The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Preliminary Thoughts)

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.

  1. I also blame this on morning sickness and the general exhaustion from early pregnancy.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Oh, what a fun what to post about this book. I read this book in university and really enjoyed it! I thought it was a wonderful look at a very difficult topic. There is so much to talk about, I agree. Just looking at all the themes can take a while. I really must reread this at some point.

    1. Kailana » I am finding I don’t know when to stop talking about this…there is even more I want to touch on beyond this first and then today’s second post.

  2. The last time I read this was in college for an American Lit class. I thought it was amazing and enjoyed it immensely. I would like to re-read it, but am almost afraid to because I don’t want to be disappointed – I fear it won’t live up to my earlier experience so I will just enjoy your thoughts on it for now!

    1. Anbolyn Potter » I was the opposite. Because I was so young when I read it (15 or 16), I didn’t really enjoy it that I remember so I was pleased to enjoy it so much this time around!

  3. I was not impressed as a teen either, but I’ve thought about rereading it a lot the last few years. Still, I worry about the style. The story is so interesting, but I hate Hawthorne’s writing. It’s a conundrum.

    1. Amanda » I’ve decided i really like Hawthorne’s style. But, I can totally understand not liking it. It’s a lot to take. But at least Scarlet Letter is short (compared to other classics….). I also enjoyed listening to the audiobook (well, most of it) this summer. It helped me appreciate each phrase instead of just trying to get the plot. This is a book meant for pondering. Just skip the preface or it will kill you…

  4. I really enjoyed this book but found Hawthorne’s intro in particular difficult to take! 🙂 That aside, the story is magnificent. I love how you discuss the two different worlds (of thought) in which the two sinners contemplated their guilt or lack thereof.

    I read this novel a few weeks ago, before entering me exploration of Transcendentaliam. So I didn’t really understand on my read that it was a refutation of Transcendentalistic ideas. Even now I don’t exactly understand how it is, except that it clearly argues against group think (like the Transcendentalist utopias.) Hester Prynne is clearly the hero, for being an individual — but since individualism was advocated by Transcendentalists, it’s hard for me to see it as entirely anti-Transcendental….

    I read recently that Hawthorne and Emerson were both in love with Margaret Fuller, another Transcendentalist who went on to have an illegitimate child in Italy (with a third man.) Hester Prynne is supposedly inspired by Fuller.

    1. Jillian » I saw your comment after I’d posted today’s post about the characters but you address some good issues that I should have talked about! I will post some more about that awful preface and transcendentalism in TOMORROW’s post (okay, so I’m getting a bit long-winded about The Scarlet Letter…).

      Firstly, I am not sure that I’d agree that Hester Prynne is a hero. From your post today (will go comment in a second), it seems that if Transcendentalism is about how YOURSELF is all you need to rise above the world, then Hester fails. She determines her life is not worth living, she is overcome with pride by the end, and after she returns to the Puritan settlement in the Conclusion she continues to wear the Scarlet Letter, even though no one told her she still had to pay penance. Was she really rising above by recognizing herself? She had her individual faults much as the hypocritical Dimmesdale and the satanic Chillingworth had their own faults. They are all trying to find explanations in themselves, but they certainly aren’t finding positive relief in themselves. Each of them are miserable.

      So anyway, I’ll try to gather these thoughts more coherently for tomorrow’s post but to me, it seems anti-transcendental to represent people who depend on their selves (trying to reject society) who only find themselves miserable and wicked in the end. I think Emerson’s concept would suggest that rejecting society and celebrating self would bring peace and joy.

      1. Here’s what I mean about Hester:

        (I wrote the following in my own review of this novel) –

        When I was little, I ate one of the cookies my parents kept in the cookie box in the pantry. My sister caught me and used what she knew to make me an accomplice in everything she was doing. If I told on her, if I didn’t help her break rules wherever she pleased, she’d tell Mom I stole a cookie. And of course Mom would believe her over me. I fell for it for days! Then one day she said, “You have to do what I say, or I’ll tell Mom you took a cookie.” I realized, pretty suddenly, that being blackmailed was way worse than having Mom know I stole. So I told Mom all about it (the cookie AND the blackmail) and I felt released.

        That’s kind of what this story is about. Do you get the guilt off your chest? Or do you wear the guilt in secrecy, weighted down by it, and forever hear, “I’ll tell!” hissed at your ear? Is the badge really as heavy as it seems? Or is that weight coming from something within yourself?

        – Spoilers Follow –

        I feel like Hester wore the scarlet letter for herself — not to appease the societal demand, but to remind herself of who she was and what she had done, for herself. She decorates the letter and even makes it her own — the townspeople even begin to see it as something beautiful.

        This is a woman who is suffering inwardly for the loss of her lover due to society, but I don’t believe she’s caving to them; I believe she refuses to turn in Dimmesdale and wears the badge for him, as an emblem of their love and what she was willing to risk, in love, for him. That’s why she redecorates the letter and makes it something beautiful, rather than something despised. She’s not afraid of society or what it thinks; but Dimmesdale is, and she wants to be near Dimmesdale.

        Dimmesdale waits and suffers and shrinks under the weight of secret guilt. She boldly walks the plank and turns the only weapon society uses against her into a badge of beauty.

        I think she is the book’s hero. What she or the book says in relation to Transcendentalism is beyond me, at this point — except that Hester knew herself, and Dimmesdale didn’t; Hester lived by her own standards, and Dimmesdale didn’t; Hester loved Dimmesdale enough not to stamp on his tentative faith by speaking his name to the town, and enough to stay under the weight of the scarlet letter, though she’d have as happily moved to a less Puritan town and lived in freedom. I think that’s the essence of Transcendentalism — adherence to one’s own values — and that Dimmesdale is Hester’s foil.

        (Only my uneducated thoughts after only one read of the novel, and… one Transcendental essay. So I could very well be wrong.) 🙂

        Cheers!

        1. Jillian » You have such a good way of expressing this, I love the cookie story. And I’ve only read the story twice now, so I’m probably “wrong” too. But it’s interesting how these things strike us so differently. I think maybe PEARL is my thought of the hero (see my character post from Thursday/today) — the innocent one who is able to in her generation be a woman on her own in a way that Hester couldn’t. I wonder about Hester’s relationship to Dimmesdale, you know, considering she was frustrated when she watched the parade at the end of the novel and realized that he had ALWAYS been free — she realizes she can’t forgive him for that.

          Hmmm. I’m feeling a need to reread it to put it in perspective even more. Not any time soon, but wow, there is so much to consider in there. I wonder how I’ll see Hester on my next read?

  5. I always wonder whether my dislike of this book is genuine or just based on how many times I had to read it for school. I feel like I should give it another try, except I know that I have a personal dislike to Nathaniel Hawthorne and would probably not give him a fair shake even if I did try The Scarlet Letter again. :/ He said women writers should be scarified with an oyster shell. Not cool, Nathaniel Hawthorne!

    1. Jenny » I only had to read it once for school but I definitely think being forced to read it and write about it and present about it would KILL it. It’s a slow-moving, ponderous book with a difficult to adjust to writing style. Anyway, only if you ever want to try again, don’t force yourself! But I did find it so rewarding on this read.

      And REALLY about the woman writers? Jillian just suggested in a different comment that he was in love with the Transcendentalist writer Margaret Fuller. I don’t think he scarified her…

  6. Despite my leaning towards the classics, I haven’t read this one – hopefully I’ll find time to try hawthorne at some point (if the German and Japanese books let me!).

  7. I took a Romanticism class in college, and my professor told us many times that he thought Nathanial Hawthorne’s writing was by far the best example of American Romanticism.

    I think it’s cool though to see how an author’s writing never fits exactly into one movement or era. It will be interesting to look at this work through the lens of transcendentalism.

    1. Ingrid » I feel SO unfamiliar with American eras in literature, but “American Romanticism” sounds perfectly write. Transcendentalism was a small branch of romanticism and since Jillian and others have been writing about the philosophy, I thought I’d try to consider this novel in that light. But it’s hard since I’m not familiar enough with any of it. Ironic since I am American, of course….Sometimes I think I was born on the wrong side of the pond 🙂

  8. Pingback: Wrap-Up: The Transcendentalist Event « A Room of One's Own

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