Book Review: ‘The Scarlet Letter’ by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Posted: 4 October 2016 in Book reviews
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Set in 17th-century Boston, Hester Prynne humbly bears the weight of her punishment for adultery. After being held in the local jail, she emerges with a beautifully stitched ‘A’ sewn upon her breast. She is led from the jail to a scaffold where she is sat and observed by all for a time. There they implore her to reveal the name of her baby’s father, which she refuses. In the crowd, she sees a man she never expected to see. He comes to visit her in the jail and forces her to promise never to reveal who he really is.

For seven long years, Hester raises her daughter, Pearl, in relative peace. Despite the stigma around her scarlet letter, she is able to earn enough money to support the two of them. She is generally happy, but every day she is reminded of and feels the weight of the result of her sin.

During this time, the man, known to all as Roger Chillingworth, serves the people as a man of medicine while at the same time trying to root out the man who sired little Pearl. When the identity of the man is discovered, he is bent on making the man’s life a living hell. Revenge changes him to something not even Hester recognises. With Roger so hellbent on destroying this man’s life, Hester must renege on her ill-made promise to keep his identity hidden. She reveals it to Pearl’s father, but with so much time already gone by it might be just too late.

My Thoughts

I have wanted to read this since I first watched ‘Easy A’. It may not be an actual theatrical representation of the book, but it was a huge part of the story. Also had a great message about lying and the harms of unfair judgement. Well, I bought the book when I was at Uni in 2014 and have finally gotten around to reading it.

I did enjoy the general story. It really gave an insightful look into the attitude of the northeastern USA hundreds of years ago. Not a fun time to be alive. Most people today would not likely have survived the harsh punishments of breaking religious law. It is also interesting to see how the persecutive personalities of religious people haven’t really changed much over the years. These people who were so quick to put Hester up as an example of religious heathenry do the same thing today. They act like their shunning of the ‘sinner’ is justified when in fact it is not. There is no love and forgiveness as Christ instructed. The book is an interesting dialogue on how it’s not the wrath of God that people are afraid of, but the wrath of the religious people.

There are really only three main characters through the whole book: Hester, Roger Chillingworth, and Pearl’s father (who I’m not going to reveal obviously). Pearl does have a constant presence in the story, but we rarely see from her point of view. Hester is a beautiful example of how a person should be. Her sin couldn’t be hid and while she struggled to comes to terms with her punishment, she ultimately bore it with patience and perseverance. She let it build her positively and did all she could do lighten the loads of others who suffered. She forgave her oppressors. She is a wonderful example to how religious people should act. Her exact opposite is Roger. He let his hate and anger turn him ugly. He became a demon in a sense, and acknowledged it. Pearl’s father shows how damaging guilt can be on an emotional level if left unresolved. Because he cannot tell anyone of his part in Pearl’s conception, he lives a lie and his health progressively deteriorates from his guilt. It reminds me of the film The Machinist where the main character withers away to a husk of his former self. From personal experience, I know that my conscience just eats away at me until I have to confess. I’m surprised he lasted so long. It shows that it is better to own up to your guilt and deal with the consequences than hide from it.

As for the writing, it confused me a good part of the time. Hawthorne really likes his eternal sentences. Sure they are broken up with commas, but my goodness. I had to read most of the sentences multiple times just to grasp what he was going on about. That was usually during the times when he was writing description. During the actual story it was just fine. Mostly. Also the beginning bit was quite perplexing as to the point. I got that he was “working” for a Custom House when he “came across the story”, but I honestly don’t think it should have gone on as long as it did. Though the one thing he was able to do with the story was make me wonder if it was true (he references a lot of real people in his narrative). It wasn’t, but it seems to be based on true events (yeah we researched it). Of course, back then the Puritans used to brand the letter ‘A’ on people rather than sew it on clothing. Crazy.

Overall, it was a good story. A challenging read, but enjoyable. If you enjoy classics, give this one a go. If you struggle a bit with the classics, I might suggest reading some of Hawthorne’s contemporaries first and then give it a try. Enjoy 😉

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