Nathaniel Hawthorne’s prose style in The Scarlet Letter (first published 1850) is not for everyone. I admit, I don’t recall being impressed with the novel when I was 15 or 16 and I read it for the first time. Further, this summer I began a reread (via audio) only to stall a few chapters from the end1.
But for the careful reader, Hawthorne’s prose is richly rewarding. On this read, I could not stop marveling at the gorgeous construction of Hawthorne’s sentences and the ways in which his plot were furthered through the complicated writing style.
Beyond the prose, Hawthorne’s story is complicated, deep, and intense. In just a few hundred pages and in a seemingly basic storyline, The Scarlet Letter deals with issues of love and relationships of different types; guilt and religious zeal; self and community; and shame and pride. Because I chose to reread The Scarlet Letter this month in honor of Jillian’s Transcendentalist Month, I was intrigued by the anti-transcendentalist concepts Hawthorne portrays here. There is so much packed in to a deceitfully simple story that I am at a loss where to begin.
As many will know (probably even those who have not read the book), the “Scarlet Letter” of the title is the punishment for the doomed Puritan Hester Prynne who, in the mid-1600s, has been found guilty of adultery. Her husband is absent, yet she has borne a child. Her penance is to wear a red letter A on her bosom until the day she dies. From the first memorable scene, in which Hester stands in shame on the town scaffolding, Hester struggles to find a balance between her recognized need for repentance and her desire to hold her head up proud as a capable and kind individual. The concepts of guilt and wickedness haunt her.
But Hester’s scarlet letter is only one aspect of the novel’s themes of guilt versus pride, society versus the individual. For, as must be the case, she had a co-sinner in her adulterous affair. This other sinner, who is unknown to the rest of the town, must consider his shame without the public penance and punishment. The two punished sinners must adapt to life in the closed and judgmental Puritan society either with or without their guilt, and the contrast between the two sinners is captivating.
I have so much more to consider about The Scarlet Letter, so this is the first of at least two posts. In short, the novel is a fascinating examination of good and evil in human nature. If you haven’t read it yet, you probably should try. Just keep in mind that although it can ultimately be a rewarding read, because of Hawthorne’s style, it may not work for everyone!
Tomorrow: Spoilerific thoughts on three characters.
- I also blame this on morning sickness and the general exhaustion from early pregnancy. ↩