This was my third time reading The Scarlet Letter. The first time was during my junior year of high school. I actually enjoyed it, though literature of the nineteenth century was such a mystery to me then that I shied away from the creaky long words and felt proud of myself for succeeding in merely following the plot. When I first read it to teach it last year, I was enraptured. This year was the same. Hawthorne has such an impressive command over language. The eloquence of his language carries such depth that it's like reading poetry. I find myself underlining multiple sections on every page, wishing I had months to spend teaching the book, just so I could spend hours with my classes exploring the complex meaning and patterns unfolding in his language. (My students probably wouldn't find it as fun as I would, I betcha.)
Reading the soap-opera-like plot is a guilty pleasure. Possibly because I'm accustomed to the quiet romance of nineteenth century novels, I find the love scene(s?) between Hester and her secret lover touching and sweet (I think I cried this time through when they were in the woods), where most people apparently find them stale and unrealistic. Even though the plot hinges on scandals and secrets, the novel is very much an exploration of human interior and motives, and I think Hawthorne creates very interesting characters. I love that, though Hester conforms to the austerity of her penance on the outside, Hawthorne occasionally affords the reader insights into her wild, turbulent, and rebellious interior. And I love Pearl. Oh, that silly little imp of evil.
I really enjoy Hawthorne's use of symbolism throughout the novel--the letter, Pearl, the rosebush, weeds, leeches, light, darkness, the scaffold, Hester's hair, etc. I don't know if all the symbolism is super obvious or if it now seems super obvious because I shove it down my students' throats, but it is admittedly gratifying catching patterns and reaching conclusions that Hawthorne repeatedly supports throughout the book. It just makes my ego feel good.
Next time I read The Scarlet Letter, I want to focus on the use of bird imagery to describe Pearl and on how Hawthorne's Romantic view of Nature and nineteenth century perception of women informs his interpretation/critique of Puritanism, a less "developed" American landscape, and Hester.
I really like The Scarlet Letter. It may be on my top ten. But I think if I ever sat down to write my top ten, it would have about forty books in it. Nevertheless, based on my interest in The Scarlet Letter, I'm seriously considering rereading The House of Seven Gables, which, after being forced to read it before my freshman year of high school, is my most hated book ever. I have a feeling I might like it more now than when I was 12.
(This review was from 2007. I've now read it several more times. It never gets old.)