Book Reviews, Novels

The Scarlet Letter, or, Everyone’s Worst High-School Nightmare

When it came time to read the Scarlet Letter in high school, our teacher verbalized her distaste, and instead opted for Mark Twain’s the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Now, having read Hawthorne’s American classic ten years on, I have zero understanding of how or why this book became a stereotype of high school reading lists. No teenager in their right mind would connect to this story, or, most especially, Hawthorne’s dense, repetitive, philosophical prose. I’m glad I had the chance to choose the time and place to read it, as I feel that directly contributed to my enjoyment at 27 rather than loathing at 17.

The story shouldn’t need a lengthy introduction: Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a scarlet letter A upon her breast, meant to showcase, along with a newborn babe named Pearl, her sin of adultery to the public until she’s laid to rest. At the very moment of her condemnation, her missing husband returns, and hides under the name Roger Chillingworth in order to root out and have his revenge upon the man responsible for Hester’s sins — Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale.

I was both addicted to and bored by the florid repetition of our heroes’ spiraling sins. I was surprised by how little issues I had keeping pace with the story, yet also felt whole paragraphs go by with no attention given on my part. The increasingly Gothic foreboding that took over the plot as Prynne and Dimmesdale’s Pearl grew up gave us some supernaturally-fantastic scenes. Pearl’s unforgettable elfin tricks by the bubbling brook of the Black Man’s forest still creeped me out 166 years after publication.

I do feel like Hester Prynne is not the star of the novel — nor a good example of a developed, realistic, or ahead-of-its-time woman in literature (I shudder to use the term ‘strong female character’ here): see Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School (1978) for a fun, transgressive deconstruction of Prynne et al. — but a lens through which Hawthorne could explore the characters of Rev. Dimmesdale and Chillingworth with far more complexity. Prynne’s character can barely be said to evolve; rather, she chooses the direction of her punishment early on, and that decision then provides the necessary vehicle for Rev. Dimmesdale’s more involved and painful narrative. She even apologizes to the Reverend over the silent guilt he’s felt, which was evidently her fault.

The title page for the 1850 first edition (L), and a portrait of author Nathaniel Hawthorne himself (R), looking very much like his peers

Given that fiction is still dominated by masculine writers like Philip Roth or Jonathan Franzen in 2016, it’s understandable that Hawthorne wouldn’t be able to undermine the patriarchal grip he contributed to in 1850, much less in a story set 200 years earlier. I’d argue that recognizing this hurts Scarlet Letter‘s required-reading value, but not historical or literary value.

Hester Prynne was now fully sensible of the deep injury for which she was responsible to this unhappy man, in permitting him to lie for so many years, or, indeed, for a single moment, at the mercy of one whose purposes could not be other than malevolent.

[…] “Oh, Arthur!” cried she, “forgive me! In all things else, I have striven to be true! Truth was the one virtue which I might have held fast, and did hold fast, through all extremity; save when thy good— thy life— thy fame— were put in question! Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side! Dost thou not see what I would say? That old man!— the physician!— he whom they call Roger Chillingworth!— he was my husband!”

Hawthorne’s wordy, repetitive style can throw a lot of people off; page-long sentences on Dimmesdale’s guilt-driven decrepitude or Chillingworth’s dark plottings can be both beautifully melodious and aggravating as all get-out. Written on the precipice between mythology-imbued storytelling — e.g., the folkloric symbolism associated with the forest — and a growing interest in realism, the allegories and symbols are ground in classic western mythology, and used to explore 19th-century moral dilemmas still relevant today. (This definitely helps explain why the book holds a lasting place in high-school curricula; it has simple, good examples of just about everything from English 101 but the sentence itself.)

Being a classic of American canon, the Scarlet Letter has seen a number of film adaptations, most notably Wim Wenders’ 1973 German vision (L), and the notoriously-bad Roland Joffé film in 1995 (R).

Hawthorne’s style also evokes complex investigations into characters’ psychology. These investigations always sound like beautiful, perfect arguments for humanity’s long history of social dissonance, but they’re ultimately proven empty by modern psychology; arguments for the writer’s — and consequently the age’s — ignorance rather than insight into the human condition.

Ultimately, I both liked and loathed this book. It’s inarguably dated, and that loss of relevance will only continue. It’s defined by 19th-century sensibilities and western morals that look increasingly self-obsessed under the shadow of modern neuro-, social, and environmental science. That doesn’t mean it’s not a fun yarn, however; the sinister moments of witchcraft and Gothic mystery will stay with me for years to come. I would just hope when you read it, you read it of your own accord.


Here, there was the taint of deepest sin in the most sacred quality of human life, working such effect, that the world was only the darker for this woman’s beauty, and the more lost for the infant that she had borne.

The scene was not without a mixture of awe, such as must always invest the spectacle of guilt and shame in a fellow-creature, before society shall have grown corrupt enough to smile, instead of shuddering at it.

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