in school. Not only does this novel offer the reader a glimpse into our country’s history, but it shows what the guilt of keeping a secret can do to a person both mentally and physically. It also shows how strength of character can help one persevere. The Scarlet Letter is a happy addition to my overflowing bookshelves.