“The Scarlet Letter” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The Scarlet Letter” — Nathaniel Hawthorne


This novel marks the beginning of my intention to immerse myself in the American high school experience (did I use that right? I can never sort out in my mind the various stages of education) and read one of the books that always seems to come up as ‘compulsory reading’ in films and television. Having said that this marked the start of a voyage of understanding, I think that planned literary journey has now been brought to a expeditious conclusion.

(May or may not also be inspired by a recent watching of Easy A.)

Brief Synopsis:

Hester Prynne, a convicted adulteress, is forced by the Puritan society in which she lives to undergo the oh-so-terrible slightly unpleasant –am I being ridiculous here, or is having to wear a big red letter A that you have sewn yourself not even that massive a punishment?– ordeal of modelling the “scarlet letter”, i.e. a big embroidered A clipped onto her dress. Thus she is avoided by the townspeople, and generally despised… until she is no longer despised and actually viewed as a saint, or at the very least, a nun. Her long-considered-lost-at-sea husband (plot twist, he’s not dead!) returns and (perhaps understandably, although he’s a horrible person) doesn’t want anything to with his unfaithful wife, and makes it his mission in life (not so understandably) to hunt down and destroy the poor partner in Hester’s transgression. He sort of succeeds.

Small Point(s):

♥ Who didn’t see Mr Dimmesdale’s being the father coming from a mile off? I personally guessed on page 93, and since the book actually starts on page 75, that’s impressive. However, while I would say that my powers of deduction are out of the ordinary, there is literally no other man of the right age to beget a child even mentioned by name in the novel; I think Hawthorne could have possibly explored a few more options before he gave the fame away.

♥ On a related note, who would have thought Dimmesdale had it in him?! To be quite honest, he seemed so constantly fatigued that I’m half-surprised he ever had the energy to do the honours in the first place.

The Big Scoop:

It must be said: this book exposes societal hypocrisy like a pro. There is one line, quite early on, where Hester’s letter is described as having given her the somewhat supernatural ability to sense the sins of others, “a […] knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts”, but she says nothing of this knowledge either to the sinner in question or to anyone else, acting in complete contrast to the manipulative Roger Chillingworth/ex-husband Prynne. Her “sympathetic” manner is what endears an otherwise slightly overly-anguished heroine, and deservedly redeems her in the eye of her fellow citizens. Loved how Pearl was named after a precious stone representing innocence and purity, but also the gem which supposedly gives bad luck when worn at a marriage; reflecting how Hester doesn’t do bridal wear. Nice symbolism there.

On the other hand, Hester appeared to be the restriction rather than her society. When given the chance to flee –nearly every other page of the novel, it seemed– she rejects it, preferring to remain, as one would really, where her company is scorned and her character despised. Yes, she loves poor Dimmesdale –I’ve no idea why, bless him– but still. Wouldn’t she prefer to give Pearl a new chance at life?


5 ½ out of 10. The ratio of action to wordy-paragraphs-describing-said-inaction could have been adjusted slightly, I felt, but it was predominantly Hester’s subsequent total compliance with the moral restrictions placed upon her that undermined Hawthorne’s whole message. By the end, society seemed entirely willing to accept her –to the extent that she is even buried next to the grave of the hapless Dimmesdale– and she became the one who set her own limits. Yes, power for women, but also not… because her power only allows her to further disempower herself. And Pearl may be enigmatic, but she’s also precocious and irritating. Sorry Nathaniel.

Also, “Whore”-thorne couldn’t have summed it up better. The inherent lasciviousness of women seemed to underpin the entire plot.


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