No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.
The Scarlet Letter was written by Nathaniel Hawthorn in the 1840s and published in 1850. It was one of the first mass produced (mechanically printed) books in America and was an instant best-seller. The narrative is set in 17th century Puritan Boston and is told by a narrator who is writing some 200 years after the events.
The plot is fairly simple. Hester Pryne – waiting for her husband to join her from Europe – has an affair with the local minister, Arthur Dimmesdale and becomes pregnant. For this crime she is sentence to wear a large, red letter A (for adulteress) sewn on to her chest for the rest of her life. Despite much pressure she refuses to reveal the name of the man she slept. On the day she is released from prison and made to stand in the town square displaying her letter A for the world to see, her husband arrives in the town. He recognises his wife but doesn’t wish to be known as her husband. He assumes the name Chillingworth and stays in the town as a Doctor. The husband quickly works out that the minister was Hester’s partner and he becomes his trusted friend, living with Dimmesdale and getting his revenge through exacerbating the minister’s unspoken shame and guilt.
On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.
Years pass and the minister’s mental and physical health is failing, he is driving himself mad through guilt. Hester lives outside the town with her daughter Pearl on the money she makes from sewing. She realises Chillingworth knows of her past relationship with the minister and eventually decides she and Dimmesdale must leave the town. They make plans for this at the port but Chillingworth finds out and arranges to travel with them on the ship.
Calm, gentle, passionless, as he appeared, there was yet, we fear, a quiet depth of malice, hitherto latent, but active now, in this unfortunate old man, which led him to imagine a more intimate revenge than any mortal had ever wreaked upon an enemy. To make himself the one trusted friend, to whom should be confided all the fear, the remorse, the agony, the ineffectual repentance, the backward rush of sinful thoughts, expelled in vain!…All that dark treasure to be lavished on the very man, to whom nothing else could so adequately pay the debt of vengeance!
The minister realises he can never escape from his sin and confesses it on the scaffold in the town square where Hester stood at the beginning of the book. He dies in her arms. The story proper ends here – Hester and Pearl leave, Chillingworth dies and leaves his considerable wealth to Pearl, Hester returns to the town alone and lives in her small cottage with the letter A on her chest until she dies.
Though this might seem to contain lots of spoilers, much of what transpires is fairly obvious once you are a few chapters in. The most striking thing about this book is the atmosphere created by the author. Frankly, it is an extremely depressing novel. A critic and friend of Hawthorn spoke of the novel’s ‘morbid intensity’ and this sums up the general atmosphere. Hawthorne’s writing can be very powerful and the themes of guilt, sin, revenge, and redemption (or lack of), simmer throughout.
Hester’s acceptance of her fate can be frustrating, why can’t she just leave the town and begin a new life somewhere else! However, the psychology of the two sinners are such that both feel they deserve to suffer as a result of their actions. They fully believe in the awfulness of their transgression, though the minister thinks he will never have salvation and Hester wants to believe that her good deeds on earth will redeem her.
Perhaps the reason some of the emotions feel foreign or over exaggerated to a modern reader is because, as Peter De Vries said, ‘Hester Pryne of The Scarlet Letter was given an A for adultery. Today she would rate no better than a C plus’. The responses of all characters in the book to the sin it revolves around seem to be disproportionate. Having a child as a result of an extramarital affair isn’t great news, and in some western communities you might be ostracised, but it is not a crime. Hawthorne presents a society where religious belief and law are one and the same and where religious beliefs and lifestyle are also inseparable. In this way the community we read about is far removed from the experiences of most readers. Amusingly, when this book was published it was criticised by some for encouraging immoral behaviour. I would have thought that this narrative would work fairly well as a method of birth control!
I’m not sure whether I really enjoyed this book, though I did appreciate some sections of writing, particularly the self-inflicted mental torture which was powerfully portrayed particularly in the character of Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale’s slow mental and physical breakdown illustrates painfully a ‘fall from grace’ and shows the corrosive nature of hidden sin.
God knows; and He is merciful! He hath proved his mercy, most of all, in my afflictions. By giving me this burning torture to bear upon my breast! By sending yonder dark and terrible old man, to keep the torture always at red-heat! By bringing me hither, to die this death of triumphant ignominy before the people! Had either of these agonies been wanting, I had been lost for ever! Praised be his name! His will be done! Farewell!
Heads up that there were some sections I found fairly dull and skipped over such as descriptions of Puritan beliefs and life and few bit where the narrator just goes off at a tangent. However, a wish to see it all ‘come right’ and the knowledge this was highly unlikely to happen made me want to continue reading.
Read this if…
You like mental anguish played out nice and slow in great language, you are happy with older language, and you don’t mind a very religious overtones and undertones. If you’re feeling guilty about anything I would probably give this one a miss.
P.S. I would thoroughly recommend Easy A, a fab film starring Emma Stone which draws on The Scarlet Letter for inspiration but which is much more uplifting and ends on a musical number.