Sunday, 12 September 2010

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This book seems to be a firm favourite within the American education system as quite a few Americans have told me that they first encountered this one in school. I think the only reason I was aware that this book was considered one of the great American classics was because my father had mentioned on quite a few occasions that he really enjoyed reading this in school. My father was educated in California during the 60s and The Scarlet Letter has proved to be one of his more memorable reads from high school. I read this knowing nothing of the story just that it had something to do with Puritans and that ‘the Reverend’ did it.

Well I have to admit that my heart sank as I dragged myself through the first 63 pages of the first chapter. The book does not begin with the story of the Scarlet Letter but rather the story of the narrator which threw me slightly. The unnamed narrator describes his job at a custom house in Salam, his work colleagues and finally he describes a small bundle of papers in which appears a rather ornate scarlet badge of the letter A. The papers contain the story of Hester Prynne and the circumstances as to which she was made to wear the letter on her breast and the narrator decides to write a fictional account of The Scarlet Letter.

As I have said, I struggled through this first chapter and the reason is is because of the writing. For some reason I found myself wading through the quite heavy prose regretting that I had ever picked up The Scarlet Letter. However once I have got past this first chapter and onto the actual Scarlet Letter story the narrative suddenly became much easier to read, the chapters shorter and I started to very much enjoy reading it.

The story I found to be an interesting one. Hester (who is a women which again threw me – surely that’s a mans name?*) was sent to Boston ahead of her husband who remained in Europe on the understanding that he would eventually join his wife. After a few years go by, Hester becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl named Pearl which sends shockwaves through the Puritan community and is where the story begins. After much deliberation the towns’ elders decide that as punishment, Hester should be made to wear a Scarlet Letter upon her breast thus drawing attention to her ‘sin’. Hester is a strong type who accepts her punishment and refuses to name the child’s father even after considerable pressure to do so.

Around the same time as Hester is beginning her punishment, her doctor husband shows up to find his wife pregnant and shunned from society. He asks his wife to not reveal his identify and he then proceeds in ingraining himself into society with the sole purpose of finding the child’s father and exacting his revenge. As the years go by this man becomes quite an odious character whose sole purpose of living is to cause misery and pain.

Making up this trio is Pearl’s father the Reverend Dimmesdale who is a weak and at times quite a hypocritical character. He considers Hester to be more ‘free’ because everyone knows her sin while he is forced to privately carry the burden of his. Yet of course he will never reveal his sin because of his human weakness which is in contrast to Hester, at one point he even blames Hester for his misery. Yet he is also the most complex character in the novel, in one scene Hester goes to the governor’s house in order to confront her accusers because there is talk that Pearl might be taken away from her in order to give Pearl to a less sinful guardian. In a gripping scene where Hester is forced to uncharacteristically beg for her child it is the Reverend Dimmesdale who steps up and convinces the other elders that the best place for Pearl is with her mother.

The strength of this novel lies very much in the characters and I enjoyed trying to work out their intentions. Even little Pearl who as a child could have been neglected in the book, proves an enigma throughout and is constantly asking probing and insightful questions. The novel itself builds up the tension to a very public conclusion which kept me riveted, and the themes of sin, human nature and identity have had me mulling over the novel in my mind since I read it.

Would I recommend this? I am sure that since this is a book that is read in schools it is packed full of symbolism (yes I noticed the Rosebushes) but as an adult reader encountering this book for the first time, without the use of a teacher to guide me, I found this a very rewarding and gripping read.

“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . . It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.
“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short. . . . “Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”

Verdict 5/5

Posted by Jess

* I have since been informed by Zoe from Playing by the Book that Hester is a common girls name in the Netherlands (thanks Zoe!)


  1. I have to admit - even though I have a Master's degree in American Literature - that I have never read 'The Scarlet Letter'. I always wanted to, but somehow there were always other books I wanted to read more. Your great review has made me add the book back to Mount TBR though.

  2. I read this in high school and I HATED it. Most of the people around me hated it too, for that matter. I honestly don't think it's a good read for 14 or 15 year old kids - it's just too difficult! The vocab alone is difficult, but one of the main reasons they make you study it is because much of the vocab portion of the SATs is pulled from this book. We were told, when studying for our SATs, to reread this book and write down & study every word you don't know. My vocabulary was very small, so I had a whole notebook full of marks on just the first page of the book. That method of studying didn't last long!

    Lately, though, I've thought I want to reread the book. As an adult, twice as old as I was the first time and with a much improved vocab and knowledge of history, I think I'll see this through different eyes. I also think I'd be able to understand Hester more, considering I'm a mother now, when it was difficult to care about her at all when I was 15.

  3. This was a highschool read for me too back in the 80s-- as a bookworm, I enjoyed the tale but the prose was tiresome. I've thought recently that I'd like to read it again and your post inspires me to do so.

  4. I read this the first time in my early 20s without ever having to study it in school. I did enjoy it then. A couple of years ago I read it with my online book group and reviewed it on my blog. It's one of my most visited posts which tells me a lot of kids are studying it in school. ;)

  5. I have heard this plot descirbed many many times and I am always fascinated by it. I own it as well, and although I have started it many times, I have never been able to finish it. It is just so hard to get interested in! Perhaps I will try again. It certainly seems worth it.

  6. thebookaffair - you would get more out of it Im sure then, what an interesting degree.

    Amanda - if I had to read this book at aged 15 I am 100% sure I would have hated it too. Even as an adult I did have to concentrate on the prose and Im sure my 15 year old self would have had no patience with it. I did think while I was reading it that I had much easier books to read when I was in school.

    Lesa - It'll be intesting to see what people think if they do revisit it. It had a very good storyline I thought.

    Chris - I just read your review and Im glad I wasnt the only one who found the first chapter torture - I nearly gave up halfway through that.

    Becky - it might be worth if you do try again to skip th first chapter (which Chris above also recommends doing in her review) as that chapter is the most differcult.

  7. This is on my shelves waiting to be read so thanks for your review which will definitely ensure the book is moved to the front end of the queue! Hester, by the way, is a common girl's name in the Netherlands.

  8. I did not read the novel until last year, quite a long time after high school, so I asked my readers about their experiences with the book in high school. A lot of people really loved it, even in high school.

    I don't think I would have!

  9. I've read this, and I did not enjoy it at all...I'm just not a fan of Hawthorne's writing for some reason.