on 28 November 2011
I have to admit that my heart sank as I dragged myself through the first 63 pages of the first chapter. The book does not begin with the story of the Scarlet Letter but rather the story of the narrator which threw me slightly. The unnamed narrator describes his job at a custom house in Salam, his work colleagues and finally he describes a small bundle of papers in which appears a rather ornate scarlet badge of the letter A. The papers contain the story of Hester Prynne and the circumstances as to which she was made to wear the letter on her breast and the narrator decides to write a fictional account of The Scarlet Letter.
As I have said, I struggled through this first chapter and the reason is is because of the writing. For some reason I found myself wading through the quite heavy prose regretting that I had ever picked up The Scarlet Letter. However once I have got past this first chapter and onto the actual Scarlet Letter story the narrative suddenly became much easier to read, the chapters shorter and I started to very much enjoy reading it.
The story I found to be an interesting one. Hester was sent to Boston ahead of her husband who remained in Europe on the understanding that he would eventually join his wife. After a few years go by, Hester becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl named Pearl which sends shockwaves through the Puritan community and is where the story begins. After much deliberation the towns' elders decide that as punishment, Hester should be made to wear a Scarlet Letter upon her breast thus drawing attention to her `sin'. Hester is a strong type who accepts her punishment and refuses to name the child's father even after considerable pressure to do so.
Around the same time as Hester is beginning her punishment, her doctor husband shows up to find his wife pregnant and shunned from society. He asks his wife to not reveal his identify and he then proceeds in ingraining himself into society with the sole purpose of finding the child's father and exacting his revenge. As the years go by this man becomes quite an odious character whose sole purpose of living is to cause misery and pain.
Making up this trio is Pearl's father the Reverend Dimmesdale who is a weak and at times quite a hypocritical character. He considers Hester to be more `free' because everyone knows her sin while he is forced to privately carry the burden of his. Yet of course he will never reveal his sin because of his human weakness which is in contrast to Hester, at one point he even blames Hester for his misery. Yet he is also the most complex character in the novel, in one scene Hester goes to the governor's house in order to confront her accusers because there is talk that Pearl might be taken away from her in order to give Pearl to a less sinful guardian. In a gripping scene where Hester is forced to uncharacteristically beg for her child it is the Reverend Dimmesdale who steps up and convinces the other elders that the best place for Pearl is with her mother.
The strength of this novel lies very much in the characters and I enjoyed trying to work out their intentions. Even little Pearl who as a child could have been neglected in the book, proves an enigma throughout and is constantly asking probing and insightful questions. The novel itself builds up the tension to a very public conclusion which kept me riveted, and the themes of sin, human nature and identity have had me mulling over the novel in my mind since I read it.
The Scarlet Letter is truly one of literature's greatest triumphs, its characters and themes reverberating in our collective consciousness more than 150 years after its initial publication. Few novels inspire as much contemplation and feeling on the part of the reader. Hester Prynne, American fiction's first and foremost female heroine continues to haunt this world, inspiring a never-ending stream of scholarly debate. Even in our less puritanical age, some doubtless see her as a villainously great temptress, but to me she is a remarkably brave hero indeed. Her sin is known to all, and she never runs away from it, bearing the scarlet letter on her bosom bravely for all to see; she realizes the true measure of that sin, fretting constantly over the effects it will have on young Pearl, remaining steadfast in her beliefs while at the same time envisioning a new society where women and men can exist on more equal terms, free of the stultifyingly harsh punishments meted out on even the most repentant of souls by Puritanism. She shows her noble spirit by refusing to name her partner in sin and goes so far as to allow the ruthless Roger Chillingworth to torment the man she loves deeply enough to protect him for all time. Little Pearl is somewhat of an enigma, truly manifesting traits of both the imp and the little angel; her questions about the letter her mother wears and the minister who continually holds his hand against his heart reflect an insight that amazes this reader. Chillingworth is a thoroughly black-hearted man; I can certainly understand the blow he sustained as a result of Hester's sin, but his actions and thirst for prolonged revenge on the so-called perpetrator of the wrong he suffered can only be described as roguish and unpalatable.
Of course, the most complex character in the novel (and literature as a whole) is the good minister Arthur Dimmsdale. One is compelled to both like him and despise him. He is basically a good man and an unquestionably fine soldier in the army of the Lord, winning many souls to God with his impassioned sermons. He is more aware than anyone else of his sinful nature, and he punishes himself quite brutally in private in a useless attempt to make up for the public ignominy he lacks the moral courage to call upon himself with a public profession of his deed. Dimmsdale is a coward and a hypocrite. At one critical moment in the latter pages of the novel, he blames Hester for his state of misery, and it is that comment in particular that makes this tragic character a man I can only commiserate with to a limited degree. Even at the penultimate moment of the novel, as he finally bears the mark of his shame and guilt for all his parishioners to see, the very men and women who have viewed him as a saintly man of God rather than the brigand he knows himself to be, he does not openly confess-his words and deeds do make plain the secret of his heart, but it is his lack of a thoroughly bold confession that causes some of his most devoted followers, so Hawthorne tells us, to blindly judge his final act as an illustrative parable on the danger of sin threatening each member of his congregation rather than an admission of guilt and self-condemnation.
It upsets me to see readers who do not appreciate this novel as one of the earliest and best American classics, a novel that contributed greatly to the establishment of a literary culture in the young country. The language is of a more florid style than today's readers are used to, but this novel is in no way boring. Hawthorne paints some of the most vivid scenes of human drama I have ever witnessed; he writes in such a way that you are there in colonial Boston watching the story play out before your very eyes, struggling to come to terms with your own feelings in regard to such complex and sometimes inscrutable characters. The climactic chapter is truly and deeply moving, more than capable of bringing tears to the eyes of the sensitive soul. The Scarlet Letter is just a brilliant, gripping, thoroughly human novel that I wish everyone could appreciate as much as I do.
on 14 March 1999
I am a 48 year old college student reading The Scarlet Letter for the first time. In fact, I have never read any of Nathaniel Hawthorne's works before--doesn't say much for my high school. Hawthorne's use of imagery and double meanings captivated me. ANALYSE ANYTHING--EVERYTHING HAS ANOTHER MEANING. I couldn't wait to read the next page and get to class to discuss it. When I read the passages again, I found more hidden meanings. I've gone on to read more of his works since and would now like to find out more about his family heritage. His family was involved in the Salem witch trials and the persecution of the Quakers during the 17th century. It has been suggested that this has influenced in his writings about guilt, shame, sin, & alienation.
I loved his allegorical treatment of the emotional ramifications brought on by social, family, and religious situations. What was chillingworth's sin anyway? Who cheated on who? I would say that the "goody-two shoe" minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, was the real villain. He never confessed to save Hester and Pearl until his dying day; he had nothing to personally gain by keeping his secret.
I "feel" for all the high school kids that do not appreciate or understand Hawthorne's stories. I suggest that you go to a quiet place, without interruptions--take the phone off the hook, and read. It will take time to get going; a little research would help. Coming to this site is a start. See what others think about his writing--BUT DON'T GIVE UP. You may even have to admit that you like it
on 9 December 2010
I find some of the criticism of this book inexplicable and harsh.
It is essentially a romantic novel with Hester as the woman who has wronged by committing adultery and a woman wronged against by the judgemental puritanical community. Hester along with her lover feel overwhelmingly the wrong they have committed. Hester wears her adultery rounder her neck literally whereas her lover hides it under his heart. And the real evidence of their love is their child - the elfish, unreal Pearl. I think that it is fairly obvious from the outset that this is going to be an uhappy story but the strength of Hester shines through the book. She is a throughly modern heroine.
What I dislike about the book is the narrative. The reader feels that they are going to preached to by Hawthorne who is obsesed by guilt.
But a really decent book on the whole.
"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," might well be Nathaniel Hawthorne's theme in The Scarlet Letter. Certainly, by all community standards Hester Prynne's adultery is a sin. Worse yet Arthur Dimmesdale has triply sinned since he has had carnal knowledge of a member of his flock, and through a deep and abiding cowardice has failed to acknowledge his sin; and what is even worse yet, he allows Hester to bear the weight of public condemnation alone.
However the worse sin of all belongs to Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband who is not dead at all, but returned in disguise as a physician who has learned the efficacy of various medicinal concoctions from the Indians during his captivity. He pretends to befriend Dimmesdale in order to extract his long and torturous revenge. But it is Chillingworth's character itself more than anything that marks him as the worse of the sinners. He lives only for revenge and to give pain and suffering. He cares nothing for his wife and her child. He cares nothing for anyone, not even himself. He lives only to avenge.
Dimmesdale's sin is that of a weak character. In a sense Dimmesdale is Everyman, the non-heroic. We see the contrast between the proud bravery of Hester and the all too human weakness of Dimmesdale who cannot bring himself to confess his sin, but looks to her strength to do it for him. We see this in the first scaffold scene as he pleads along with Chillingworth for Hester to reveal the father's identity. "Reveal it yourself!" we want to say.
While some have seen Chillingworth as the devil incarnate--and indeed I suspect that was Hawthorne's intent--it might be closer to the truth to see him as the vengeful God of the Old Testament with his lust to mysterious power and his desire to see the sinful suffer. At any rate, Hawthorne's masterpiece--and it is a masterpiece, one of the pillars of American literature, to be ranked with such great works as Melville's Moby-Dick and Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--is about sin and the effect of sin; and this is only right since the central tenet of Christianity itself is sin and the forgiveness of sin.
By employing and investigating deeply three types of sin--Hester's from love and even something close to innocence; Dimmesdale's from lust, pride, neglect and cowardice; and Chillingworth's from hate--Hawthorne came up with a most felicitous device for examining the human soul.
The Scarlet Letter is regularly taught at the high school level, but surely this is a mistake. The novel is difficult and challenging even for honors students. The architectured sentences, with their points and counterpoints, their parallel construction, their old school rhetorical cadences are strange and even wondrous to the modern eye. It is a good practice for the teacher and for the student to read aloud Hawthorne's prose so as to grow accustomed to his words the way one must for Shakespeare. If this is done and the edifice of Christianity and especially the fatalism of the Puritan mind brought to bear, then with leisurely pace and a steady concentration, the terrible beauty of Hawthorne's novel might be made immediate.
Although the story itself is compelling, and the prose rich and poetic, the real strength of this great novel is in its characters. How true to life are all of them including even little Pearl who is defiant and willful in her beauty and her promise, so like a heroine-to-be of a modern novel. And how despicable and loathsome is this bent old man who embodies the very soul of the despised! And how attractive on a superficial level is this pretty young pastor whose actions are not the equal of his looks. And how strong and faithful and heroic is Hester who invites both envy and admiration, something like a flawed goddess of yore.
What stuck me when I first read this, and remains with me today, is that it is those who presume to punish sin who are the real sinners. Chillingworth's life is one devoid of human feeling, devoid of any real joy as he lies in the stone cold bed of hatred and revenge. And to a lesser extent so it is with Dimmesdale who cannot forgive himself, who secretly flagellates himself so that his life becomes a hell on earth. On the other hand there is Hester who finds forgiveness and love with good works and in the joy of her beautiful and precious Pearl and in her unstinting love for Dimmesdale and her hope and faith that a better life will come.
This is a deeply Christian novel although it is usually seen as a criticism of Christianity in the sense that the Christian community condemns the least of the sinners while the hypocrisy of its clergy is made manifest. Looking deeper we see that it is forgiveness of sin and the redemption that comes from good works that is exemplified. Hester knows the joy of life because she is a loving and giving person; and on another level she is forgiven because we the reader forgive her. How could we not? And most of the Puritan flock also forgave her since it came to be said that the scarlet "A" she wore upon her person stood not for "Adultery" but for "Able."
It is also good to realize that when Hawthorne published the novel in 1850 the scene of the story was nearly two hundred years removed. Thus Hawthorne looked back at Puritan America from the standpoint of a more secular society greatly influenced by Jeffersonian deism and the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau. In some respects, Hawthorne's brilliant treatment of the ageless theme of sin, guilt and redemption was a serendipitous, even unconscious, artifact of his literary skill. No artist composes a masterpiece without some deep talent at work independent of his conscious efforts.
on 20 August 1999
In this book, Hawthorne has truly captured the human spirit. However, it is not a work for the simple-minded. Those who do not fully understand it fail to appreciate the precision and genius with which it was written. Hester is such a strong character; as she struggles to win back the respect of the community, she regains her self-respect, which, she realizes, is ultimately more important. Hawthorne sets Rev. Dimmesdale, a very weak character, opposite Hester perfectly. Chillingworth is, in fact, "chilling," and little Pearl is a troublemaker but grows to be much like her mother. The book is a slow read but well worth the wait. It's full of symbolism -- pay close attention to the rose bush (first mentioned within the first chapter, so be alert!) and the significance of "mirrors."
Insistent that his were Romances not novels, Hawthorne once again seems to be discharging the debt he felt in being a descendant of one of the Salem Witch Trial judges, Justice Hathorn. The story, after a throat-clearing preamble by an anonymous narrator, devolves upon the tale of a woman wronged: Hester Prynne has given birth to an illegitimate daughter at a time when this carried a stigma. Emphasising this, she is forced to wear a letter A, a literal stigma ("mark of infamy") in expiation of her Sin by her censorious, Puritan community and its zealous cleric, the suspicious Dimmesdale. The child, Pearl, possesses an elemental wilfulness and there are hints at the numinous about her and indeed the world itself. Unwilling to disclose the identity of the father of her child, the demure, long-suffering Hester stoically keeps her own counsel. Once again Hawthorne, a brilliant critic of the Puritan ethic, creates a closed community prone to moralism; zealous and self-righteous, it is recognisably a descendant of its Jamestown/Salem ancestors, being intolerant and heartless. Deliberately, he tantalises us with the father's identity and his sympathy is clearly with the mother. The dangers of Faith are sharply identified and you can see here how aware 19th America's shrewdest writers were of the idea of what in another context was called 'Manifest Destiny.' A startling critique of Fundamentalist society and its inhumanity; the long shadow of the Witch Trials goes a long way to help 'read' this enigmatic tale.
on 27 May 2012
Strange and disturbing story beautifully written. Produced well for Kindle.
Illustrations excellently reproduced and added to the pleasure of reading this book which is a true gothic tale of American Puritanical treatment of women.
When people think of a "scarlet letter," we immediate think of a person outwardly branded for something they have done. Credit Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" for that -- it's an intense, impassioned (if slightly hammy) story of a strong-willed woman in Puritan New England, who is branded for her sins and her love for one weak man.
In the mid-1600s, a passionate young woman named Hester Prynne has been accused of adultery -- she recently had a baby, even though her husband was abroad. Just as damning to the elders is the fact that she won't name baby Pearl's father. Even her estranged husband -- a cold-hearted older man calling himself Roger Chillingworth -- wants to know her lover's identity, but Hester steadfastly refuses to even hint at the man's identity.
We learn early in the book that Pearl's dad is actually the local minister Arthur Dimmesdale, who is wracked with guilt, hallucinations and sickness because of his secret adultery. Chillingworth slowly deduces who his wife's lover was, and begins to scheme revenge on Dimmesdale. Will the former lovers manage to escape their guilt-ridden lives, or will they reveal the truth to everyone?
It sounds like "The Scarlet Letter" is JUST a story about guilt and sin, but it's also a story about love and steadfastness. Hester remains strong and kind throughout her life despite others' cruelty to her, and her love for Dimmesdale and Pearl is what gives her that strength. Chillingworth (symbolic name!) is a cuckold, but it's impossible to like him because of his lack of love -- he loves no one, and lives only for revenge.
And at the same time, Hawthorne reminds us that goodness can overcome your past sins. Hester slowly overcomes the Puritans' loathing for her by simply being charitable, kind, helpful and loving, until eventually her sin is eclipsed by her virtues. On the flip side, Dimmesdale is annoying because of his weakness and cowardice -- I know he's supposed to be wracked with guilt, but he's so pathetic compared to Hester that it's just infuriating.
Hawthorne's writing may take a little while for modern audiences to get used to. It's very 19th-century in style, with staid, slightly stuffy prose gilded with hauntingly poetic moments and intense passion ("Never, never!" whispered she. "What we did had a consecration of its own"). At times Hawthorne's story gets a little... hammy (such as Dimmesdale revealing his "A" burn scar), but the power of his story keeps this from getting silly.
"The Scarlet Letter" is used to describe outward signs of guilt, but Hawthorne's novel is actually about strength and love, and how they can blot out misdeeds.
Nathanial Hawthorne is a quintessential American writer. His life spanned most of the first half of the 19th Century. His works are a vital part of the foundations of American literature. His ancestors first came to America from England in the early 17th century, and settled in Salem, Massachusetts, when it was the "Bay Colony." Over two centuries later, his descendants are in the same place. Hawthorne notes this point in his novel, specifically: "This long connection of a family with one spot, as its place of birth and burial, creates a kindred between the human being and the locality, quite independent of any charm in the scenery or moral circumstances that surround him. It is not love but instinct. The new inhabitant-who came himself from a foreign land, or whose father or grandfather came-has little claim to be called a Salemite; he has no conception of the oyster-like tenacity with which an old settler, over whom his third century is creeping, clings to the spot where his successive generations have been embedded."
The connection of people with a particular patch of earth, even memorably expressed ("oyster-like tenacity") is a relatively minor theme in this work. The dominant ones are "sin," to use a word becoming increasingly obsolete, and which can designate actions and behavior outside of societal norms; guilt; and revenge. There is precious little love in this stern Puritanical society which helped establish America. There are still threads of current societal "norms" that can be traced back to these early beginnings of the United States.
The novel opens in the Custom House in the port of Salem, now well past its prime, sometime in the early 19th Century. Hawthorne for a time was a customer inspector so he was able to draw from that experience to depict the colorful characters who collected their paychecks there, mainly former Sea Captains. A book of old documents was found, and that was the entrée to the story which occurred two centuries earlier. The scene opens with Hester Prynne in prison, for a "sin" that had been committed at least 10 months earlier. She is married, but her husband was not in the Colony at the time, yet she became pregnant, and now carried the child in her arms as she is led to the pillory for public shaming. She has been sentenced to wear a large crimson "A" on her chest for the rest of her life. "It takes two to tango," but Prynne resolutely refuses to name who the father is. Hawthorne deftly handles the plot, gradually hinting and at last revealing who the father is. Meanwhile, Prynne's cuckold husband returns to the Colony, incognito, and obsessively plots revenge upon the father. Meanwhile, over the course of the next seven years, Prynne's daughter develops into a feisty and elfin child, precociously asking questions about the relationships between the key characters. And Prynne herself, even though branded as an outcast from society, through her skills as a seamstress, and her good deeds, at least wins a grudging acceptance from virtually all the citizens of the Colony.
"Feminism" can be an emotionally charged word, covering a wide range of complaints and grievances. Mary Wollstonecraft is considered an early pioneer in addressing the injustices done to women. It would be appropriate to present a man, namely Nathaniel Hawthorne, with an "honorable mention" in noting these injustices. As so often happens, even today, when the prostitutes are jailed, and the "John's" are not, society punished Hester Prynne, and the father "only" experienced his (significant) guilt as the partner in the tango. As Hawthorne expresses it through one of his characters: "It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. But he will be known!" Hawthorne has Prynne ruminate on the injustice she has faced, and conclude: "Then the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position."
Hawthorne himself carried some emotional "guilt" baggage, assuming, like Original Sin, it can be inherited. His ancestor who came from England went on to become a harsh "burning" judge in the Colony - "burning" as in women, who were labeled "witches." And he was the only judge who never repented for his actions. It was one reason Hawthorne added a "w" to his name to distinguish himself from his ancestor. As Voltaire famously quipped: "It is remarkable how few witches there are nowadays since we stopped burning them." That might easily apply to "enemies" in general.
I first read this novel back at the beginning of time, as a high school reading assignment. Believe I got the answers to the test OK, but most of the rest of it was over my head. The second time around I was impressed with how well-written it is, maintaining dramatic suspense, while addressing fundamental problems of the human condition. 5-stars, plus