Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

When I first decided to read Nathaniel Hawthorne for the ongoing Transcendentalist month (hosted by Jillian of A Room of One’s Own), I was thinking of reading The Blithedale Romance which, I believe is an openly anti-transcendentalist work and based largely on Hawthorne’s interaction with the transcendentalists (Nice review of it here). However, The Scarlett Letter has been on my TBR for ages now so I decided to give that a go first. I found that while it doesn’t mention or discuss Transcendentalism and its principles, it does take a diametrically opposite view of the human condition. While the transcendentalists believed in the inherent good in every human being, Hawthorne stresses on the heart of darkness that lies within every seemingly pure human. He implies that each of us is bound by the time and society that he/she is a part of and an individual cannot possibly transcend that. Hawthorne also mentions his time at brook farm in the introductory Custom-House Sketch and he clearly thinks the transcendentalists he encountered at the farm were well-intentioned but deluded.

The Scarlett Letter is set in a village in Massachusetts in the 17th century. Hester Prynne, a young woman bearing an infant, is charged with adultery and is condemned to wear her shame in the form of the scarlet letter A on her bosom for the rest of her life. She refuses to name her partner in crime although the identity of the culprit is made obvious to the reader quite early on. There is also Hester’s wronged husband who conceals his true identity and torments his wife’s lover.  The product of the adulterous affair is a little girl named Pearl who is the personification of the scarlet letter, her mother’s shame and punishment.

There is an unrelenting pathos to the story that never lightens. All three of the principle characters are bound by their guilt, hating and pitying each other by turns. Hawthorne keeps redemption out of their grasp at all times. Even the child is almost used as an instrument of torture, tormenting her mother and even her lover. The atmosphere of the story is consistently grey and grim mirroring the sternness and joylessness of the puritanical society that it is set in. This is not to suggest that the book is boring. Never that. The characters and their internal conflicts are fascinating, as is the descriptions of 17th century Massachusetts under the puritans. It’s an age and society that I haven’t read much of and I enjoyed this peek into it.

Hawthorne’s attitude towards women is very puzzling. On the one hand he does invest Hester with strength, capability and good sense and on the other he seems to reinforce the stereotype of an immoral Eve leading a virtuous Adam to sin and his ultimate downfall.  Still, Hawthorne was a product of a different era and it would be unfair to judge him by modern standards. Bottom-line is, he tells a powerful story and he tells it very well.


  1. That's an interesting take: the immoral Eve thing. I didn't see that at all but it's a really interesting perspective. I love how this book can be interpreted so many different ways.

    Rebecca wrote on this one, too, for the event.

    I'm glad you liked this one!

  2. Didn't it seem super-psychological? That's what impressed me about it.

    Haven't read The Blithedale Romance yet, but that's the only one of his major books left to me. House of Seven Gables and The Marble Faun were kind of disappointing, so I don't have high hopes for it.

  3. Hawthorne is a great writer. I've read that he was guilt-ridden himself due to his family history and its involvement in the Salem witch trials.

    I've read The House of Seven Gables and The Marble Faun too, as well as many of his short stories. I have a biography of Hawthorne that's been on my shelf too long now. I need to get cracking and read it too.


  4. Jillian this event was such a great idea, I really wouldn't have gotten the anti-transcendentalist angle otherwise.

    Reading Rambo You're right about it being super-psychological, so much of the book happens in the minds of the protagonists.

    Bibliophilica I'm new to Hawthorne but I did read a little about him and his family history in an article. The biography should be interesting.

  5. I read this one in high school, and I feel I should return to it at some point with more mature eyes :) I remember a scene where Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl are all holding hands, and Pearl's power over them. She refuses to accept affection from Dimmesdale until he publicly acknowledges her, and at one point I think stays away from her mother until Hester pins the 'A' back onto her dress. She's uncompromising and won't let them lie or be hypocrites; maybe because if she did it would compromise her own innocence. I liked what Hawthorne did with her character.

  6. I am seeing so many reviews of this at the moment. I should just take the hint and read it already!

  7. HKatz "She's uncompromising and won't let them lie or be hypocrites; maybe because if she did it would compromise her own innocence." very well put. I actually didn't see it quite that way but its a very fresh perspective on Pearl. She is such a complex character.

    Sam I think you have the Transcendentalist event to thank for all the Hawthorne being read and reviewed :)

  8. A fine review of THE SCARLET LETTER. Unfortunately, I haven't read it though it's been a part of our collection for more than two decades (imagine that!). You can bet I'll read it soon. Writers like Hawthorne and Hardy, among others, often took on the puritanical society they lived in, and head-on too, perhaps to expose the hypocrisy of their times.

  9. Prashant The Scarlet Letter has been lying on my bookshelf for over 3 years now, unread. Must be something about it :)

  10. I have to read this one but I know I'll always have the SNL skit in my head - ruined the book forever.