This is the first time I’ve read The Scarlet Letter or Nathaniel Hawthorne. The novel is subtitled A Romance. I hardly consider it a romance, though it is written in the Romantic, or more precisely Dark Romantic style/period. It is the third person narrative, realist novel of Hester Prynne, a woman guilty of adultery in mid-17th century, Puritan, Boston.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I did not know what to expect from this novel. I was familiar with the basic premise: a woman forced to publicly bear her shame, but I had no idea of the outcome. For her crime, Hester is forced to wear, on her breast, the scarlet letter A, for adultery. She becomes a symbol of sin and shame and is an outcast to the pious residents of Boston. Hester is admonished to name her guilty partner, but refuses. At her sentencing, Hester is forced to stand exposed to public shame on a scaffold for three hours, along with the infant daughter and proof of her crime, little Pearl. I was captivated immediately by this novel, and found that I pitied and admired Hester.
Pity is easy to understand, as she received none from her townsfolk. It is more difficult to explain why I admired her. Let me be clear: Hester was guilty. This was never in dispute, and I do not mean to excuse her sin. But at her public shame, I could not help but think of another adulteress, who was brought before Christ. The rulers of her time called for execution (there were some of Hester’s time who called for the same) and asked Christ what was to be done. He adjured that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone.
Yes, Hester was guilty – but who is not? I admired her for the peace and grace with which she bore the shame, venom, and hypocrisy. She did not revile her accusers, cringe before them, or justify herself. I cannot find the words to describe her. Hawthorne did and his words filled me with admiration.
If Hester’s sentencing reminded me of the words of Christ, the remainder of her life reminded me of words of Abraham Lincoln:
I have always found that mercy bears richer fruit than strict justice.
There is much grief and ruin in this tale. I wonder how different it would be had Hester received a measure of mercy.
This is a novel about over-harsh judgment, of human folly, over-zealous veneration of human piety, of legalism, sin, guilt, penance, repentance, hypocrisy and revenge. It is filled with foreshadowing and symbolism.
SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers.
There are only four major characters: Hester; her daughter Pearl; the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale; and Roger Chillingworth. The reader learns that Dimmesdale is Pearl’s father, and Chillingworth is Hester’s husband, but the townsfolk are ignorant of both facts. They consider Rev. Dimmesdale a monument of piety and virtue. They believe Hester’s husband was lost at sea and have never known him. When he arrives, at the moment of Hester’s sentencing, he remains incognito and later, privately vows Hester to secrecy. She agrees, but refuses to reveal her co-sinner. Chillingworth swears to discover him and make him suffer justice.
The reader and Hester are the only ones who know the full truth. Pearl is capricious and insolent. She has almost a sixth sense that reveals the secret evils and fears hidden in the hearts of others, especially her mother, father, and Chillingworth. To be honest she was a bit unnerving, and rather unbelievable. In the most heartbreaking passage in the book, Hester tells Pearl that the Heavenly Father had sent Pearl to Hester. Pearl responds:
He did not send me! Cried she, positively. I have no Heavenly Father!
Elsewhere, the narrative says:
Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness: the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children.
One might expect to sympathize with Chillingworth, the wronged and innocent party, but no. Hawthorne is not explicit but it is clear that Chillingworth enticed Hester into a loveless and ill-advised marriage. Chillingworth himself acknowledges this and is not angry with Hester, only with her partner. While Chillingworth might have the right to exact justice, he seeks not justice, but revenge. He seeks it in such a dark and sinister manner that his physical visage is changed and becomes almost demonic.
In a word, old Roger Chillingworth was a striking evidence of man’s faculty of transforming himself into a devil, if he will only, for a reasonable space of time, undertake a devil’s office.
Neither is Dimmesdale likeable or pitiable. He lives in the adoration of his flock, though this is torture to him. For though they consider him a miracle of holiness, he considers himself utterly a pollution and a lie! He longs to confess and share Hester’s shame, but does not until his death. It was too little – too late, in my opinion. He does have one shining moment. He finally takes the hand of Hester and Pearl in public to announce his guilt; but this is the least he should have done years before. The moment I referred to is when he prays for Chillingworth – his tormentor:
May God forgive thee! Said the minister. Thou too hast deeply sinned!
That was indeed Christ-like.
Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled.
Narrative regarding Dimmesdale’s confession and death:
…in the view of Infinite Purity, we are sinners all alike. It was to teach them, that the holiest amongst us has but attained so far above his fellows as to discern more clearly the Mercy which looks down, and repudiate more utterly the phantom of human merit, which would look aspiringly upward.
But it is only Hester that I liked. In short, she was more Christ-like than any of the fine Christian folk among whom she daily wore her shame. The Holy Scriptures name other sins besides adultery. Many of Hester’s townsfolk might have worn a scarlet P (for pride). It is because of Hester’s character that I enjoyed The Scarlet Letter so much. I suppose there are some who might call it an indictment of Christianity, but I do not. I believe it is an indictment of misguided Christianity. At that point, I still might be inclined to dislike this novel – if there were no Hester standing in sharp relief.
In the first chapter, Hawthorne foreshadows the moral of this story with a wild rose found growing outside Hester’s jailhouse:
It may serve, let us hope, to symbolize some sweet moral blossom that may be found along the track, or relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow.
Hester was the rose.
I would compare The Scarlet Letter to Wuthering Heights and The Count of Monte Cristo on the topic of revenge. On the topic of adultery, I would compare it to Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, The French Lieutenants Woman, and Jane Eyre.
Narrative regarding the townsfolk:
a people among whom religion and law were almost identical…
Narrative regarding Hester:
…the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she had borne.
…my child must seek a heavenly father; she shall never know an earthly one!
Narrative regarding Pearl:
Her mother, while Pearl was yet an infant, grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that warned her when it would be labour thrown away to insist, persuade or plead.
Narrative regarding Rev Dimmesdale:
Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognize his enemy when the latter actually appeared.
Hester’s words when after seven years she was told the magistrates were considering letting her remove the scarlet letter:
It lies not in the pleasure of the magistrates to take off the badge, calmly replied Hester. Were I worthy to be quit of it, it would fall away of its own nature, or be transformed into something that should speak a different purport.Let men tremble to win the hand of woman, unless they win along with it the utmost passion of the heart!
Film Rendition: The 1995 film is awful. I won't name the stars because it wasn't their fault, and I won't name the director or screenwriter, to avoid being sued...but this is perhaps the worst film adaptation of a classic book I've seen. It does say in the opening credits "freely adapted" - that's an understatement. I don't have a problem with a director or writer making changes, even significant changes, if they capture the theme of the book - but this film entirely missed the point. DEFINITELY skip the film; read the book.