First Published: 1850
My copy: Free download on Kindle
Memorable quote: “It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.”
I’d never previously tackled this classic of American literature, although of course I was aware of the premise. That central motif of the scarlet letter ‘A’ pinned to the protagonist’s dress to signify her adultery is such a striking image. Adultery is a topic that fascinates me. That doesn’t mean I’m about to rush out and cheat on my husband, I’m talking theory rather than practice, but representations of infidelity in literature do seem to crystallise so many of our most enduring anxieties about secrecy, guilt and inheritance. And there can be few cases where these themes are more powerfully expressed than in The Scarlet Letter. Written in the nineteenth-century, Hawthorne sets his novel amidst the strict Puritan community of seventeenth-century New England. Heavy on ideas rather than action, but with a few gripping centrepiece scenes, the plot follows the life of Hester Prynne, a woman condemned for adultery but who refuses to implicate the father of her child.
Hester is a remarkable figure and however you might feel about her infidelity (and I would imagine many modern readers are more sympathetic than Hawthorne’s contemporaries), it’s impossible not to admire her bravery. Hester does not flee from the society that scorns her but continues to live, branded by the shame of her scarlet letter. Perhaps the central contrast in this work is between Hester’s publicly acknowledged shame and the secret guilt of her lover who punishes himself continually for his sin, but lacks moral fortitude to confess. The most fascinating aspect of this novel is the way it suggests a certain hard won freedom in Hester’s branded status. Living on the margins she suffers, certainly, but she is also enjoys a kind of liberty: her detachment from society allows her to reflect more critically upon it, and the way that the strict Puritan moral code often seems at odds with the allegedly Christian virtue of compassion. Hester’s outsider status also allows her to interact with all strata of Boston society, from the paupers, to the Governor and even the witch Ann Hibbins, who is portrayed in the novel as at once sinister and confused. As Hawthorne writes: “the scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread.”
As you might expect from a work that takes its title from such a symbol intended to bring to light hidden sins, this book is rich in portents: the gallows, the rose bush, the meteor, even Hester’s child the impish young Pearl, all are imbued with layers of significance to the point that I feel I’d have to read this book multiple times to fully appreciate all Hawthorne’s allegories and allusions. Wordy and with a cast on characters inclined to preachiness and introspection, this isn’t an easy read by any means. I can also understand why many people struggle to get through “The Custom House” Hawthorne’s weighty introductory section in which the unnamed narrator describes how he came to tell the story. I found this section quite a feat of endurance too, but once the narrative introduced Hester herself – beginning with the powerful scene of her public shaming – I was captivated. The sense of alienation and uneasy family history expressed in “The Custom House” does mirror many of the aspects of the main plot but I have to confess I could only appreciate this fact afterwards, so I would recommend returning to this section at the end if you really can’t stomach it initially. Though overly didactic at times, The Scarlet Letter offers much food for thought and thoroughly deserves its classic reputation.