Werner's Reviews > The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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May 07, 08

bookshelves: classics, historical-fiction, books-i-own
Recommended for: Any reader who doesn't mind 19th-century diction
Read in January, 1998

Actually, I've read this book twice, the first time when I was in high school. Reading it again after some thirty years, I was amazed at the amount of meaning I'd missed the first time!

Most modern readers don't realize (and certainly aren't taught in school) that Hawthorne --as his fiction, essays and journals make clear-- was a strong Christian, though he steadfastly refused to join a denomination; and here his central subject is the central subject of the Christian gospel: sin's guilt and forgiveness. (Unlike many moderns, Hawthorne doesn't regard Hester's adultery as perfectly okay and excusable --though he also doesn't regard it as an unforgivable sin.) But his faith was of a firmly Arminian sort; and as he makes abundantly clear, it's very hard for sinners mired in the opposite, Calvinist tradition to lay hold of repentance and redemption when their religious beliefs tell them they may not be among the pre-chosen "elect." (It's no accident that his setting is 17th-century New England --the heartland of an unadulterated, unquestioned Calvinism whose hold on people's minds was far more iron-clad than it had become in his day.) If you aren't put off by 19th-century diction, this book is a wonderful read, with its marvelous symbolism and masterful evocation of the atmosphere of the setting (the occasional hints of the possibly supernatural add flavor to the whole like salt in a stew). Highly recommended!
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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Steve Werner, I also recently re-read this (about two years ago), and loved it. I did like it the first time around, but got more of it with new reading. The diction thing was a beautiful plus (for me), and I read a great deal of the novel out loud. It casts a spell. I should probably include this one on my all-time list. And I will read it again. A good book for Fall.


Werner It's good to hear from a fellow Hawthorne fan. Thanks for sharing your reaction.

I visited your home page just now, and noticed that you're relatively new to Goodreads; glad to have you aboard. :-) Considering some of the books you list as favorites, you might be interested in checking out the Classics group here on Goodreads. We can always use articulate new members with an interest in timeless literature!


message 3: by Dylan (new) - added it

Dylan Did you know Hawthorn wrote a couple of horror Short Stories? It's in the anthology "100 hair-raising little horror stories". I haven't read them yet, but you can look at my bookshelf under anthologies and check it out.


Werner Yes, Hawthorne was quite partial to the supernatural genre in his short fiction; and also wrote a bit of science fiction, some of which can have a horrific tint as well, as in "Rappaccini's Daughter." He published a lot of these stories in his collection Mosses from an Old Manse, which I haven't gotten around to reviewing here on Goodreads yet.


Rhonda You delivered an excellent review. I was just pondering this book the other day, recalling how I hated reading it in high school, feeling that its intent was to keep us chaste after football games and resenting the implication. I think I was also frustrated at Hester's demeanor, desperately wanting on every page for her to run up and kick her ex lover in the.....knee.
Still a few years and a little of the world makes one realize how much that Hawthorne understood about life... and the interesting attitude of the Calvinists and their elect, the interpretation of which is somewhat self-fulfilling.
Still Hawthorne was a master craftsman and his short stories in particular were instrumental in my early reading and hold a fond place there. More recently I was interested to read a book concerning the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville. It seemed to reveal more about Melville than it did of Hawthorne but it was eminently readable and illuminating in that regard.



Werner Thanks, Rhonda! That Hawthorne/Melville book rings a bell; I ran across a review of it the other day at the library where I work, when I was going through the book reviews from the last several years worth of Library Journal and Booklist. I can't recall the author or the title, though --but I knew, when I read the review, that the book would be a fascinating one!


message 7: by Britt (new) - added it

Britt Moseley I am an English teacher who takes the time to teach The Scarlet Letter the way I hope Hawthorne would admire. I love this book, but not as much as some of his short stories. I also see the religious implications of the story, but I still believe Hawthorne to be a Calvinist. I think he was expressing his disdain for the judgemental Purtain theocracy, but I do believe he would embrace Presbytarianism. I see it in the character of Dimmesdale, who behaves in an ungodly manner, and tries to practice castigation inorder to absolve his sin only to discover that it was precisly his sin , or seperation from God, that saves him. He reveals on the scaffold before he dies that even Chillingworth , the blackman, was for his good. As a calvinist myself I see the philosophy of complete dependence upon God, the sheer joy, and utter amazement that God could love and save, "the one sinner of the world"


Werner Britt, the view that Hawthorne was a Calvinist is occasionally met with in secondary literature about him. Ultimately, the question of whether his own writings actually express Calvinist or Arminian views rests (like the interpretation of the Bible itself) more on the general impression that best makes moral and logical sense of the storyline, tone and tenor of the whole corpus than on identification of specific "prooftexts," IMO. One could argue that an individual's impression on that point is apt to be colored by his/her own theology, such as your Calvinism or my Arminianism. (I've told a Calvinist minister friend of mine that I'm predestined to be an Arminian. :-)) But there some specific objective clues (in both bodies of writing, but Hawthorne's is the one at issue here :-)).

Dimmesdale, as he dies, is not at all confident that he's saved, no matter how penitent he is; "I fear! I fear!" he tells Hester, "It may be that when we forgot our God... it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion." Whatever else he is, he hardly serves as a poster boy for assurance of forgiveness; and the explanation for his attitude has to be understood in terms of his own theological presuppositions (which, I would beg to argue, are not Hawthorne's.) The only character in the book who advances explicit Calvinist theology is Chillingworth, and the occasion is when he uses it as an exonerating excuse to absolve his own conduct; since, by definition, whatever he does is only what a predestining God makes him do, he has no moral responsibility. But it's not insignificant that this line of reasoning is advanced by somebody that Hawthorne characterizes as a "fiend."

The "fiend" image is even clearer elsewhere in the author's writings, in "Young Goodman Brown" where the doctrine of universal total human depravity, which humans are supposedly helpless to resist, is enunciated by no less a theological "authority" than the devil himself! 19th-century readers steeped in the King James Bible, of course, would view Satan as "a liar from the beginning, and the father of it;" and his claim is refuted by the fact that Brown himself resists him --though falling sufficiently prey to his lie to doubt that anybody else can. The clearest Arminian statement in Hawthorne's writings, though, is probably found in The House of the Seven Gables. There, generations of Pyncheons have been shaped by the legacy of greedy selfishness handed down by the first American Pyncheon, a clear metaphor for original sin. But inheritance here isn't destiny: Phoebe, Hephzibah and Clifford, though born Pyncheons, choose to be decent people. And when Hawthorne addresses Judge Pyncheon in his narrative voice, it's with an explicit call to moral choice, "Rise up, thou subtle, worldly, selfish, ironhearted hypocrite, and make thy choice whether still to be subtle, worldly, ironhearted, and hypocritical, or to tear these sins out of thy nature, though they bring the lifeblood with them! The Avenger is upon thee! Rise up, before it is too late!" Judge Pyncheon's failure to heed the call no more discredits the legitimacy of it than the failure of vast masses of real-life humans to heed it.

Anyway, that's my take on the subject, for what it's worth. (Whatever we think about it, I suspect Hawthorne would be flattered to find that we still care, some 160 years later, what his views were!)


message 9: by Aaron (last edited Jul 09, 2010 10:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Aaron Werner, I thought you gave the best review on this great classic that is hated and maligned by many high school kids. I felt that most of the reviewers just didn't get it. I don't know if this is the best classic to teach at the high school age. What's your opinion? I graduated fifteen years ago, but I still remember that most of the kids my age had a hard time comprehending it. I must have been an odd teenager.


message 10: by Werner (last edited Jul 12, 2010 06:15AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Werner Thanks, Aaron! The main problem for a lot of high-school students, IMO, not just with The Scarlet Letter but with 19th-century literature generally, is the diction: long, convoluted sentences and big words that many modern readers don't know the meaning of without running for a dictionary. Today, our educational system fails to prepare people for handling the English language with that degree of complexity; we've gone in instead for a sort of mass- production style "McEducation," where graduates are lucky if they come out with basic literacy. They're poorer for that, but it isn't their fault. As a teen, I was like you: psychologically prepared and motivated to appreciate a literary heritage, and disciplined enough to make sense of the language. But you and I are somewhat atypical; our system doesn't generally inculcate that kind of appreciation or discipline, either.

I'm honestly of the opinion that forcing teens to read ANY 19th-century novel isn't the smartest educational strategy. When we home-schooled our girls (who went to the public schools in the earlier grades) I assigned them readings in older literature at the level of individual stories, poems, essays, etc., so they could experience it at shorter length; but I let them pick whatever novels they wanted to read, modern or earlier. Of course, I tried to model an appreciation of the older novels by example. My results were mixed, but I still think that's a more promising strategy that at least won't make students build up a hatred for books like these, and will let them be more likely to try them later when they may have more interest and maturity, and better reading skills. That's just my take on the subject!


message 11: by Woodgod (new)

Woodgod I agree. It's really disheartening seeing so many of the "classics" being given such low ratings (and not only on this particular website either) just because the language and storytelling techniques used are more complex than say, a Goosebumps book. I'm only 22 and I'm able to enjoy both action packed fast paced novels with simple use of language, and books like Moby Dick. It's a shame that a lot of others don't.


Werner Woodgod, your comment just made my day! I'm 58, and it's so refreshing to be reminded that appreciation for the classics isn't dying with my generation.


Carol "Actually, I've read this book twice, the first time when I was in high school. Reading it again after some thirty years, I was amazed at the amount of meaning I'd missed the first time!" This would be the exact same thing I would write if I wrote a review on this book, but I think our opinions would diverge soon after. This book is ridiculous!!! I love reading the classics, but some (including this one) are not worth the time unless you want to say, "Yeah, I read that one."


Werner Carol, we're all different people with different tastes, so our reactions to particular books are apt to differ; even just in my friends circle, I find that ratings of the same book often run the gamut from five stars to one. Comparing different opinions is part of the fun of Goodreads, so thanks for sharing yours!


Dolors You put some light into that novel Werner, so thank you! I read it some years ago and I remember it was a dense and challenging reading, but I guess I missed much of what you are implying in your review! (my poor English level at the time might have influenced as well...)
In any case, I appreciate your comments, I think the subject of adultery is much more well addressed than in other works such as The Thorn Birds...


Werner Dolors, for any reader for whom English is a second language, I think reading any of the English-language novels written before 1900 would be more challenging than reading any modern ones (especially since the form of the language that's normally taught abroad, I assume, would be modern English!). The prose style is much more dense and complex than it would be today --perhaps like the difference between Cervantes' use of Spanish and a modern Spanish author's, though I'm not really familiar with the Spanish language.


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