“‘Run away, child,’ answered her mother, ‘and catch the sunshine! It will soon be gone.'”
“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Anyone who knows me particularly well knows I’m a huge Hawthorne fangirl. Some of his works are among my absolute favorites, I’ve visited his old haunts in New England and considered them the highlights of that trip (next to vising Walden Pond, of course), and my college notebooks are filled with doodled comics of Hawthorne and Melville’s romantic adventures. It’s also no surprised to anyone who knows me that I’m absolutely crazy for nineteenth century literature. There’s just something about all the allegory and melodrama and fascinating trends and societal norms that I just eat right up.
So I really shouldn’t have been surprised that I loved The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne’s most notable novel, as much as I did, but I was preparing myself to hate it. Oddly enough, it was never something I read in school or, if I did, I completely forgot about it. When I went to college, all my professors were trying to teach things outside of the usual canon, leaving me to pick up the gaping holes in my Classics later on in life. I truly wish I’d have picked this one up sooner. It’s easily skyrocketed, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to the top of my list of favorites, despite bracing myself for disappointment from all the people I know who said they found it so dull and dry and underwhelming.
To those people, I say pshaw! The Scarlet Letter is a truly brilliant piece of the nineteenth century literature that I adore. It’s a well-known story, a classic bit of Americana that looks critically back on our Puritanical past. Hester Prynne is a woman who faces the world bearing two symbols of her great sin of adultery, one in the form of the titular scarlet letter, a great red A embroidered on her chest for all to see, the other in the form of the sprightly and strange child Pearl, the product of her unholy copulation. We discover that the father of the child and the man with whom Hester considered the sin is none other than the beloved reverend of Boston, so, to protect him, Hester holds the secret of Pearl’s paternity close. It seems to be working out well for them until, one day, a mysterious man who is actually Hester’s husband come from England and hiding under a false name, shows up and stirs in Hester the fault of her guilt, especially when her husband, a doctor, begins to attend on the quickly ailing lover of her past.
It’s a tight drama, with four main characters in a drama that makes the expanse of the New World seem truly small indeed. Hawthorne has always been big on the allegory, and it smacks you right over the head with a good dose of melodrama to follow. I can see why many people would see this as overwrought and difficult, but those are precisely the things I love about this era of writing. The prose is flowery and descriptive, filled with heart-rending dramatics as they paint for you a scene meant to strike straight to the core. It’s a little unrealistic, but that isn’t the point. The point is to prove the frailty of human nature, the profoundness of fate, and draw up a fantastical scene to ponder and contemplate and question ourselves. In this, Hawthorne does a fantastic job. I found myself drawn out of the story to think how perfectly he crafted something. It’s a story for writers, to be sure, to appreciate his control of the language and the playful creativity in which he structures his words.
My one problem with The Scarlet Letter comes in the form of Pearl, Hester’s daughter, who seems a little too perfect in everything she does. The characters of Hester, her lover, and her husband are remarkably human, but Pearl is set out to be some strange “elf-child,” precocious and bright. I both understand and appreciate that this was done quite intentionally, to foil her innocence against the fact that she is a product of so much sin, and, more often than not, I really appreciated how discontent she could make everyone around her feel by her pure vivacity. Occasionally, though, it felt a little too much, but, then again, that might just be another brilliant maneuver on Hawthorne’s part. Just as the town of Boston found Pearl so peculiar and out of place, so does the reader, left to marvel a little over how such a creature could be possible.
There are so many aspects of this book that I found absolutely brilliant. It pleasantly exceeded my expectations and kept Hawthorne firmly in his spot of my highest regard.
Books read: 004/100.