Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

THE SCARLET LETTER | Nathaniel Hawthorne
11.05.2009 (originally published 03.16.1850) | Penguin Books
Rating: 3/5 stars


THE SCARLET LETTER is a classic tale about Hester Prynne, a woman sentenced to wear a red letter A on her clothes for committing the sin of adultery. The novel opens with Hester, standing upon the scaffold with her infant daughter in hand, receiving her sentence in front of the entire town. The crowd is full of town gossips who believe Hester should be met with punishment far more severe, such as torture and even death. Hester refuses to lay the blame for her adulterous actions on anyone aside from herself, as she denies the town an answer of who is the father of her child.

Love, whether newly born or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.

Immediately Hester is in turmoil, not just from the never-ending stares at her marking, but because of an evil man who knows her secret. As this man is a stranger to her town, Hester is ordered to keep his true identity a secret for fear that he will reveal the identity of her lover to the town, bringing more shame upon her. Hester vows to live a life of solitude, keeping her garment and outward appearance bland and serving the town as a seamstress. Little Pearl, the child created by this adultery, is an odd being who keeps her mother on her toes and remains the one ray of sunshine in her life through this dark time. Slowly, as the years flash by, Hester begins to take claim of her situation and move past the feelings of embarrassment associated with her scarlet brand, only to have her world brought back down to reality in one final dramatic sequence of events.

It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing style is one of poetry throughout THE SCARLET LETTER, with long flowing paragraphs describing scenes, people, and situations. While some may be drawn to this style of writing, I was left feeling bored and as if the book drew on too long. As a reader of largely thrillers and crime fiction, which are known for typically being fast paced, I struggled with holding my attention to reading this book. In addition, the overarching Christian and religious themes were something I am not interested in. I understand that at the time these ideas were of a main focus for audience that Hawthorne intended this book to reach. While I struggled a bit with the religious focus, I did find myself cheering for Hawthorne’s more liberal take, indicating throughout that while he did find Hester’s act of adultery to be a sin, he did not agree with the extreme measures the town desired or even the wearing of the scarlet letter A. Despite my own personal issues and stylistic preferences, I found Hawthorne’s novel to be engaging and a plot that provided both romance and despair. It is clear why THE SCARLET LETTER remains a classic throughout this time period.

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