The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I chose to read The Scarlett Letter to mark American Independence Day, the fourth of July, but despite thefact that it was written in 1850, Hawthorne’s novel is actually set in the 17th century, when America was not yet America but rather a settlement for British pilgrims. The description of the British settlers at the beginning of the novel is far from flattering and rather humourous at times, as the townswomen are gathered in the square to lay judgement on a woman found guilty of adultery and giving birth to a bastard child. The punishments they propose as far more barbaric and medieval than the actual sentencing: the woman must stand carrying a baby in front of the baying crowd for three hours to face her shame and thereafter wear the letter ‘A’ embroidered onto her clothes as a constant reminder of her sin and warning to others. She will not say who the father is. In the crowd lurks her husband, thought missing at see, who has been living with the native Indians and fatefully returns that very day. Roger Chillingworth, the husband, visits his estranged wife in prison demanding to know who the father is. She refuses to reveal the father’s identity and he vows to find out and makes her promise that she will not tell anyone that he is in fact her husband. The mother and child live on the edge of society. Hester Pyrnne, the mother, is a beautiful woman and her daughter, Pearl, is unruly and confident. The child is seen as the embodiment of the mother’s sin, to the point that it is thought she might be a demon child, something that even her mother comes to fear. The church elders suggest that Pearl would be better off being taken care by someone else but one young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, persuades the others to let Pearl stay in her mother’s care. Hester bears her punishment with humility and quietly continues about her life, working as a dressmaker even for the most respected members of the society. Meanwhile Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth establishes himself as the town surgeon. Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister grows gradually sicker and sicker suffering from some unknown malady. As both men live alone, the townspeople decide it would be a good idea for the two to move in together and become friends so that the minister will have a doctor naerby should he need one. Roger Chillingworth has no intention of making friends but is more interested in undercovering the Arthur as the father to his wife’s baby. Understanding her husband’s intentions, Hester warns Arthur and the two decide to go away as a family with Pearl to start a new life. However, the guilt that has been building up in the minister becomes too much and he climbs onto the scaffold where Hester stood years ago and admits his guilt, before dying in Hester’s arms. Roger dies only days after forgivingly leaving an inheritance to Pearl which she uses to move back to England with her mother. Years later Hester returns to the town and goes back to her old life, even taking up wearing the letter A on her chest as before. She is buried next to the minister in a patch marked ‘A’.
The style of writing could be considered a little bit heavy at times but the reader must remember that although the book was written in 1850 it was set two hundred before, so Hawthorne uses slightly old or archaic language and style to give the story an old world feel. There are some passages where Hawthorne goes off the main story and these are a little bit boring so I skipped through those to make the story more dynamic. I enjoyed the occasional elements of humour and I did like the way the narrator includes the reader, pointing out some details: I found it quite charming. There is a lot of imagery and I particularly enjoyed the implication that Pearl is some sort of devil child. There is one scene when Hester and Arthur meet in the forest. While Pearl is playing by a brook her reflection in the water seems to take on a life of its own. I know that Hawthorne was a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and as I am too, this idea appeals to me greatly.
'Just where she had paused the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. This image, so nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself. It was strange, the way in which Pearl stood, looking so steadfastly at them through the dim medium of the forest-gloom; herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain sympathy. In the brook beneath stood another child,--another and the same,--with likewise its ray of golden light. Hester felt herself, in some indistinct and tantalizing manner, estranged from Pearl; as if the child, in her lonely ramble through the forest, had strayed out of the sphere in which she and her mother dwelt together, and was now vainly seeking to return to it.'
There are some really interesting issues to think about and the first of them is the townspeople’s apparent lack of interest in uncovering the father. It’s the original sin all over again, it’s always the woman’s fault. In a way the actual scarlet letter is unnecessary as the child Pearl is the scarlet letter, a constant reminder of what happened. We don’t have details of the encounter that lead to Pearl’s conception but it was certainly consensual. Hester faces her guilt admirably if not apologetically but Dimmingsdale is a coward, he keeps his silence for years. His guilt eats away at his conscience and actually makes him physically sick. His ‘confession’ doesn’t redeem him either as Hawthorne admits that even those who witnessed it were unclear about the real meaning. Dimmingsdale never actually says ‘I am the father’ he talks cryptically about sharing guilt. Some say he actually has a sign A on his chest, as if he had branded himself, and some say there was nothing there. So even in the end he can’t be clear. Strangely it is ‘baddy’ Chillingworth who makes good in the end, making Pearl his heir and thus acknowledging her innocence in the whole situation. Perhaps his gesture indicates that his intentions were basically good, to avenge the man who wronged his wife. After all the upset Hester finally decides to return to the site of her crime, like a reoffending criminal who finds comfort and structure inside the prison walls. Times heals all wounds as Hester’s good conduct causes the townspeople to completely change their minds about her and the letter A she wears comes to have positive connotations. Finally Hester is buried near the minister but the reasons for this are not clear: are they both recognized as good people? Has their relationship been accepted or forgotten?
So I recommend The Scarlet Letter for the great idea on which it is based. Although the language can be a bit heavy at times, and Hawthorne does go on a bit sometimes it is worth sticking with as there are some really thought provoking quotes like this one
'If truth were everywhere to be shown, a scarlet letter would blaze forth on many a bosom.'
What is your scarlet letter?
Every month, I publish a review of the book I ahve read that month.