Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Scarlet Letter

I will bore no one here with a summary of a story you are already perfectly familiar with. These are just my reactions to rereading a classic American novel eight or ten years after my first encounter with it in my early teens.

Let me further preface the statements below with the confession that, while I read The Scarlet Letter at the guidance of the Reading to Know bookclub, I failed in my efforts to finish the book in the time given - and, even a week after the ending date, I am still 80 pages from the end. That being said, my thoughts thus far may be altered somewhat when I do finish it. But if my memory serves me rightly, I think my reaction will not be greatly altered.

In the Scarlet Letter, no character cares for anyone more than themselves. Roger Chillingworth is bent on exacting revenge on the man who seduced his wife; Hester wears her embroidered ‘A’ with pride, and Dimmesdale is too overcome with cowardice to join Hester in her punishment for their mutual sin. The townsfolk also are more interested in seeing Hester Prynne’s punishment brought about and in keeping themselves high above her status as a sinner, while they harbor any secrets of their own in their hearts.

There are, however, two instances in which a character attempts to make intervention on the behalf of another. The first, and lesser of these, is when the magistrate and townspeople consider whether it would be better for Hester’s child, Pearl, to be taken out of her mother’s care and given to more Christian parents to be raised and catechized – but Hester vehemently argues against this, and even calls Dimmesdale to speak for her. The two of them convince the magistrate that Pearl is best off with her natural mother.

The second instance is when Hester approaches her husband, Chillingworth, with regard to his treatment of Dimmesdale. She speaks out of a sense of duty to the tormented minister, feeling she is somehow responsible for his woeful circumstances. I would disagree with her, it is much more his own doing than hers – they sinned together, but he refused to stand beside her in receiving judgement and punishment. What does she owe him? Is it out of some remnant of romantic feeling she has for him – although, oddly, this is a point on which the book is entirely silent.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is one of those books where none of the characters are likeable. Least likeable is the cringing Dimmesdale, who is tormented daily in his spirit by his selfish and hidden sin, yet makes no step towards righting the wrong he has done. Instead he withers under the malice of his so-called friend and physician, Chillingworth, and at every resolve to make public his own adultery, backs down and loses his nerve.  Yet even though the characters are detestable, and the writing is rather difficult to process at times, I can’t say I dislike reading The Scarlet Letter. It is a book that provides much food for thought and it deals heavily with the consequences of sin and the various reactions that different people have to sins, both in themselves and in others. One thing that stood out to me in this reading is how little Hawthorne tells us about how we ought to feel towards the characters – should we sympathize with Dimmesdale when he is overcome with guilt? Or with Hester, when her prideful humility keeps her ever mindful and reminding others of the embellished letter she wears? Perhaps with Chillingworth, who in a past life was not a bad sort of person – just an old man who inadvisedly marries a young woman who he knows does not love him – and later becomes a fiend thirsty for revenge? Perhaps we should pity them all, and the atmosphere that places them in such anguish as each endures.    When Hester is speaking to Chillingworth about 2/3 of the way through the book, pleading with him to release his terrible hold on DImmesdale, she cries "There is no good for him, -no good for me, -no good for thee! There is no good for little Pearl! There is no path to guide us out of this dismal maze!" True enough for each of these characters - because, in all their distress, they don't turn in the one direction that could give them solace. Even Dimmesdale, who is closer to the source of comfort than the others by virtue of his profession, does not seek repentance and forgiveness of the One whom they have all offended. Now, Hawthorne is brutally harsh in his treatment of the Puritans - but they are the ones who are telling Hester and her unknown partner in sin to repent and lay their sins before God - yet this is never done, and so, there is never full redemption for these unhappy characters.  

Reading to Know - Book Club


  1. P. S. I don't know why the background of this post looks so stupid. I have to wrestle with Blogger every time I post, and sometimes I lose. It's very annoying.

  2. I am so glad I finally read your P.S. I was sitting there outlining it and refreshing it and closing it and opening it again, trying to make it stop looking weird. hahaha!
    Yeah, I kind of had the same thoughts. I was really impressed by the book mainly because it was good to think about, but I didn't like anybody or sympathize with anyone!