Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a book whose iconic position within the literary cannon makes is a must read for many. It’s fame reaches world wide, with numerous appearances on school syllabuses. Yet, like so many other of these grand literary masterpieces, there never seems to be enough time to read them all as quickly as you wish. After becoming unsure which novel to pick up next, I selected several contenders, from which my boyfriend chose the winning book – The Scarlet Letter (finally!).
As many people are already aware, Hawthorne’s story follows Hester Prynne, a young woman who is found guilty of committing adultery and consequently bearing an illegitimate child, Pearl. Hester lives within a 17th century, small Puritan village within Boston, Massachusetts, where the actions of the local people are both deeply rooted in, and controlled by, religion. As such, the novel opens with Hester being publically shamed for the sins she has committed, forced to wear a scarlet ‘A’ as a constant reminder of her misdeeds. Hawthorne explores how the life of both her and her child are shaped by the prejudiced and unforgiving society which refuses to allow such behaviour to exist, and the ways in which actions can affect the larger community as well as the individual.
The first chapter of this novel does an excellent job of establishing the dynamics of the society which readers find themselves immersed within. One quote in particular, which I felt truly summarises Hawthorne’s work and the attitudes of the Puritans, reads that:
‘ . . . as befitted a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful’ (p. 4).
Hawthorne explains how the very core of this town is built upon a religion whose doctrines are incredibly harsh, with no respite given for what should be perceived as a lesser kind of evil. As far as these puritans are concerned, their religious teachings are the ultimate law, and all sins and crimes are an equal evil. Hester, and the grand crime she has committed of both adultery (her husband is missing) and conceiving an illegitimate child, never stood a single chance of being tried with compassion or fairness. Hawthorne shows in a glaring and unforgiving light the ways in which the town and its inhabitants are extremely prejudiced. He criticises the impact that this has upon Hester and her child, who are forced to live with the repercussions of not only her ‘sins’, but also the repercussions of an unforgiving religion which is so staunchly regarded as law.
One of the things I find extremely interesting within literature is the study of gender and sex, and this is something that I explored further within my University studies. I was therefore very eager to explore the ways that Hawthorne presents the dynamics between the emblematic fallen woman, which Hester represents, and the apparently pure, religiously zealous women of the town. These women show no sympathy, no remorse, for this member of their sex, whom they so easily could also have become. Instead they condemn Hester, lording their superficial piety and superior ways above her. They complain that ‘the Magistrates are God-fearing gentleman, but merciful overmuch’ and publicly criticise that ‘This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die’ (p. 49). In their eagerness to publically dissociate themselves from the contamination of Hester’s infamy, they show no mercy in an effortless, scathing way, yet really are they not just as guilty? They mark out Hester, publically shaming her for all to see, yet do they not fawn over and idolise the local priest? Do they not appear to wish to tempt him away from his work for their own gratitude? Likewise, both the women and even the men of the town are keen to exhort Hester’s superior sewing talents when it suits their need. They will not publically associate with Hester, but will easily turn hypocrites when the need suits them.
Whilst the story is quickly established and does not leave room for boring passages, I did feel as if I needed more of the story to fully establish the characters. Hester’s husband, for example, who does turn up, feels like a character who needs more flesh added to his bones to complete him. We are not really given any sufficient evidence as to why he is the way he is, or why he becomes a man so consumed by revenge . I also feel like the book would have benefited from a greater insight into how Hester came to be in her position, how she fell from grace, and how both her and her ‘lover’ came to each other. Whilst the fast paced nature of the book does retain intrigue and interest, overall I did feel that we came into the story halfway through and missed crucial aspects.
Whilst I do not want to give away the mystery surrounding the father of Hester’s child, I do want to mention how hypocritical a character I found him. I feel that Hawthorn has done this for obvious reasons, to shed light on the hypocrisy of religion, but the very weakness of this man left me frustrated. Hester, a woman whose life choices have been publically paraded, has more strength, more courage, more resolve, than the man who is also a guilty party in her sin. Hester is the fallen women, yet she obtains and subverts the masculine role, whilst her former lover shows his effeminate qualities, and still manages to go unpunished.
This is a short book (my edition is 200 pages), and I do feel that this length is somewhat reflected in the substance of the novel. It feels largely reminiscent of a snapshot, an image of just one part of their lives, which feels rather empty without a ‘before’ or an ‘after’ to consolidate events. Whilst this book does have aspects which I did not completely enjoy, it is clearly a masterful work, which must have been extremely controversial amongst its contemporaries. It provides a very interesting insight into religion, piety and the harsh Puritan rule without stuffy facts or boring passages. This was especially interesting for me, as I have never really learnt about this time period within an academic sphere , or in fact much at all about American history. Both Hester and Pearl allow for a crucial look at the effects of stereotypes and social stigma, and I very much enjoyed the idea of Pearl as ‘the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life’ (p. 96). Whilst the materialistic ‘A’ sewn onto Hester’s clothes separates her from society, Pearl is quite literally the physical representation of her mother’s sins. Her very life is a constant remembrance of this, and it made me look at the various way in which today’s society carries shame and sin.
Whilst I may have left this classic feeling slightly underwhelmed, I would still recommend this. Nathaniel Hawthorne is a great writer, and this novel provides sharp snippets of insightful prose. I will leave this post with one of my favourite quotes from this tale, warning of the dangers of entering into a relationship when there is actually no true love, settling into a life where both parties are ultimately left unsettled and missing out.
‘Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart! Else it may be their miserable fortune, when some mightier touch than their own may have awakened all her sensibilities, to be reproached even for the calm content, the marble image of happiness, which they will have imposed upon her as the warm reality’. (p. 167).
Publisher: Penguin English Library