Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

Scarlet LetterThe February selection for Carrie‘s  Reading to Know Book Club is The Scarlet Letter, chosen by Shonya from Learning How Much I Don’t Know. I don’t think I have read it since high school, so I figured it would be good to revisit it, especially when I found it as an audiobook.

As most people know, The Scarlet Letter is about Hester Prynne, whose sin of adultery has produced a child in a 1640 Puritan community and whose punishment is to wear the letter A for “adulteress” on her bosom. I’ve been looking around at other reviews, study guides, and such, and many seem to see the story as a strong woman overcoming the confines of a repressive society. But I saw it described in a couple of places as a psychological romance or drama, and I think that is where the strength of the story is.

The audiobook for some reason leaves out the first chapter in which the narrator finds the scarlet letter in a custom house before telling the story behind it. We first see Hester emerging from the prison, the scarlet A already on her chest, with her child in her arms, sentenced to stand on a public scaffolding for three hours. She had been married, and her husband had sent her on ahead to this country, but her pregnancy became evident too long after arriving for the child to have been her husband’s. In all the intervening time he has not been heard from and is assumed dead. Hester steadfastly refuses to name the other guilty party in her sin.

The first time I read the book, it took me a while to realize who it was. If I were reading it for the first time as an adult, I think I would have figured it out much faster. It was interesting reading it knowing who he was from the outset, as there are clues everywhere. I’ve wrestled with whether to name him or not: I don’t want to destroy the suspense for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I don’t know how much I can say about the book without naming him. I’ll give it a try. 🙂

The psychological drama comes in the contrast between Hester’s publicized guilt and its consequences, ostracism from society and the resulting extreme loneliness, versus the consequences her partner in sin’s suppressed guilt: the torment of hearing praises heaped on him for his goodness when he knows he is a hypocrite. At first I thought he kept quiet because he was spineless, but later the author shows he is concerned as well about the negative repercussions his guiltiness could have if it were known, thus he feels “caught,” and his guilt begins to affect him physically.

Hester’s long-lost husband shows up at the first scaffolding scene, but signals to Hester to remain quiet. When he speaks to her later, he swears her to secrecy about his real name and their relationship. He understands, in one sense, her sin, because theirs had not been a marriage of love, and he was much older than she. But he determines to find and exact revenge upon Hester’s partner. He has become a doctor of sorts and goes by the name of Roger Chillingworth, fitting for his cold heart. There is more psychological drama when he thinks he has found the guilty party and determines to “dig” until he knows for sure, and the guilty party thinks he is a friend and doesn’t realize the danger.

The book could be easily divided into sections based on three scenes at the scaffold, where each of the major characters appear each time. The first I’ve mentioned; in the second, the other guilty party has been driven in the middle of the night to the scaffold in his guilt and pain. Self-flagellation, fasting, and vigils have not alleviated his guilt, so he goes himself to the scene of Hester’s shame — yet under cover of darkness, where he is tortured at the thought of being found out. Hester and her daughter, Pearl, happen to be walking by at that same time, and he calls to them to join him. They do, and Pearl asks if he will stand with them the next day at noon. He says no, but he will at the Judgment Day. Then the light of a meteor reveals the face of Chillingworth watching them. The final scaffolding scene takes place near the end of the book, with the same characters, yet in a public setting, where everyone’s fate is resolved.

The book is replete with symbolism: the A, of course, and the different meanings associated with it through the years, Chillingworth’s name and misshapen form representing his heart, Hester’s dressing little Pearl in scarlet, the scenes in the forest, the wild rosebush by the prison door, various manifestations of light and darkness. Pearl herself seems symbolic until the end of the book and acts something like a conscience for her parents. At one point she tells Hester, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.

There are two things I don’t know that keep me from understanding this book more fully. One is Puritan society. I don’t know if how it is viewed here and in general (legalistic, harsh, repressive) is what it really was. This community is totally graceless, but the quotes I have read from Puritans have not been, though I admittedly have not read a great deal of Puritan literature. One source said that Puritans believed that whether you were “elect” or not would show in your life, thus Hester’s partner’s dilemma and struggle between his public persona and private sin. But all of the sources I looked at spoke of either being “elect” or earning one’s way to heaven (which did not seem possible for anyone in the book), yet neglected the real truth of grace that reaches out to the fallen sinner to provide redemption.

The other thing is Hawthorne’s transcendentalism and how it affected his views. I looked into this a bit when rereading Little Women (linked to my thoughts) but didn’t feel I really got a handle on their beliefs. Maybe someone else who read this book for this challenge will have more insight into that.

But I could definitely see the themes and contrasts between judgment and grace, penitence and repentance, and true  versus perceived identity (both Hester’s partner and Chillingworth present different personas from what they really are and tend to self-destruct because of it). I don’t know if I would say I enjoyed the book, but it was an interesting study.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

18 thoughts on “Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

  1. I totally agree with you. This isn’t a book you read for “fun” or enjoyment, but it is brilliant and is full of so much comparison between truth and falsehood, including hypocrisy. I loved it, myself, although nowadays, I tend to read things that are more “fun” and not so tragic. I have a feeling that the Puritans were a mixture of the very legalistic with little heart for others (grace) and the truly pious, who knew God and did their best to serve Him.

  2. Barbara – I should be grading senior projects but this is far more interesting. 🙂

    I can’t comment on the transcendental views of Hawthorne, though that would be a fascinating study. I do know that Hawthorne was a descendent of one of the judges of the Salem witch trials, and that he looked on this as an opportunity to “make up” for the harshness of that era. So he portrayed only enough of Puritanism to set up his plot and character studies, and made them harsh, unfeeling, and unforgiving as a result. He did not show any grace or mercy because that didn’t fit what he wanted to write. And the Puritans in real life were believers in grace and mercy as well as purity of living.

    That’s what I’ve read in study for teaching the book, anyway. It makes sense.

    Good review!

    Back to the senior projects. 🙂

  3. I read this one in college, and I agree — not enjoyable, exactly, but interesting and full of food for thought. I don’t think I’d want to read it again. I suppose the good thing about your questions is that they are both researchable. 🙂

    I’m reading ‘Little House Traveler’ and wondered if I could join in on the LIW challenge even though I didn’t officially sign on…?

    • Sure, you can join in the challenge any time this month. Glad you’re able to!

      The problem with researching the Puritans is that so much written about them has that same characterization. What little I’ve read of their own writings doesn’t match up with what people write about them. But then, there are legalists and extremists in every era and sect, and those may be the ones who were more generally known rather than the writings of the theologians. I see a similar thing today with the way some conservatives are perceived and reported on — probably the same thing with liberals, too. 🙂

      I had read the Wikipedia article about Transcendentalism when I read Little Women (Alcott’s family were into that as well), but didn’t feel I really got a good grasp on what they were all about…and wasn’t interested enough to look further. 🙂 I’m sure there is probably a lot of information out there about it.

  4. Barbara, thank you for the post. I consider you as my personal guide to literature. Since I am not a literature-type person and will probably noNt read the book in the near future, I like reading your synopsis. Thank you again. Have a blessed day.

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  6. Here is my review.
    I think that Lou Ann is correct that individuals differed. However, the Puritan authorities (State and State controlled church) were pretty close to how Hawthorne portrayed them. In my review I give the history of the Antinomian Controversy, and it shows an inability to tolerate dissent. Also, I discuss the concept of “preparationism” – the belief that one needed to take action to make one’s self worthy of Grace. And we can’t forget that the Salem Witch Trials happened either.

    Great review!

  7. I enjoyed your review, especially the clear symbolism and the role played by the scaffold in dividing the book into sections. I think it’s funny several of us confessed to not particularly enjoying the book, even as it prompted lots of thought.

  8. My copy didn’t have that introduction either. I didn’t even know it existed till you mentioned it here.
    I’m glad you talked about the scene with all four major characters at the scaffold. I didn’t mention it, but I loved that scene. So full of symbolism and mysticism (if I can use that word).

  9. My copy did have a very long introduction attached but I confess I didn’t read it.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts. And the note from the English professor. I think the Puritans have been given a bad rap, in general, and aren’t so nasty as they are being branded.

    At the heart of the matter is, as always, their theology. And clearly they were believers in predestination which is why their writings talk the way they do. There are still a lot of people in existence today who believe the same but have learned to express it differently and in what we would consider a more graceful manner.

    And I have a hard time believing Hawthorne portrayed them accurately since he clearly wished to distance himself from them and disapproved of them in general. That doesn’t tend to lead itself to well-balanced and fair writing.

    All that aside, I do think this book is a great thought provoker and a great read. And not my favorite either. 😀

  10. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: February 23, 2013 | Semicolon

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  12. Enjoyed your review; thanks for leaving the link! I agree that I’d like to know more about true Puritan society, and not just the stereotyped GASP awful ambiance we hear about. And no worries on the first “chapter” being skipped — the book is better (and more accessible) without it. I agree that it’s a good book to read and think about.

  13. Some really interesting thoughts here, thank you for sharing them! I must say, you’re a little more forgiving of the father than I was when I recently read The Scarlet Letter. I found him to be entirely spineless, and a little prone to melodramatics, I really had very little sympathy for him at all. I can’t say I loved The Scarlet Letter, but I’m still glad to have read it. It’s really interesting to see how often references and allusions to the original work pop up in contemporary pieces, now that I’m “primed” to look for it. Thanks again for sharing! 🙂

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