The Scarlet Letter

I’ve never been a big fan of classic American literature (unless it was written by Mark Twain). I don’t really have fond memories of any of the American lit I had to read in high school fondly, and in college the only ones I remember enjoying were Puddin’ Head Wilson by Mark Twain, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chestnut (and they still didn’t intrigue me like the British literature).

So when I agreed to teach my homeschooled younger brother’s high school literature class, I had quite a bit of extra reading to do in preparation for American lit this year. This is the main reason there’s a collection of Edgar Allen Poe on my Classics Club Book list, and why I’m re-reading Tom Sawyer. I also added a few other works by American authors, just because I felt like I “should” read them.

Reading The Scarlet Letter

Case in point: Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter. This is one of the books that I didn’t read in high school because my mother hated that she was made to read it (this is the same reason I didn’t read any of Shakespeare’s tragedies until college). Certainly can’t fault her for that, since it doesn’t look like this book’s going to fit in my American literature course either (also, I’m just rebellious enough to feel like I don’t have to teach all the “inevitable” high school texts). I’m glad I finally read it, though, if for no other reason than to enjoy passages like this:

Amongst any other population, or at a later period in the history of New England, the grim rigidity that petrified the bearded physiognomies of these good people would have augured some awful business in hand. It could have betokened nothing short of the anticipated execution of some noted culprit, on whom the sentence of a legal tribunal had but confirmed the verdict of public sentiment. But, in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn.

Bearded physiognomies augur awful business — don’t they sound like the kind of people you’d want for your next-door neighbors?

Or how about this lovely description of the women, also from Chapter 2 where the town is assembled outside the jail awaiting Hester Prynne’s public disgrace for committing adultery:

Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter (1926)

It was a circumstance to be noted, on the summer morning when our story begins its course, that the women, of whom there were several in the crowd, appeared to take a peculiar interest in whatever penal infliction might be expected to ensue. The age had not so much refinement, that any sense of impropriety restrained the wearers of petticoat and farthingale from stepping forth into the public ways, and wedging their not unsubstantial persons, if occasion were, into the throng nearest to the scaffold at an execution. Morally, as well as materially, there was a coarser fibre in those wives and maidens of old English birth and breeding, than in their fair descendants, separated from them by a series of six or seven generations; for, throughout that chain of ancestry, every successive mother had transmitted to her child a fainter bloom, a more delicate and briefer beauty, and a slighter physical frame, if not a character of less force and solidity, than her own. The women, who were now standing about the prison-door, stood within less than half a century of the period when the man-like Elizabeth had been the not altogether unsuitable representative of the sex. They were her countrywomen; and the beef and ale of their native land, with a moral diet not a whit more refined, entered largely into their composition. The bright morning sun, therefore, shone on broad shoulders and well-developed busts, and on round and ruddy cheeks, that had ripened in the far-off island, and had hardly yet grown paler or thinner in the atmosphere of New England. There was, moreover, a boldness and rotundity of speech among these matrons, as most of them seemed to be, that would startle us at the present day, whether in respect to its purport or its volume of tone.

Isn’t this a flattering portrayal? (in case you were wondering, this is the best passage to read aloud to your younger siblings). In all seriousness, I did enjoy the way Hawthorne uses the English language. His humor is subtle, and so dry it’s almost impossible to laugh-out-loud, but it is in there if you’re paying enough attention not to over look it. In most of his character descriptions, like these women outside the jail, I get the impression of him raising is eyebrow and looking down his nose as he tells you about these poor “primitives.”

“A” is for Adultery

While a tight plot, command of language, and good writing are all things I look for in a novel, what always stands out most are the characters. Perhaps the most interesting character in this novel is Hester’s precocious little daughter, Pearl, whose keen intelligence and disregard for conventional behavior more than once leave Hester suspecting the child’s nature is part of her punishment for committing adultery. Just like she stands out in the town because Hester dresses her in bright colors (including scarlet, since Pearl is the embodiment of Hester’s scarlet letter), so she stands out as a bright spot in a novel that can otherwise be rather grim.

Speaking of Hester’s crime, I’ve heard Christian homeschoolers suggest that we shouldn’t teach books like The Scarlet Letter or The Great Gatsby since they deal with the concept of adultery. You can’t fault these books for “inappropriate scenes” (well, perhaps Gatsby depending on what age your teaching, but I think it’s age-appropriate by high school). It’s the subject matter in general which people find objectionable. But ignoring the fact that people sin certainly doesn’t make sin go away, and books like The Scarlet Letter force us to think about a subject like adultery and how we respond to that. There’s no question in the minds of Hester Prynne and Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale that what they did was wrong, and they spend most of the book miserable as a result of their actions. This is not a book that promotes adultery.

But it’s also not a book that lets you sit back and comfortably judge Hester. Her wronged husband is the most loathsome character in the book, and his reaction to his wife’s adultery is even more destructive than her initial “fall.” The townspeople aren’t easily let off the hook, either, and it is Hester — not her accusers or judges — who emerges as the strongest character. She is the one in the town who gives the most selflessly of her time and meager resources, and she is the only character whose mind escapes from the confines of Hawthorne’s depiction of Puritan thought. She’s far more than simply the woman wearing the scarlet letter, and because her sins are out in the open, she has a chance at the forgiveness and peace that so completely eludes Dimmesdale and her husband.

It is my opinion that Arthur Dimmesdale is one of the most unimpressive men in fiction. What sort of man lets the woman he supposedly loves bear public humiliation and raise their child alone, all while living in the same town? He’s so spineless that, at risk of sounding indelicate, I wondered exactly where he found enough passion or gumption to engage in an illicit love affair. He tells himself that he must keep the secret of his relationship with Hester so that he can continue serving God — for if the truth were known he would lose credibility as a minister. He’s so tormented by guilt that he beats himself and is making a half-hearted attempt at starving to death, but though he assures his parishioners that he’s a greater sinner than all of them, he knows this only makes him seem more devout in their eyes. There is nothing in him that I can admire.

Click here to get a copy of The Scarlet Letter. Please note that this is an affiliate link. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase.

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