The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter.
The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorne and published in 1850. It's one of those books that always seems to feature somewhere on the 'top 100 best books' and I have read it before many years ago, but I decided to revisit it with, I hope, a slightly maturer mind. 

It's set in 17th Century Boston and tells the story of Hester Prynne, a woman found guilty of adultery and condemned, having been released from prison, to wear embroidered on her chest the scarlet letter A. Hawthorne writes of Hester,
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam; and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of the feminine gentility of those days; characterised by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace which is now recognised as its indication. And never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the antique interpretation of the term, than as she issued from the prison. Those who had before known her, and had expected to behold her dimmed and obscured by a disastrous cloud, were astonished, and even startled, to perceive how her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was enveloped. It may be true that, to a sensitive observer, there was some thing exquisitely painful in it. Her attire, which indeed, she had wrought for the occasion in prison, and had modelled much after her own fancy, seemed to express the attitude of her spirit, the desperate recklessness of her mood, by its wild and picturesque peculiarity. But the point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer—so that both men and women who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time—was that Sᴄᴀʀʟᴇᴛ Lᴇᴛᴛᴇʀ, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.
Scene from 'The Scarlet Letter' by T.H. Matteson. (1860).
Hester was married, however it would appear her husband was lost at sea, and since then Hester had a child, Pearl, whose father is unknown to the people of Boston, and Hester refuses to reveal his identity. She is forever tormented by the people and punished for her sin, and the scarlet letter "A" becomes a part of her identity, yet its meaning shifts as time progresses. She shows dignity and courage when all about her there is fear and anger at what she has done. Hawthorne refers to the "dismal severity of the Puritanic code of law" in Boston at the time, and this is a key part of understanding The Scarlet Letter. Not only do we see Hester as apart from her social group, but we also can read Hester as a manifestation of sin or even a fall from grace, and thus see how the social group - the Puritans - react to it. It is not simply an individual who has sinned within a community, but an actual mark against that community itself. It is dangerous and even shameful, and the Puritans seek to distance themselves from her and from the corruption of the order that she represents. Hence I mentioned both fear and anger. A whole community, in their eyes, is in danger of being tarnished. The scarlet letter is the taboo.

Yet Hester reclaims the "A" on her chest and so comes to change its meaning. By refusing to wear it or showing shame and degradation that she may feel, she is accepting its power within the society that condemned her to wear it and pushed her outside. She shows moral courage and integrity, which stands out even more in her group, and this is contrasted with specific individuals - Roger Chillingworth and Arthur Dimmesdale, whose importance is revealed later in the novel.

It is an outstanding novel, which I didn't appreciate with my first read, and the more I think about it the more I realise just how brilliant and clever it is. In telling the story of Hester Prynne Hawthorne explores a variety of concepts that are very tricky, yet easy to grasp in this novel. It's essentially, I suppose, about conflict within a social order, about religion and key religious concepts such as sin and atonement, and about an alienated individual. It is staggering, actually, just how good this novel is! I'm glad I've revisited it and come to appreciate it. It is short - my edition has 225 pages, but whilst there is much packed in it is so ably handled it is not a difficult read (as such).

To finish, some illustrations. These are a selection by Hugh Thomson from the 1920 edition of The Scarlet Letter.

Comments

  1. I love The Scarlet Letter, though I haven't read it in a few years. Great review.

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  2. I didn't read your entire review, fearing a spoiler; I've known the basic premise but no details. I stopped after Hawthorne's description of Hester emerging from prison, and I'm hooked. After years on TBR, this is finally coming up for me a bit later this year. I'll be sure to check back and compare notes once I'm done.

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    1. Excellent, well I hope you enjoy it! :)

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  3. I absolutely love this novel - it's fascinating to watch how the three main players in the novel react to the situation. The way Hester's noble demeanour is contrasted against Chillingworth's simmering, resentful vendetta and Dimmesdale's eroding calm is just /riveting/.

    //SPOILERS AHEAD//

    I don't know if I'm remembering this right, but at the end when Dimmesdale reveals his role in the whole debacle, doesn't the town laud him for being so forthcoming? I think I remember feeling very indignant about that.

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    1. I think they were more forgiving, which yes, was irritating, but I seem to think they'd been softened a little following Hester.

      It is such a good novel, one I'll certainly want to revisit. I'm pleased at that - really wasn't fond of it when I first read it!

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  4. I'm one of the weirdos that didn't like The Scarlet Letter. :( Maybe someday I'll re-read it and give it a second chance. I tend to dislike books where I don't feel like I have a character to root for and that's how I felt with The Scarlet Lettter.

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    1. I know what you mean. All I can say is I wasn't fond of it at first either, but I much preferred it a second time around (though I think at the time I decided I'd never re-read it, I'm glad I changed my mind!).

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  5. We had to read this in hi th school and I didn't have a clue. I did not finish it and when called upon in class to discuss the ending I made up some waffle that I am sure the teacher saw through n UT he never said. I have always wanted to reread it, maybe out of some long held guilt and I have it on my Kindle. I think I am closer to doing that after this post! Stay une. ☺

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