The Scarlet Letter is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s very famous novel. Written in 1850, this book has become a cornerstone of American literature. Many consider it to be the first great American novel.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it is set in 1640s Puritan Massachusetts. Hester Prynne is a resident of the colony. She is in a loveless marriage, and her husband may be lost at sea. She is shamed and vilified when she conceives a daughter, Pearl, through an extramarital affair. She is forced to ear a scarlet “A” on her clothing as a symbol of her sin.
Though Hester refuses to reveal the identity of Pearl’s father, the reader quickly learns that it is The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected member of the community. Though young, Dimmesdale is considered a learned theologian. When Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s much older husband, arrives in Massachusetts, very much alive, he keeps his identity secret to everyone except Hester and plots revenge. Suspecting that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, he befriends the minister in an elaborate attempt at retribution. As seven years pass, Pearl grows into an extraordinary child and Hester becomes more and more a free thinker.
There is so much going on in this book in terms of history, characters, plot, themes, etc. I could devote a series of blog posts to this work. As I often do, I am going to follow one particular path that I find to be interesting.
First, I want to write a few words about how I am approaching this novel in terms of history. Though Hawthorne was very interested in seventeenth century Puritan history, a Google search shows that there is still debate over the historical and ideological accuracy of the story. Though I think that this is a topic worthy topic of exploration, I will put that aside when talking about the novel in this post. Generally, I would rather comment upon real Puritan society based upon history books anyway. Thus, I will consider the world that is talked depicted between these pages as fictional, regardless of how closely accurate it is or not.
Ironically, Hester is the most virtuous character in the book. However, her sin is not excused. She is remorseful for it. In fact, it is eventually revealed that she tries to show regret for it decades after the fact. Yet, she is surrounded by the hypocritical, the malicious and the cowardly whose flaws eclipse hers. The hypocrisy is illustrated by the fact that the text implies that all sorts of sexual and other indiscretions are going on in Massachusetts. Witches meet in the forest. Chillingworth is vengeful and malicious. Dimmesdale, though not without virtue, behaves with cowardice and allows Hester to suffer the scorn of society while he hides his indiscretion.
Though Hester is flawed, it seems that Hawthorne is illustrating what he believes is positive and good in the world when he points out the many admirable aspects to her nature. Hester takes responsibility for her actions, thinks for herself, is a good mother, etc. These virtues, as well as the wild naturalness that seems to be inherent in Pearl, seem to be related to the transcendental belief system, which was becoming popular in America at the time that this book was written. A discussion of Hester’s positive character traits, Pearl’s nature and how this all relates to the book’s philosophy can fill many pages.
The comparison between Hester and Dimmesdale is interesting. There is obvious irony when one compares the two. To the citizens of Massachusetts, there is a contrast. In their eyes, Hester is a sinful and guilty woman exposed to public shame. Dimmesdale is the upright and moral minister. He is respected and considered a great mind and a teacher. He is Hester’s minister and presumably provides her with spiritual guidance.
Yet, beneath the surface, the roles are reversed. Hester bears her guilt and the responsibility for her actions openly. She is psychologically distressed but not hysterical. In contrast, Dimmesdale hides his guilt. Inwardly he has become a wreck. His inner turmoil manifests itself in physical illness. At one point, he experiences what in modern times would be described as a panic attack,
"Mr. Dimmesdale was overcome with a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. On that spot, in very truth, there was, and there had long been, the gnawing and poisonous tooth of bodily pain. Without any effort of his will, or power to restrain himself, he shrieked aloud: an outcry that went pealing through the night, and was beaten back from one house to another, and reverberated from the hills in the background; as if a company of devils, detecting so much misery and terror in it, had made a plaything of the sound, and were bandying it to and fro."
Over the course of the seven years that the novel covers, Hester develops a coherent worldview. Faced with mindless and unrelenting shaming, she rejects the restraints of Puritan society and many of the institutions inherent in the world around her,
“Her intellect and heart had their home, as it were, in desert places, where she roamed as freely as the wild Indian in his woods. For years past she had looked from this estranged point of view at human institutions, and whatever priests or legislators had established; criticising all with hardly more reverence than the Indian would feel for the clerical band, the judicial robe, the pillory, the gallows, the fireside, or the church. been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers— stern and wild ones— and they had made her strong”
Dimmesdale, on the other hand, has wallowed, untethered in an intellectual and moral abyss. His actions are cowardly. When Hester finally suggests that he give up his life and run away to Europe with her, he meekly agrees. Hester has become his teacher.
There is so much more to this book. It is deeply philosophical and digs into the issues of religion, theocracy, transcendentalism, guilt-free thinking, gender, etc. Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are complex and interesting characters in their own right. I barely touched upon Pearl, who is an extraordinary child who seems to represent nature, honesty and a wildness inherent in the world. The prose and dialogue are rich. The story is interesting.
As mentioned above, this is a reread for me. I picked up so much more this time around. I think that folks who only read this book when young may get a lot more out of it when reading it later. This is a reminder to me of just how important rereading is. Thus, I recommend this as both a reread and a first time read for anyone interested in American literature.