1642. The Puritan colony of Massachussetts Bay. A young woman gives birth.
The problem? She has not seen her husband in nearly two years and no one knows if he is still alive. So Hester Prynne stands, her child in her arms and a red A emblazoned on her chest, determined never to utter the father’s name.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s acclaimed novel follows Hester over seven years, as she raises her daughter alone beneath the judgement and hypocrisy of the village, regularly crossing paths with her lover, but never betraying him, though he hasn’t the strength of character to confess his sin. It’s not a long book, but it holds great weight, dealing with the issues sin, judgement, legalism, and hypocrisy. Heavy though these themes may be, they are woven together with rich prose and sharp insights into the human heart.
THE BOOK BY THE COVER
I picked up this novel partly out of curiosity, and partly because a friend of mine loves it and loves to talk about it, but doesn’t know anyone else who has read it. Since I have been aiming to read better quality fiction this year and the book wasn’t long, I gave it a chance.
Mine is a kindle copy with a nondescript cover. I’m not sure that the title or the cover would have persuaded me to pick it up. It’s one of those books people are vaguely aware of but haven’t read and aren’t entirely sure what it’s about. There has been at least one screen adaptation, but I’ve never seen it. I came to this book knowing only that the ‘scarlet letter’ of the title was an A and it had something to do with adultery and Puritans.
INSIDE THE BOOK
There is great debate in the writing world about prologues, and as much as I enjoyed this book, I had to skip a chunk of the introduction. Thankfully it had no impact on the main story, but it’s an understatement to say it was wordy. I had no idea why it bore any relevance to the plot except to set up the narrator, which wasn’t necessary.
The main story was excellent though. It follows Hester Prynne, the social outcast, as she tries to raise her illegitimate daughter under the judgemental eye of her Puritan neighbours. It is clear that Hawthorne didn’t care for the Puritans, but he doesn’t seem to excuse Hester either, and the character herself feels the guilt of her own unfaithfulness.
In the very first chapter, as she is forced to stand in front of the entire town to be lectured and jeered at, her long-lost husband turns up, but won’t let her tell anyone who he is. Rather than make himself known, he settles to live among the people as their doctor. Though he seems reasonable, and perhaps even kind in sparing Hester the shame, his motives turn dark. While Hester is battling the stigma of her sin, her husband has discovers the father of the child and becomes close friends with him, manipulating his conscience until he becomes very sick (though he still does not confess). While this is all going on, the villagers are willing to associate with Hester for her excellent skill as a seamstress (though never for weddings) and praise her good works in caring for the poor and the needy. All the while they continue gossiping about her and even shunning her.
It’s interesting that for all the Puritans’ emphasis on the grace of God, in this story, there is no grace for Hester, only judgement. She is never forgiven, never brought back if she repents, only pushed to the margins of society and whispered about. Yet there is a fascinating contrast between her open and public shame, and the pain and distress that builds up in the guilty conscience of her lover.
I don’t know whether Nathaniel Hawthorne intended it this way, but it’s clear in the story that leaving sin unconfessed can be as (if not more) damaging to a person as confessing and bearing the guilt.
The hypocrisy of the village (and the lover) also hit home for me. There is one point where he is lecturing Hester in public and trying to persuade her to tell them who made her pregnant, and as the story progresses, you realise the hypocrisy of his speech. There is more to be said, but I don’t want to give away who did it. For all that his conscience accuses him and his inner guilt causes his physical sickness, it takes him seven years to confess to fathering Pearl. Though his conscience pains him incessantly and he does confess in the end, the fact that he keeps it secret and continues on as an upstanding citizen all those years is damning.
The villagers are no better. The magistrates talk about taking her child away so that they can teach her the catechism and how to be a good child, but they never talk of helping Hester. They happily benefit from her gifts, but they will neither forgive nor help her. It’s legalism at its most pious, as though they think they can save Pearl by teaching her the right answers to the catechism, as if that will prevent her from making the same mistakes as her mother. It is all outward show. There’s a great quote, where Hester is walking through the village and she keeps thinking about what evil things the villagers have done and she says:
Could they be other than the insidious whispers of the bad angel, who would fain have persuaded the struggling woman, as yet only half his victim, that the outward guise of purity was but a lie, and that, if truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom besides Hester Prynne’s?
One of the things that struck me most about The Scarlet Letter was Hawthorne’s insight into the human heart. We like to have someone to judge, because we hope that if everyone is scorning and tutting them, they won’t stop long enough to notice our own sins.
In contrast to Hester’s own struggle and the somewhat freeing revelation that though she wears an outward mark, the other villagers are as guilty as her, you’ve got the lover’s internal struggle.
The villagers love him and look up to him, and I think it’s as much selfishness as anything that keeps him so long from confessing. Yes, he’s wracked with guilt, but it’s not over how his actions have affected Hester and their daughter, it doesn’t even seem to be over what he did. It felt like a large part of his guilt was in the hypocrisy of his own behaviour and the fear of being discovered. He talks openly about guilt and sin, as close as he can to confessing without saying anything, and it seems as though he is trying to soothe his conscience without admitting what he has done. The villagers think he’s even holier when he does this because he’s introspective about what a sinful heart he has. They mistake what could be a cry for help as a sign of piety that should be praised and revered.
The contrast between Hester’s outward struggle and her desire to protect her child, compared to her lover’s inner struggle and his desire to protect himself is beautifully done. The whole novel is a painful but insightful glimpse into the human heart.
Though The Scarlet Letter focuses on an adultress, there is nothing explicit. The book begins after Hester has had her baby and never strays into any real discussion or detail except to say that Pearl is illegitimate. There is no gore either, and though one of the characters is talked about as a witch and the villagers say she signed her soul away to the Devil. There’s no real magic or anything particularly sinister in the book, only a little superstition, as you would expect from the setting.
I loved this book (apart from skipping the introduction). I grew up in a somewhat legalistic church background, so many of Hester’s problems and thoughts rang true and despite her faults, I had a lot of sympathy for her.
My only hesitation in saying that it’s suitable for all ages (as long as parents are ok with explaining that sometimes people have kids with people they’re not married to and that’s wrong) is the language. Hawthorne can be quite verbose, and uses vocabulary (thees and thous in particular) that can be difficult for a modern audience. That’s not a reason not to read it. I believe in reading things that challenge us, and the mildly outdated language, along with the more wordy style, would be healthy for younger readers, particularly given how shallow and on-the-nose a lot of YA is these days. Content-wise, it’s pretty family friendly, perhaps 12+, but it’s important to consider the maturity of the reader. Younger readers may not yet be able to grasp the depth and significance of some of the themes.
Favourite Character: Hester Prynne.
Favourite Part: When she’s talking to the father in the woods. Part of me wanted them to run away together and make a new life, but part of me knew that the way it ended was the only right way. I also liked the part where Hester and Pearl are chasing sunbeams and Pearl keeps catching them between the trees but they fade every time Hester steps into them. Nice bit of imagery there.
Favourite Quote: Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of her heart!
Wouldst thou have me to believe, O wise and pious friend, that a false show can be better—can be more for God’s glory, or man’s welfare—than God’s own truth?