Monday, August 21, 2017

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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.


Lory said...

I read this once in high school, then again some years later and definitely got much more out of it. It's time for another go-around -- you've brought out some aspects I'd like to revisit again. Today I think we are still terribly conflicted about morality and freedom, and this story may help to confront some of those issues. It's definitely not just about the past.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lori - One reason that many of us read is to grapple with age old issues such as morality and free will. This is such a great book for that.

Rereading is often so enlightening.

RTD said...

Your review/posting is superb! One problem with TSL that too often happens is students must listen to inept teachers' lectures, analyses, and POVs. That happened to me in high school. The damage lasted a long time.

JacquiWine said...

Another great review, Bran. I do enjoy your critiques of these classics. You put so much thought into the characters and the themes, many of which remain relevant in the world today.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks R.T. - I think that it might be problem with a lot of literature that a teacher pushes a personal point to view too strongly.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jacqui - This book really lends itself to so much character and theme analysis.

I agree, many of these issues are still relevant today.

James said...

This is a great commentary on Hawthorne's classic novel. I was one of those who read and disliked this book in high school only to reread it as an adult and find it complex and rich with ideas, as you have noted. One of the themes I find most interesting is the role of Pearl within Hawthorne's narrative.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

It is striking just how many people had a bad experience with this novel in school.

Pearl is such an extraordinary character. I should can and may write an entire post dedicated to her.

Kathy's Corner said...

Excellent review Brian and if you are interested I know many of us would be eager to read your further blog posts on the Scarlett Letter. I believe I did read this classic in school. Made the mistake years later of reading Hawthorne's intro to the novel which as I recall is long and confusing. I will reread this book but go straight to the novel this time.

Caroline said...

This is a great review. I was always afraid I would find this too dry but now I think I'd find it worthwhile. I saw the movie but didn't like it much.
I know that many Americans are forcefeed this book in school and that's spoilt it fir them. It's not on the curriculum in Europe. Maybe in the U.K.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I read this book years ago. Well, I must confess I read the graphic novel. I was not impressed.

Hawthorne has done a lot of damage to the reputation of Puritans. Most of them were not nasty hypocrites or witch hunters. They were a highly celebratory people that helped found this nation, the first universities like Princeton and Harvard, and the tenets of individual freedom. They were the ones that constructed that the government shall not establish a state church or interfere with the free exercise of religion, regardless of what some people claim.

I don't know if I want to read this book because I get tired of the Puritans getting such a beating up when they were no worse than anyone else.

If you really want to get inside the mind of a Puritan you should read Johnathon Edwards. His writing is incredible. You'd think he was writing about today and not three hundred years' past.

Having said all that, you wrote a great review!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

Your observation is why I looked as this book as a work of fiction. I tend to like to get my history from history books.

I have read some Jonathan Edwards. I agree that he is well worth reading. I also know that the Puritans made some valuable contributions. Beyond that, I need to delve future into their history in order to have any kind of coherent opinion about them.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy. I also skipped the introduction this time. I also remember being a bit baffled by it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Caroline.

This books is so universally read in American High Schools.

I saw the film when it first came out. I remember thinking that it was not too good.

baili said...

Truly my type of novel brain!
And your review made it even more appealing.

Hester sounds strong character and really inspiring.
The hypocritical behaviour of society towards the women is since olden times .
Different punishment for man and woman for same sin rises so many questions about the sick mentality of people.

I appreciate what writer is trying to say here

Richard said...

I've wanted to (but failed to make the time to) reread this for years, Brian, so I'm glad to hear your own reread was so rewarding. Now that I live in what used to be the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I imagine the historical angles that you touch on will be even more resonant than when I first read this as a teenager in California. Cheers!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Baili - Hester is indeed one of the great characters in literature.

The double standard applied to women throughout the ages is one of the great tragedies in human history.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Richard = You are indeed close to the source of this book. If you read this I would love to know what you thought.

Harvee@Book Dilettante said...

How different things are today! There would be a lot of scarlet letters on clothing these days, lol.

HKatz said...

I agree that this is a book that should be revisited in adulthood, and I plan to do so. I read it in high school and don't remember much of it except for some of the elements of hypocrisy you point out. Your observation about how Hester finds intellectual freedom and greater moral strength in her state of being socially shunned is interesting too - as many people in those circumstances would develop psychological problems, but mostly it asks the question of whether you can develop such moral clarity in the midst of civilization, or can only find it when you're shunted out of it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Though she was more isolated then typical examples, it seems that a lot of lonely folks, especially children, find themselves in our present day.

I would love to know what you thought if you gave this a reread.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Harvee - There would indeed be many Scarlett letters on folks today! In the book it is clear that a lot of the Puritans were committing adultery. Only Hester was exposed because of her pregnancy.

Kate Scott said...

Your observation that Hester's good qualities reflect those held in high regard by transcendentalism is very interesting. I never thought of The Scarlet Letter in light of Hawthorne's transcendentalist beliefs.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kate - I sensed that Hawthorne through a lot of his belief's into the character's of Hester and Pearl.

Maria Behar said...

EXCELLENT review as usual, Brian!! And fascinating, too!!

I read this book back in high school, and have been wanting to reread it for quite some time now. Of course, I will definitely get MUCH more out of it now!
I remember the minister’s cowardice in allowing Hester to carry the guilt and shame for their sin all by herself. What a hypocrite! How could he stand in his pulpit, Sunday after Sunday, preaching to the congregation, while all the time, he was just as much of an adulterer as Hester was?

I see this novel as a criticism of the patriarchy, and especially of the double standard. As we all know, throughout history, women have been VERY harshly judged for sexual transgressions that have been glossed over where men are concerned. We don’t have to go far to find examples. Right in the Old Testament, it’s very evident. All the major Hebrew patriarchs had more than one wife, and God hardly batted an eye. Two of them, King David and King Solomon, also had concubines. There are three exceptions to this: the first, when Abraham went into Egypt, and told the Pharaoh that Sarah was his sister. The Pharaoh then took her for himself, and God got angry. Later on, Isaac, Abraham’s son, did the very same thing. I think God was mad in this case, too. God also got mad when David ordered the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, so that he could marry her himself. So, from these texts, we can see that God hates adultery. Ironically, he doesn’t seem to mind polygamy. Again, all of the major Hebrew patriarchs had more than one wife, and all of them continued to enjoy God’s favor. Meanwhile, in the Book of Numbers, there’s a horrible ritual women must undergo, if they’re suspected of adultery by their husbands. No test for adulterous husbands, though!

I’m sure that, had Dimmesdale’s guilt been known by the community, HE would not have had to wear a scarlet letter on his chest!!! Had Hawthorne chosen to have Dimessdale’s sin uncovered right away, I’m pretty SURE that the community would have staunchly defended him, blaming Hester for ‘seducing’ him.

I really need to go back and read this great classic! It reminds me of “Tess of the d’Urberfilles” in giving a very strong warning to patriarchal society about the dangers and hypocrisy involved in condemning women for sins that men themselves have also committed, and continue to commit.

Thanks for your insightful review!! <3 :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. Here are some very interesting quotes from an online article regarding the so-called 'rights' of Puritan women.

"Massachusetts Bay Colony was a man’s world. Women did not participate in town meetings and were excluded from decision making in the church. Puritan ministers furthered male supremacy in their writings and sermons. They preached that the soul had two parts, the immortal masculine half, and the mortal feminine half.

Women and children were treated harshly in the Puritan commonwealth. Women were viewed as instruments of Satan. Children were regarded as the property of their parents. If any child was disobedient to his parents, any magistrate could punish him with a maximum of ten lashes for each offense."


"Women were, of course, subordinate to men. In the new colonies, the same laws existed as in England. Married women were not allowed to possess property, sign contracts, or conduct business. Their husbands owned everything, including the couple’s children. Only widows who did not remarry could own property and run their own businesses."

Here's the link to this article:

Here are further links that prove that women were NOT treated as important members of Puritan society. The second link discusses the more egalitarian position of women in Quaker society, as opposed to Puritan society.

Here's a quote from a link to an article about the poet Anne Bradstreet. The quote also includes a link to the Wikipedia article about Bradstreet.

"Puritans believe that women are inferior to men. Wives were also considered their husband’s property. Men considered Women to be dangerous, and therefore they felt the need to control them. “This idea of danger and inferiority stemmed from the Puritan thought that women had a piece of Eve’s impurity and sin within themselves.”

Here's the link to this article:

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks again Maria.

It is so striking how reading books for the second time when we are older can yield so much more. I think that you would get a lot out of this if you reread it.

Dimmesdale’s cowardice is hard to take. That is why it makes such a striking contrast with Hester’s courage and dignity.

This book was a scathing indictment of male dominated Puritan society. Such I held back talking about the actual, real life society for the reasons that I mentioned on my post. At least in the society depicted in the book, and in a lot of real societies, this social structure was indeed driven but much of what you point out in the Old Testament.

There are indeed a lot of common themes between this book and “Tess of the d’Urberfilles”

Thanks for the links and quotes. The contrast with the Quakers is interesting. I need to read more about the Puritans.

Laurie Welch said...

This review makes me want to stop what I am doing and go back for a reread. Like many American high schoolers this book was a feature in our curriculum. I honestly can't remember how it was taught, though. Was it taught as a morality tale, a warning? I am not sure if the internal strength of Hester Prynne was highlighted and now I want to go back and revisit that! And I am also fascinated by your take on what Pearl symbolizes.

Just a quick observation on Hawthorne after having read The House of the Seven Gables and the Blithedale Romance very recently: he writes some very strong, very complex female characters. He knows their depth. I find that very interesting!

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - I've been a bit hesitant to delve too deeply into Puritanism for the reasons I have mentioned.

Of course I have read a bit about it previously, most notably when I read several books on witch hunting. I have been poking a bit around thier history today. At the very least, thier views on women, and thier intolerance of other groups compared to conventional English Society as well as with other groups, such as The Quakers. These views and thier corresponding actions were harmful to the folks who had to live under thier rule. They also probably slowed down human progress toward equality and toward a more free society.

History is complicated. There are misconceptions about them and they did have both achievements as well as what we would consider more progressive beliefs.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Laurie - I do not blame high school teachers for thier slant on this book as there is so much one can say about it. I just wrote about one aspect of it.

I have only read this by Hawthorne. I need to read more.,

JaneGS said...

I am definitely due for a reread myself--I haven't read this since 10th grade, and I think I would appreciate it much more as an adult.

Excellent review--it's interesting to read an historical novel from an author who also is now quite far in the past. Hawthorne's view of the Puritan world cannot help but be skewed by his own world.

So many books, so little time said...

I absolutely need to read this one Brian, it has popped up a few times over the years and I mean to buy it. Be good to read a book and have a gab with you about it xxx


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - If you read it I would love to discuss it with you.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jane. The skewing that you refer to is the reason I try not to mix my reading of fiction with historical judgements.

It is amazing just how much I missed in this book when I read it when young.

Maria Behar said...

Regarding your comment on Puritanism, from what I saw at those links, they certainly weren't very interested in equality for women. The Quakers, on the other hand, had a more egalitarian society. However, the Puritans have probably made some positive contributions to American society and history. I would have to do some more Googling to find out more. At the moment, it's hard for me to see them in a positive light, to be honest. But I will try to keep an open mind, and find out more. Thanks for pointing this out! :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria - I also need to learn more. But The Puritans started major educational institutions, espoused the separation of church and state, championed moderation.

You raise an important issue. That is, how do we handle historical figures and groups who had positive contributions but who also did horrendous things. I might devout a blog post to it.

Suko said...

Another excellent review! I read this novel many years ago, and have been meaning to reread it for a while now as well. Your post certainly reminds me of the book's worth.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko - This book really lends itself to rereading.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Whilst I did of course know about the yellow star and other such badges synonymous with Nazi Germany, it is only somewhere in the back of my mind that I remember the letter 'A' on a scarlet piece of material ... probably because of the 'scarlet women' label.

Not a character that readily springs to mind but one I'd definitely like to read up on.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ttacy - Though the scarlet A is fictional, this book has branded it upon our cuttural memory.

thecuecard said...

Hester is a great heroine of her times. I'm interested in the transcendental aspects of the story and the wild naturalness of Pearl. It's so prevalent in Hawthorne's stories. Remember the Birth-Mark by him? I'm sure the Scarlett Letter is quite fascinating to you -- with all those Puritan and witchcraft books you read recently. A lot of shaming going on in that society!! Yikes.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I did indeed relate this to the books I read on New England Witchcraft. With that, I tried not to look at this book as history, but rather fiction.

The Bookworm said...

I haven't read The Scarlet Letter but I've seen the movie. Interesting that behind closed doors Dimmesdal and Hester's attitudes are reversed, he's a mess and she seems to be more able to deal with what her situation. I agree, you can find so much more within a book when re-reading it.
Great post!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - I have not seen the film but I have heard mostly negative reviews.

There is a lot of irony in the depiction of the characters.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I've read this one a few times and enjoyed it. Living in New England, I've toured the Hawthorne House in Salem, MA (pretty town) a few times. Of course, with the Salem Witch Trials, hysteria, October, near Halloween, it the perfect time to visit. People get all decked out in costume.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Diane - This story is so intertwined with America and New Englend.

Delia (Postcards from Asia) said...

One of my favorite classics. :) I'm glad you enjoyed it. I've always admired Hester - to stand up for herself and admit her "indiscretion" is much more than either of the two men have done, one hiding behind her, the other plotting his revenge. I don't think we're that far from those times in terms of how women are viewed today when it comes to having children out of wedlock. Unless, of course they are rich and/or famous.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Delia - Hester is indeed a great character. There are indeed extremely judgmental elements of society still around.

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Thanks Go Books!