The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is about a young woman named Hester Prynne who has committed adultery.  Her community punishes her with an embroidered letter A that she has to wear on her clothes for the rest of her life.  In spite of her shame, Hester boldly wears the symbol. She also refuses to reveal the identity of her lover, even when her old husband returns (under a new name: Roger Chillingworth) and demands to know who wronged him.  She becomes a societal outcast and retreats to the edge of the town to care for her new baby, Pearl, and makes her living by sewing.  The main theme in this book is intolerance, but by the end it turns into forgiveness and understanding.  The question the book is posing is who sinned more, Hester or the people judging her?  The novel shows that the people who judged Hester are more in the wrong, because Hester repents for her sin–however grievous–for years, whereas her community rejects her with loathing and never regrets it.  Eventually, Hester wins over her neighbors with her submission and humility, but although they begin to admire her, they cannot accept her back into society.  The only real change comes at the very end, which I am not going to give away!

I love Hawthorne’s style.  His diction is amusing and yet entirely accurate.  For example, when young Pearl is having a fit, he chooses the words “puny wrath” to describe it.  These funny moments made me even more attached to the characters, and thus made the painful moments all the more tragic.  The plot is simple, but engaging–the novel is actually very short, so it cannot afford to be too complex.  This book is a real page turner; after I hit the halfway mark, I did not set it down once.

The book only disappointed me twice, but neither time seriously. The first is that the identity of Hester’s lover–which is a secret only revealed towards the end of the book–is not as mysterious as it could be.  I guessed it correctly within the first few chapters.  (To tell the truth, there weren’t that many characters to choose from.)  Second, Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s husband, is disturbingly creepy.  Hawthorne’s demonic descriptions are surely intentional, but they are nonetheless very frightening: “There came a glare of red light out of his eyes, as if the old man’s soul were on fire and kept on smouldering duskily within his breast, until by some casual puff of passion it was blown into a momentary flame. This he repressed as speedily as possible, and strove to look as if nothing of the kind had happened.” Roger’s main role in the story is to track down Hester’s lover and to take his revenge. He is often called a fiend, which I find very accurate.

Overall, this was an amazing book.  I actually wish it had been longer . . . But if you are looking for an exciting read for a short period of time, this is definitely a the book for you.


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