Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


As a non-American, I've managed to get to the grand old age of twenty-seven without being made to read The Scarlet Letter, so I approached it with fresh eyes.  I knew the basic storyline, having read Hillary Jordan's When She Woke last year but my only other experience with Puritan America is watching a performance of The Crucible once.  The central motif, of being made to wear a badge of shame, definitely intrigued me.

The story opens with Hester Prynne standing in the middle of the town, wearing a scarlet letter 'A' and holding her illegitimate daughter, Pearl.  Despite the disapproval and judgement of the whole town, Hester refuses to name the father of her child and she is shunned by everyone around her.  The Scarlet Letter is about her life after being ordered to wear the letter, in particular her interactions with Pearl's father and with her husband, who has arrived at the town after being held by the Native Americans and who is living under an assumed name.   The tension between private and public lives and the effect of secrets are the main themes of the novel.

I didn't really know what to expect from The Scarlet Letter in terms of style, so I was pleasantly surprised by how satirical the whole thing was.  I love a bit of satire if it's done right and Hawthorne was downright scathing at times, particularly when relating the 'suffering' of Pearl's father, who has the cheek to imagine he has been affected more than Hester, despite being able to carry on his life as normal.  The religion of the Puritans is held in particular contempt by Hawthorne, who adds a sexual undertone to the way the women of the town relate to Mr Dimmesdale ("the virgins of his church grew pale around him.")  In fact, the whole character of Dimmesdale was a study in hypocrisy and weakness, contrasted with Hester's quiet determination.  The satire made the book for me, I don't think I would have enjoyed it without it.

The Scarlet Letter is a very good book, so it's a shame that it is burdened with one of the most awful introductions I have ever read, The Custom House.  My edition explained in a preface that Hawthorne felt like his story was too short for publication, so he added a lengthy and tedious introduction in which he relates in detail the personality and appearance of every single person working in a custom house in Salem, and I mean every single detail.  To be fair, it does give some useful information about the time period and there is an interesting moment when Hawthorne 'discovers' the scarlet letter, but on the whole the book would be so much better without it.  I'd honestly advise new readers to the book to simply skip it, in case you get put off what is a very good story.

I'm glad that I picked up A Scarlet Letter.  It's one of those stories that has made it's way into public consciousness, so it was interesting to finally read it for myself.  It's not going to be my favourite classic, but it was well written with interesting themes and it's definitely worth a go.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1850
My Edition: Penguin English Library, 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5


The Classics Club:  Book 12/72
My list of classics to read is here.

36 comments:

  1. I had to read this one in high school, and, well, I never read it. I took good notes in class and aced my test. Then I had to read it in college and that actually pushed me to finish it. I enjoyed it so much then, and it's one I'd like to re-re-read. I'm glad the satire made this one a good experience for you, and I'm totally in agreement. The Custom House is seriously painful.

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    1. That's sneaky managing to ace the test without actually reading the book!

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  2. Now, see, I did everything in my power to read American classics at Uni, so I have indeed read this, but I don't remember much about it apart from that I liked it? (As is the way of so so many pre-blogging books...) But YEAH that introduction bit was TERRIBLE, I know that. Cannot. Deal.

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    1. I am new to American classics but in general I am a big fan. Pre blogging books are hazy in my mind too, I love that I have a review database now so I can remind myself about all the books I've read since blogging.

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  3. I'm so sorry you saw The Crucible :P Hawthorne is good stuff!

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    1. Don't be, I loved it! I saw it in the open air theatre at Regents Park and it was so good.

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  4. This makes me want to go back and re-read. I remember liking it okay in high school, but I don't think I appreciated it as fully as I might if I read it now. Glad you had the chance to read and enjoy it!

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    1. A lot of books I read in secondary school I didn't appreciate as much as I do now, I think I didn't quite have the maturity for some of them.

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  5. Hm, I kind of hated this one when I had to read it in high school. But at the time, analyzing literature was all about finding out what the symbolism was in books, which can get dreary. - Christy

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    1. That's true, I read this for the story, not for any kind of symbolism.

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  6. I'm going to have to read this this year and all my upperclassman have told me it was miserable reading it. But your review makes it sound as if I'll enjoy it very much! Satire and hypocrisy--delicious :D Thanks so much for encouraging me to read this!

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    1. Yes I love a good satire, so I was always going to like this. Hope you enjoy it more than your upperclassmen have!

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  7. I had to read this in school, and I confess I did not love it. I noticed the satirical bits, but I disliked Nathaniel Hawthorne so much from the get-go that I wasn't able to rally and enjoy the book. :/

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    1. I have no strong feelings about Hawthorne either way, so that probably helped me enjoy the book.

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  8. First, that copy is gorgeous!

    I read this in high school and enjoyed it. I re-read it a few years ago and enjoyed it even more.

    When I first read it I was going through my own version of a Scarlet Letter type of situation and I think it's stuck with me because of that :)

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    1. I know, I love the Penguin English Library editions!
      I am intrigued about your own scarlet letter type of situation...

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  9. I haven't read this book either, but it's in my Classics Club list so I will get to it and hope to enjoy too. Premise is definitely interesting.

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    1. I read it for the classics club too, it's been good so far at pushing me to actually read those classics I've been meaning to get to for years.

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  10. I agree - Hawthorne's barbed satire's what really makes the story for me. Dimmesdale - ugh - I could not handle him. He was such a weak, wet rag of a character, and I wanted to slap him so bad. Hester was awesome, indeed. I admired her strength and the fact that she chose to stay in the town which she knew would shame her only increased my respect for her courage.

    Chillingworth is my favorite though. Not cos he's the good guy or anything - which he definitely isn't. He's just ... twisted and fascinating to me. His was a wasted life, too, by the end.

    And btw, didn't you just HATE that Dimmesdale got such a good end of the deal, even at the end of the book when he reveals that he was the father of Hester's child? Even after that, the stupid townspeople make up some moronic excuse just to continue on with that image of him as a saint in their heads. Aarggh!

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    1. Dimmesdale was definitely a wet rag of a character, what a fantastic description of him! It annoyed me how he got sick of Pearl as soon as she started to be a tiny but difficult.
      What happened to Dimmesdale at the end was annoying but it definitely reveals the hypocrisy of the society, which I suspect was Hawthorne's intention.

      Thank you for the lovely detailed comment :)

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  11. It a favourite read of mine for all the cultural references and its cultural relevance and I cannot but agree with you: The Custom House is horrible and difficult to reaad!

    I was wondering if you saw the movie "Straight A" althogh it's modern it's basically TSL adapted in an American highschool. I stars Emma Stone and it's a comedy that never fails to cheer me up :)

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    1. I've heard of the movie and definitely want to see it now that I've read the original book.
      Glad I'm not the only one who didn't like the introduction...

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  12. I've never been much of a Hawthorne fan, but your review makes me want to give him another chance - almost ;-) Although if I had that beautiful edition...

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    1. I love the Penguin English Library editions, the paper quality is fantastic too :)

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  13. I am a Hawthorne fangirl. I read The Scarlet Letter in high school and adored every single word (after the laborious intro, of course). I reread it recently and still found it a compelling satire. Hawthorne's language is just so verbose, scathing, and lyrical. His short stories are particularly good if you'd like to try something else. I got to visit Salem, Mass a few summers ago and loved seeing his birthplace and the setting he so often uses.

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    1. I'm not quite a Hawthorne fangirl, although I did enjoy this novel!
      One day I would love to visit Salem...

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  14. I read this book in high school and liked it even then. I've always admired the quiet strength of Hester Prynne. My favorite Hawthorne, though, is The House of Seven Gables. (Which I read for fun, not for school.)

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    1. Thanks for the recommendation, when I feel like trying Hawthorne next, I'll pick up House of Seven Gables.

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  15. It's definitely time for a re-read of this book. Of course I had to read it in high school, but that was so long ago I can barely remember it except for the basic one-line summary. And as a high-schooler, I'm sure I was trying so hard to "get" it that I missed most of it.

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    1. I was like that with books at secondary school, I didn't sit back and appreciate the texts as a whole, so caught up was I in analysis. Hope you enjoy your reread!

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  16. Interesting choice. I'd heard of this book but didn't really know what it was about. Sounds like it might be worth a read.

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    1. It's not my favourite classic, but it's definitely worth a read.

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  17. I never had to read this in high school, but I did read it in college. I think my enjoyment of it was partly because it was taught by an extremely handsome professor :-) I should probably read it again without that influence!

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    1. Handsome professors make everything fun :)

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  18. This is one of those books I have always wanted to read, but haven't done anything about it. I think it will be on my agenda for next year, definitely.

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  19. Marvelous review. I LOL'd at "one of the most awful introductions I have ever read" OK, actually, I sort of snorted but that was magnificent. Yes a marvelous and timeless masterpiece (sans the prologure). My review: one of the most awful introductions I have ever read

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