The Scarlet Letter…
About the Book:
In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne takes readers back to the puritan days of the American colonies, into a society as unforgiving as its harsh New England winters. The story of Hester Prynne, who bears a scarlet “A” upon her breast as a symbol of her adultery, and that of her pious lover who atones in tormented silence, is one that has captivated readers since its publication in 1850. Adapted to numerous plays, films, and operas.
Originally published in 1850, The Scarlet Letter is a novel of historical fiction set in the puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony during the years 1642 to 1649. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America. I’ve read it before, many years ago, but decided on a re-read as part of my Classics Eight challenge. It was put back onto my radar by my niece who had to read it for one of her Year 12 English units. Quite a slog for a school read, if you ask me. The dialogue is rather Shakespearean, in keeping with the era in which it’s set. I love the language within this novel, but it’s definitely more complex reading than what some other classics may contain, and I can’t imagine my daughter, who is also in Year 12, coping with this novel. The language would have put her off immediately. Now, given that this is a classic, I’m going to freely discuss it without a care for spoilers. So if you truly still don’t know what this novel is about, even after all of the various forms of adaptation, don’t read any further.
There is an introduction to this novel, written by Hawthorne himself in the style of what we commonly see nowadays under the title of ‘Author Note’, however it goes on for about 35 pages and is fairly dry reading. In the second edition, which I have, he has also written an introduction to his previous introduction. One can make some fairly spot on assumptions about Nathaniel Hawthorne based on this, and I mean no disrespect but he makes me chuckle a bit. I wonder what he might have done with a third edition… Anyway, the main and first introduction ends with Hawthorne describing how he found an embroidered letter “A” wrapped in an old document in the Customs House where he was working. Hawthorne learns the letter was placed there by a previous employee, Surveyor Pue, who had died suddenly before the Revolution. The document contains the story of Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter, and Hawthorne claims his novel is merely an expanded version of this document. In short, he claims The Scarlet Letter is a true story:
…it should be borne carefully in mind, that the main facts of that story are authorized and authenticated by the document of Mr. Surveyor Pue. The original papers, together with the scarlet letter itself, – a most curious relic, – are still in my possession, and shall be freely exhibited to whomsoever, induced by the great interest of the narrative, may desire a sight of them.
This has been proven untrue and is simply a literary device to make his story seem more authentic, just as he incorporated real people (such as Governor Bellingham and the accused witch Anne Hibbens) into the narrative. I think it’s important to point this out because there are no notes in the back of the novel to refute this introductory claim. There is a case from history though, from the era and location in which this novel is set, of a woman who was accused of adultery, but she was actually branded with her A. Perhaps Nathaniel felt this reality might have been too horrific for his story, hence he makes Hester’s A an embroidered letter attached to her outer garments. He also claimed that The Scarlet Letter was a romance, so the embroidered letter offers a more gentle punishment than an actual branding, although realistically, the puritans of early New England were not known for dishing out light punishments for anything. As to the whole romance aspect, more tragic love story in my opinion, but classics do this well, the angst and desperation of deep love. You just don’t see this in contemporary love stories and romance has evolved into a very different genre to when Nathaniel Hawthorne would have labelled his novel as such.
‘Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.’
The major theme of The Scarlet Letter is shaming and social stigmatisation, both in terms of Hester’s public humiliation and Dimmesdale’s private shame and fear of exposure. Notably, their liaison is never spoken of, so the circumstances that lead to Hester’s pregnancy, and how their affair was kept secret, never become part of the plot. The focus is on after the affair, the consequences of their actions within the context of the society in which they live. This is largely why I struggle to acknowledge The Scarlet Letter as a romance. We aren’t privy to their romance, that’s all in the past by the time we join them. But I’ll let that go and move on now! I found it very interesting how Hawthorne conveys the extent of Hester’s punishment. On the face of it, she has to wear a big red A on her outer garments. So what? But Hawthorne likens this to a scar, a permanent stain that sets her apart. The longer she wears it though, the response from the community begins to change, and it affords her a certain notoriety that is not entirely negative. For Hester though, it results in a lot of shame and loneliness that pervades all aspects of her existence. While others can see it without really seeing it, this is not so for Hester. The A is imprinted upon her. Indeed, her own child doesn’t even recognise her without it on. Moving on to the father of her child, a young pastor named Arthur Dimmesdale. He keeps quiet about the affair, but we learn later that this was at the urging of Hester. He begins to sicken and also repeatedly carves an A into his skin over his heart, exactly where Hester wears hers, but his of course is covered and no one but him knows it’s there, the only outward indication that it is there being the tendency he has of always shielding the spot with his hand. I have always been in two minds about Dimmesdale. Did he make himself sick from the shame of sinning against the puritan laws of God, or did he make himself sick from allowing Hester, his love, to publicly bear his shame for years whilst he retained his wholesome standing within the community? In my more generous moments, I attribute both reasons to him, but there are plenty of occasions when I think the worst of him. In the end, it hardly matters. He dies, rather melodramatically from his shame, thus conveniently retaining his reputation as a martyr whilst also avoiding all of the responsibility of his own actions as well his obligations towards Hester and his daughter, Pearl.
‘It is to the credit of human nature that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates.’
Hawthorne shows some surprising insight about the treatment of women in puritan New England throughout this novel. I say surprising because he wrote this during the mid 19th century, hardly contemporary times and women still had few rights then. For someone from this era to raise his eyebrows at the treatment of women conveys much about just how grim it was to be a woman in 17th century New England. Hawthorne also demonstrates throughout the novel a rather progressive view about children. I say progressive because historically, the value of children has been very much reduced to property and purpose. From his 19th century gaze, Hawthorne is rather indulgent with regards to Pearl, Hester’s daughter. He paints her as an anomaly because in a time when children were very much expected to be seen and not heard, she made sure she was both. Consequently, she was shunned, not just because of her mother’s shame, but because she was suspected as being otherworldly. He gifts Pearl with a cheeky precociousness that is more reminiscent of an indulged 19th century child than a 17th century puritan one. Even Hester, her own mother, claims repeatedly to not understand her. But it’s this very precociousness and curiosity that makes Pearl intuitive about the people around her. She gives the story a third eye, for want of another phrase, a view of good and evil reduced to a childlike simplicity. She identifies her own father’s hypocrisy with discomforting clarity and intuits danger from the other children she encounters, pre-emptively striking against them as a means of self-defence. She’s often naughty, seemingly insensitive to her mother’s ongoing anguish. She’s quite a complex little character and Hawthorne created her with a fairly liberal hand, shaping her into an important character within the overall story.
The Scarlet Letter is a real treasure of a novel, in my opinion. It offers contemporary readers a view of a society that formed the basis of early American life. Hawthorne claims, from his place in 19th century New England, that the puritan ways still lingered, and not for the better; an interesting evaluation for him to publicly make. Of course, this part of America is the same one that conducted the Salem witch trials. It’s a society that was born out of fundamentalism, indeed, the colonists themselves had left England, the old country, in a bid to shrug off Catholicism and indulgence, with a view on beginning their lives anew in ‘purity’. Perhaps aspects of this linger there still. As far as classics go, The Scarlet Letter is a challenging read but a rewarding one. There is an omnipresent narration that reminds you right the way through that this is a cautionary tale, a love story doomed from the beginning. I think Hawthorne was a bit ahead of his times, with this novel anyway. I do really love a classic that is also an historical fiction. The impressions of an author writing about the 17th century from the distance of the 19th century is vastly different to a modern interpretation of the 17th century and therein lies its value sociologically. Needless to say, The Scarlet Letter is one of my recommended classics.