The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In the Puritan colony of Salem, Massachusetts, sometime in the 1640s, a young woman whose husband had sent her ahead to prepare the way for him bears a child, obviously not his. Shrewd enough to subtract nine from the number of months Hester Prynne has been in town, the religious and civic elders know this—but not who the father is. Partly out of leniency (because they do not know whether Hester's husband is even alive), and partly to shame her into revealing the name of her partner in sin, these elders sentence the young adulteress not to death or imprisonment, but to a unique humiliation. For the rest of her life, she is to wear the Scarlet Letter ("A" for Adultery) on her breast, and after her death it is to be the epitaph on her grave.
So begins Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel in which the religious legalism of his Puritan ancestors appears as an object of psychological horror. And though the social stigma that Hester bears proves, indeed, to be a blight on her womanhood, the person who really suffers the most, both mentally and physically, is her lover. We first see the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale on the day Hester stands before the pillory trembling beneath the scornful gaze of every eye in Salem. Dimmesdale, speaking as Hester's kindly pastor, begs her to denounce the father of her child so that he may be brought to repentance as well. Ironically, it is Dimmesdale whose lack of repentance works on his mind and health for the next seven years, until he can bear it no longer. Just as ironically, Dimmesdale's frailty and self-hatred give his ministry a glow of special sacredness, like one too good for this world and yet so down-to-earth that he can relate to the lowest person.
The minister's popularity only adds to his misery, his sense of unworthiness. But though he needs no help feeling wretched, he has it. His housemate and personal physician, the deformed Roger Chillingworth, is actually Hester Prynne's vengeful husband—a secret known only to her, and kept by her under a terrible threat. When Hester finally realizes how Chillingworth is haunting Dimmesdale to death, she tries to convince the clergyman to run away with her. But there can be no escape from the tragic doom of being publicly branded with their sin.
Many young people have been forced to read this book by some schoolteacher, and have perhaps hated it as a result. I was never forced to read it, so I came to it later in life and thought the world of it. I listened to an audio-book of it during a long road trip with my father, who fondly remembered having read it many years ago. We both shared many a sidelong glance of pleasure, and several chuckles at Hawthorne's witty way of describing things. That wit is just enough to lighten an otherwise heavy tale of guilt, revenge, and mental anguish—a tale of deeply personal pain, despair, and religious doubt amid an historic experiment in combining civil politics with the discipline of a strictly moralizing religious sect.
The Scarlet Letter is a tale that could provoke thought and discussion among groups of any religious persuasion, especially those who distinguish between "law and gospel." It is a story (I know this by experience) that could resonate with the uncertainties of anyone aspiring to be a servant of the church, and perhaps a cautionary tale for those responsible to care for the souls of others. It gives sympathy to religious and social nonconformists, and perhaps even prophesies the modern feminist movement. Written in 1850 (about the same time as Moby-Dick, which was dedicated to Hawthorne) by a descendant of one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, it tantalizingly foreshadows that hysteria with a spooky hint, or perhaps more than a hint, of witchcraft and the dark arts. It exercises the reader's ability to guess the truth without being directly told, and it beautifully demonstrates the possibility that a story's ending can be completely satisfying without being completely happy or sad. Readers impressed by the remarkable qualities of this, Hawthorne's best-known novel, may be interested in his other novels—The House of the Seven Gables, The Blithedale Romance, and The Marble Faun—his short stories, of which the most popular collection seems to be Twice-Told Tales; and his two books of Greek myths adapted for children: A Wonder-Book for Girls and Boys and Tanglewood Tales.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 13+
If you would like to contact Robbie, you may do so here.