Jan-Maat's Reviews > The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
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bookshelves: 19th-century, novel, historical-fiction, usa, fiction
Read 3 times. Last read May 1, 2019 to May 4, 2019.

Embarking on this book for the third time I resolved to be of good heart and to above all be strict and particular in my perusal of the framing introduction, and indeed there I noticed some thing most strange, speaking of his puritan and persecuting ancestors Hawthorne writes "At all events, I, the present writer, as their representative, hereby take shame upon myself for their sakes..." (p.10) this struck me as passing peculiar. Why would a strict and persecuting puritan of seventeenth century New England feel shame for being a strict and persecuting puritan of seventeenth century New England? Hawthorne's 19th century shame is a rejection of being a fish in water, or even a deliberate misunderstanding of what it was to be a fish in water, which is not his theme. He is, I think, not interested in what it was like to be a Puritan, but he is very interested in the Puritans as a setting for an indigeneous American Gothic tradition - here be witches, and ruffs, and old style-Quaker speech, oh the potential for melodrama!

The descendant of those ancient grave Puritans tells them this story in which we are shown that Hester Prynne is not so much the community's greatest sinner as it's principal Scapegoat, bearing the sins and projected sinfulness of the whole of Boston. In that sense she is a saviour - she suffers for them, while redeeming her self through good works. Part of the story is about teaching the reader that Puritanism is bad and gaiety is good, it is passing interesting to see Hawthorne rejecting the city on a hill idealisation of early religious communities in America before it was even properly established.

It strikes me that Hawthorne loves effects of light in his story-telling as much as Spielberg does in his films, this is a very visual story, told in technicolor, Hester clad in grey with this scarlet A upon her chest, young Dimmesdale we barely see with out his hand upon his own heart, little Pearl grasping for the occasional stray sunbeam which symbolically attempts to penetrate, Zeus like, this grave and sombre community awkwardly positioned between the wilds of the Ocean and the depths of the wilderness stretching from sea to shining sea. Hedged in and gloomy, the story is a triumph of atmosphere.

This anti-love triangle story ought to be an interior story, to my eyes the USA is an extrovert place and Hawthorne seems to see it in a similar way, the Scarlet letter, twice (for Hawthorne likes to work his symbols (view spoiler)) expresses physically and literally what I might venture to presume to be purely interior to the characters. In this Puritan New England there can be no inner life, if you attempt to have one, the magistrates will seemingly oblige you to wear your heart on your sleeve (view spoiler).

Hawthorne, I felt, channels Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (view spoiler).

At the same time this is a story at a crossroads, it comes from the Gothic, it could turn down into melodrama high-street, or into psychological story alley.

About Hester "she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense...that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts...Sometimes, the red infamy upon her breast would give a sympathetic throb, as she passed near a venerable minister or magistrate...Again, a mystic sisterhood would contumaciously assert itself, as she met the sanctified frown of some matron, who, according to the rumor of all tongues, had kept cold snow within her bosom throughout life..." (p.90)

To my mind the word snow suggests that many of the others are essentially lifeless, lacking some crucial human vitality, a vitality which admittedly can lead to sin but is somehow the essence of being alive, the puritans in this story aspire to be the living dead eager for their graves, perhaps Hawthorne remembered Marvell: The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace . But Hawthorne so hems his story about, not just with commas, but with reservations too. Is Hester's insight a product of her interior life, projecting the knowledge of her own sinfulness on to others, or it is Gothic and melodramatic and magical and literal? Later the universally recognised community Witch asserts that she shares secret knowledge with Hester (ppp250-251) which maybe implies that Hester has gained some kind of super-power, sin-sight we might call it.

It is the victory of an extrovert culture (view spoiler).

I've read this book a couple of times but I can't say that I feel that it has made a strong impression on me, until this my third reading. Possibly the fairly stiff language that Hawthorne uses for his 17th century characters is something that I can't easily get past. Above all I recall this book as having a brooding atmosphere and scenes like the meeting on the forest path as having an oddly sinister air. Plainly it was remarkable but I lack the context in New England transcendalism to fully appreciate why. On the one hand it is a fairly critical view of one group of founding fathers and by extension of American religiosity and small town life, equally I think it suffers as a result, it could be the story of Hester Prynne, but it is not, or could be the story of her opposite Dimmesdale but again it is not, or it could even be the story of her other opposite Chillingsworth but is also not. Nor is the story of their unloving triangle of torture and suffering. It is the gruesome story of a vicious letter of the alphabet, a grim foreshadowing of a mirror image version of Sesame Street brought to you by the letter A and the number 3.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
Finished Reading
June 13, 2011 – Shelved
May 1, 2019 – Started Reading
May 2, 2019 –
page 56
20.51% ""A blessing on the righteous Colony of Massachusetts, where iniquity is dragged out into the sunshine"

too much irony?"
May 2, 2019 –
page 69
25.27% ""there was an air about this young minister, - an apprehensive, a startled, a half-frightened look, - as of a being who felt himself quite astray & at a loss in the pathway of human existence, & could only be at ease in some seclusion of his own""
May 2, 2019 –
page 69
25.27% ""Hester Prynne...I charge thee to speak out the name of your fellow -sinner & fellow-sufferer! Be not silent from any mistaken pity & tenderness for him; for, believe me, Hester, though he were to step down from a high place, & stand there beside thee, on thy pedestal of shame, yet better were it so, than to hide a guilty heart through life. What can thy silence do for him, ..."
May 3, 2019 –
page 135
49.45% ""Where my kind Doctor, did you gather those herbs, with such a dark flabby leaf?'
'...I found them growing on a grave, which bore no tombstone...these ugly weeds have taken upon themselves to keep him in remembrance. they grew out of his heart & typify, it maybe be, some hideous secret that was buried with him, & which he had done better to confess...""
May 4, 2019 –
page 190
69.6% ""The road, after the two wayfarers had crossed from the peninsula to the mainland, was no other than a footpath. It straggled onward into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, & stood so black & dense on either side, & disclosed such imperfect glimpses of the sky above, that, to Hester's mind, it imaged not amiss the moral wilderness in which she had so long been wandering""
May 4, 2019 –
page 239
87.55% ""into this festal season of the year...the puritans compressed whatever mirth & public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single day, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction""
May 4, 2019 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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message 1: by Ivana (new)

Ivana Books Are Magic I was just thinking about this book today ( I was doing some sewing). I think I already reread it but I might give it another try. The language is a bit stiff, but somehow it seems to fit the narrative. I always felt the narrator was strangely distant but maybe he is distancing himself on purpose.Still, the framing of the story does feel a bit awkward at times. The narrator's position is a bit puzzling. Is it just the formality of the language or there is something more to how distant the characters seem at times.


message 2: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Ivana wrote: "I was just thinking about this book today ( I was doing some sewing). I think I already reread it but I might give it another try. The language is a bit stiff, but somehow it seems to fit the narra..."

yes, I think the narrator is the key person in the story, my feeling is that he is pointing to Hester as a moral exemplar and harbinger of his own moral ideas.

it could be that I am reading this for the 3rd time and it is only now speaking to me, but I have inbetween become very old myself!


MihaElla I feel this is an exceptionally and remarkably witty, uncompromising, sharply written review!
You give us the clarification, this was achieved though at a heavy price, Jan-Maat! as You expressed it yourself as being a consequence of becoming very old, in between your re-readings. I think this is really a barbarous remedy at work... Anyway, you're exaggerating on this aspect, I have no doubt. It's only the magic of number 3 (I'm a fan, too) that delivered this outstanding write-up ;-)
As for the book, it's a great exploration of sin, a painful epiphany about the absurdity of the Puritans double life-lying standards, but still, hoping with a desperate hope, for a clear redemption.


message 4: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat MihaElla wrote: "I feel this is an exceptionally and remarkably witty, uncompromising, sharply written review!
You give us the clarification, this was achieved though at a heavy price, Jan-Maat! as You expressed i..."


maybe you are right Mihaella, I don't know, I feel that sin is the big weak area of the book, Hestor's sin is dealt with quite quickly from A for Adultery to A for Able. And Dimmesdale's sin, is it that he is a seducer of a married woman, or that he has had a private life and isolated himself by not living completely in public?
The puritans here are pretty silly, but I am not so sure about the double life - unless the witch woman speaks the truth and they are all bouncing off into the woods to make pacts with the devil, there is only Dimmisdale and his one sin seems quite modest by any standard


MihaElla I fully grasped the tones of your detailed account, Jan-Maat, and you're placed consistenly on the thread, however in my eyes the sin is still thorougfully dissected.
The load of guilt, fright and shame seemed to have anaesthetized Dimmesdale. Gazing into himself for the hints of that dreadful stigma, the confession which the secret sinner wrote upon his own face, Dimmesdale life went to ruin. Physically, morally and socially he is finished.
On the opposite side, Hester, humiliated, seems happy and sensible, and not giving up to the contemptuous pity of the outer world. Partly from genuine repetance, partly because of a deeper grief which is peculiar to unshared love and not easy to convey, she carries within herself a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of feeling herself being locked up not only in a hostile world (puritans may look silly but are a powerful force when massed together), but in a world of good and evil where the rules/ standards were such that it was actually not possible to keep them, nonetheless for the sake of a child's happiness, she is more than willing to go the extra mile and abides to..
God knows why, I read it 3-4 years ago but it is still very fresh in my mind. So far I knew myself as not well equipped with a strong memory when it's about so longpast reads ;-)


message 6: by Ilse (new)

Ilse (s)in-sight...love that!


message 7: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat Ilse wrote: "(s)in-sight...love that!"

shhh! or everyone will want it!


message 8: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat MihaElla wrote: "I fully grasped the tones of your detailed account, Jan-Maat, and you're placed consistenly on the thread, however in my eyes the sin is still thorougfully dissected.
The load of guilt, fright and..."


a good sign when it is so fresh in the mind
Hester is interesting in that she has a finer moral quality than the Puritan authorities it seems, she feels that everyone must have their own confession, I agree with you that it is nice that we see that confession is mostly beyond Dimmesdale's strength, which is an interesting non-conformist touch showing a religious leader to be so flawed in a sympathetic way - I assume this is linked to New England transendentalism?


message 9: by BlackOxford (new)

BlackOxford By the time Hawthorne wrote of it, New England strict Calvinism had transformed through its own logic into Universalism, which barely can be called Christian. I think his expression of embarrassment is authentic, and indicative of a more general discomfort with the spiritual ancestors.


message 10: by Jan-Maat (new) - added it

Jan-Maat BlackOxford wrote: "By the time Hawthorne wrote of it, New England strict Calvinism had transformed through its own logic into Universalism, which barely can be called Christian. I think his expression of embarrassmen..."

yes I don't think he has any sympathy or understanding of those ancestors which is a very interesting aspect of his writing - drawing on history to emphasise how completely he turns his back on it, still despite his best efforts later generations seem to have succeeded in idolising those Puritan forebears.


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