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Review: The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Penguin, 2003. 228 pp. $8

Maybe you know the story, even if you’ve never read the novel. Hester Prynne, a woman of seventeenth-century Boston, must be punished for having borne a child out of wedlock. In this most Puritan community, she’s lucky to escape with her life; instead, she spends several months in prison, after which she must forever wear a scarlet letter A, announcing that she’s an adulteress.

The simplest of premises, you’d think, yet there’s nothing simple about this quintessential American moral tale, written in 1850. Hawthorne, descended from a judge at the Salem witch trials, an ancestry that shamed him and influenced his work and life, cuts surgically into the withered, envious soul of Puritanism and holds the stinking mess up to the light. (For those interested in a fictional account of the author’s life and struggle with his unwanted legacy, see Erika Robuck’s House of Hawthorne.)

It’s not just that the reader is meant to understand and sympathize with Hester, who’s actually a bit of a stubborn drip, at times. It’s that Hawthorne wants you to see the society that condemns her, a group of caviling hypocrites who may or may not lust for her but certainly do for the wealth and power they possess. Nobody escapes, Hawthorne says; there’s evil in all of us, and desires aplenty.

Mary Hallock Foote’s illustration of Hester and Pearl, from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter (courtesy Wikimedia Commons; public domain)

H.L. Mencken, writing more than a half-century after Hawthorne, quipped that Puritanism was “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” The Scarlet Letter bears witness, as even children’s play involves games of persecuting Quakers or attending church. Some leading elders assume that Hester’s daughter, Pearl, unable to answer a single question from the catechism at age three, may therefore be Satan’s handmaid. She is ungovernable, it’s true, and has a mean streak that pains her long-suffering mother. But she’s also a happy child, and nobody knows what to make of this.

Crucial too is how Hester wears her A, skillfully embroidered, perhaps pushing the bounds of everyday Puritan taste (though not of formal wear, curiously enough, especially among the rich and powerful). Consequently, the adulteress hides nothing, though she largely keeps to herself, because her every public appearance challenges her judges as to their righteousness and pretended sobriety of custom.

But, in Hawthorne’s world, sin must be spoken of, or else it eats away at everyone. The Scarlet Letter pays heed to the spiritual and emotional as though they were the same. To feel whole, the sinner must confess, so as to breathe freely; conversely, so as not to overstep the bounds of humility, the hearer must listen and withhold judgment. Desires are human, not particular to individuals. To Hawthorne’s seventeenth-century Boston, this idea was revolutionary — and in some ways, it still is, not in what American society says, but what it does.

Hawthorne’s style can take getting used to, even for readers accustomed to nineteenth-century literature. Not only does he tell, tell, tell, explaining damn near everything, he imbues the smallest moments with hard-working metaphorical swoop:

The mother’s impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light, of the intervening substance. Above all, the warfare of Hester’s spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl. She could recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart. They were now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child’s disposition, but, later in the day of earthly existence, might be prolific of the storm and whirlwind.

That style deserves consideration in its context, however. Hawthorne was countering the point of view that all wisdom and truth comes from God; he argues that humans can find truth anywhere if they look hard enough, particularly within themselves. The Scarlet Letter, published nine years before The Origin of Species, feels like kin to Darwin, though it has nothing to do with biology: Both works deal with the power of observation and its overriding importance. Hawthorne wants you to see his abstractions, as though the spiritual world inhabits the physical. Often, he succeeds.

Strange, but I had avoided reading The Scarlet Letter, and I’m not the type to shun the classics. As a high school sophomore, I transferred out of an English class, no mean trick, led by a teacher with whom I knew I’d quarrel, and who’d just begun discussing this novel. The teacher whose class I transferred into turned out to be a mentor, so I got the better deal–and swapped Hawthorne for Dostoyevsky, Huxley, Orwell, and Zamiatin besides. But I still didn’t let Hawthorne off the hook—there’s a Puritan in me too—and more than fifty years passed before I found out what Hester’s story has to offer.

Don’t make the mistake I made. At least take a look at The Scarlet Letter.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.