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An intense human drama that transcends literature itself,
This review is from: The Scarlet Letter (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback)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.