19th Century Epic Romances discussion

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The Scarlet Letter > Monthly Group Discussion for August 2014

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Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments This discussion will start on August 1st.


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments "Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1804. His family descended from the earliest settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony; among his forebears was John Hathorne (Hawthorne added the “w” to his name when he began to write), one of the judges at the 1692 Salem witch trials. Throughout his life, Hawthorne was both fascinated and disturbed by his kinship with John Hathorne. Raised by a widowed mother, Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where he met two people who were to have great impact upon his life: Henry Wadsworth Long-fellow, who would later become a famous poet, and Franklin Pierce, who would later become president of the United States.



After college Hawthorne tried his hand at writing, producing historical sketches and an anonymous novel, Fanshawe, that detailed his college days rather embarrassingly. Hawthorne also held positions as an editor and as a customs surveyor during this period. His growing relationship with the intellectual circle that included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller led him to abandon his customs post for the utopian experiment at Brook Farm, a commune designed to promote economic self-sufficiency and transcendentalist principles. Transcendentalism was a religious and philosophical movement of the early nineteenth century that was dedicated to the belief that divinity manifests itself everywhere, particularly in the natural world. It also advocated a personalized, direct relationship with the divine in place of formalized, structured religion. This second transcendental idea is privileged in The Scarlet Letter.

After marrying fellow transcendentalist Sophia Peabody in 1842, Hawthorne left Brook Farm and moved into the Old Manse, a home in Concord where Emerson had once lived. In 1846 he published Mosses from an Old Manse, a collection of essays and stories, many of which are about early America. Mosses from an Old Manse earned Hawthorne the attention of the literary establishment because America was trying to establish a cultural independence to complement its political independence, and Hawthorne’s collection of stories displayed both a stylistic freshness and an interest in American subject matter. Herman Melville, among others, hailed Hawthorne as the “American Shakespeare.”

In 1845 Hawthorne again went to work as a customs surveyor, this time, like the narrator of The Scarlet Letter, at a post in Salem. In 1850, after having lost the job, he published The Scarlet Letter to enthusiastic, if not widespread, acclaim. His other major novels include The House of the Seven Gables (1851), The Blithedale Romance (1852), and The Marble Faun (1860). In 1853 Hawthorne’s college friend Franklin Pierce, for whom he had written a campaign biography and who had since become president, appointed Hawthorne a United States consul. The writer spent the next six years in Europe. He died in 1864, a few years after returning to America.

The majority of Hawthorne’s work takes America’s Puritan past as its subject, but The Scarlet Letter uses the material to greatest effect. The Puritans were a group of religious reformers who arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s under the leadership of John Winthrop (whose death is recounted in the novel). The religious sect was known for its intolerance of dissenting ideas and lifestyles. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne uses the repressive, authoritarian Puritan society as an analogue for humankind in general. The Puritan setting also enables him to portray the human soul under extreme pressures. Hester, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth, while unquestionably part of the Puritan society in which they live, also reflect universal experiences. Hawthorne speaks specifically to American issues, but he circumvents the aesthetic and thematic limitations that might accompany such a focus. His universality and his dramatic flair have ensured his place in the literary canon." (Sparknotes)


message 3: by Judith (new)

Judith Conk | 32 comments Haven't read this one since college. Really looking forward to it since we just spent some time up in that area of Massachusetts. I am so enjoying this group even though I don't post as much as others. Thanks for guiding us Terry!


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments Thanks Judith!!


message 5: by Leda (new)

Leda | 15 comments I going to skip the next couple reads. I have been reading the selection for a year a a half and my to read list keeps getting longer because it takes me the whole month to read. Since I've read Scarlet Letter several times and not interested in reading Hunchback of Notre Dame, I'm going to use these couple of months to get some books off my to read list. It's been fun reading with you all and reading your thoughts on the books. I may not post very often but I'm still active with you all. Enjoy the readings.


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments Hi Leda, that's ok, nobody has to read all the books. I'm glad you are enjoying the comments.
I may not be able to be active this month because I am juggling my mother being hospitalized, my husband having surgery and my grandchild being born all the same month!
Plus, I am not really looking forward to reading a big book like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" next month. My sister has highly recommended it to me, so I will give it a try. After the Hunchback, we will have completed the 10 Epic Romance books listed by Goodreads, so we can vote on what book to read for October!


message 7: by Manal (new)

Manal | 1 comments Terry, you are Awesome & I always enjoy your posts. keeping you in my prayers & thoughts. Hope both your mom & husband get well so soon. Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite writers. I've already read most of his works but I don't mind re-reading anything for Hawthorne :)


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments Thanks for your kind words Manal!


message 9: by Trudy (new)

Trudy Brasure | 95 comments I'm tempted to read this as it seems something of a parallel to Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which I just recently read and loved. I haven't read The Scarlet Letter since high school. I'm sure it would have tons more meaning to me now.
And I read Hunchback way back when ... it was one of the first books to ever make me cry.
Thanks for keeping the group up and running, Terry, through your real life trials. Best wishes for all your family members' health. And Yay! to a new little one to adore and spoil. :)


message 10: by Donadee's Corner (new)

Donadee's Corner (donade) | 51 comments Terry, hope all is well with the family and congrats on the little one. I, too am going to take a couple months off to try to get some of my TBR pile caught up. I've had some major surgery done and I need some light books for a change. I love reading all the comments and I agree due to your efforts this group has continued and is growing, THANKS! And thanks for all the background work you do. It sure makes reading much more interesting!


message 11: by Donadee's Corner (new)

Donadee's Corner (donade) | 51 comments Hey just want to shout out to one of our members that is also under the weather Mary, hope your feeling better!


message 12: by Tim (new)

Tim (tim-the-romantic) | 1 comments I'm new here, so please forgive me if asking "movie-book" questions is bad form but...

What did you guys think of the re-imagining of The Scarlet Letter called "Easy A"? A good introduction to the story, or a travesty against the book?

(Fingers crossed for Mary and Terry, I hope things start looking up!)


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments Hi Tim, who stars in the movie version? I looked it up on Netflix and came up with a comedy about a high school girl (?)


message 14: by Glenna (new)

Glenna | 109 comments The movie Easy A really isn't like The Scarlett Letter. It is a light hearted comedy based partly on high school rumors. The girl decides to stitch letters to her clothes to prove a point.


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments Glenna wrote: "The movie Easy A really isn't like The Scarlett Letter. It is a light hearted comedy based partly on high school rumors. The girl decides to stitch letters to her clothes to prove a point."

Oh, ok thanks Glenna


message 16: by Renato (new)

Renato (renatomrocha) Starting this next week! Who'll be reading along?


message 17: by Wanda (new)

Wanda (wandae) | 65 comments I'll be listening to the Audible audiobook if I can handle the narrator's accent.


message 18: by Trudy (last edited Aug 16, 2014 09:07AM) (new)

Trudy Brasure | 95 comments Wow. That's the longest, most circuitous introduction to a story I've ever read! After a few pages into it, I confess I looked to make sure I was reading the right book!
That said, although I impatiently skimmed over some paragraphs of the intro, I also find the way Hawthorne describes human moods and behavior to be surprisingly fresh and real - a mark of great literature, in my mind. I can relate to what he says at moments in a rather deep way. He knows what it's like to be human and he can put almost intangible feelings and perceptions into words.
So now I'm ready to start the actual story. I hope I will not feel impelled to skip over lengthy descriptions.


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments I confess, I do tend to skim over wordy, boring(to me) parts, but then go back and re read them if I feel it may help explain something later on.


message 20: by Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition (last edited Aug 19, 2014 07:15PM) (new)

Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments I noticed something that I want to bring out because when we have nominations on what book to read, someone may nominate a good book, but it might not follow the parameters of 19th century romances written in the 19th century.
The Scarlet Letter is on the Goodreads list of 19th century epic romances. However, it was written and published in the 19th century, but the setting is in 1642! Not a big deal, but still...
No, I take that back - the narrator, the guy who takes a job in the customhouse and is writing this account of the scarlet letter he finds, is actually supposed to be living in the 19th century.


message 21: by Wanda (new)

Wanda (wandae) | 65 comments I'm still stuck in the Customs House (audiobook vers.) Will the real story ever begin?


message 22: by Trudy (new)

Trudy Brasure | 95 comments You can skip the intro, really. It only has a small part that related to the story and it's not integral.
When you get to the actual story, it moves fairly quickly. It's going to be a quick read. I'm at 38% and have read for an hour and a bit overall.
I'm eager for Hester to come face to face with her co-sinner!


message 23: by Glenna (new)

Glenna | 109 comments I skipped the intro also. I may go back and read it when I am finished.


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments Well, this is not one of my favorites so far, it is rather dreary to me - not to say there is not a lot to discuss about it.
The narrative seems to be against the Puritan way of life. Hard work and putting the good of the community ahead of your own personal pursuits may have worked to keep the early settlers alive, but it seems like a dull, cold, heartless way to live, worshipping a wrathful, vengeful God instead of a loving, forgiving God.
You have to admire Hester Pryne - she is honest about her guilt and it somehow makes her stronger. I think as a mother, you tend to be more selfless where your children are concerned and may act stronger than you actually feel for your child's benefit.
I find Pearl to be kind of an odd child, I think Hawthorne is using her as an untamed version of human nature, in contrast to the puritanical society she lived in.
(view spoiler)


message 25: by Renato (new)

Renato (renatomrocha) I was wondering if that intro was at all important to the story... well, now I've read half of it, I might as well finish it...


message 26: by Judith (new)

Judith Conk | 32 comments Am 80% through the book and I am finally into it. Hester is a model of the strength of the woman's voice. This was probably a real strong part of the book given the context. It took me a while to get through the introduction and try to connect it to what I remembered from high school(a long time ago!)

Terry, I have to echo what everyone has said. You do a masterful job facilitating this group. My prayers to you and your family during these emotional roller coaster times.

I may not read Hunchback, since my book that I am writing is due October 1 and then I want to read the new Diana Gabaldon book.

Love everyone's comments.


message 27: by Wanda (new)

Wanda (wandae) | 65 comments Well I finally made it out of the Customs House. That part was as much an autobiographic sketch as an intro to the main work, wasn't it?

Terry, let me add my thanks for all you do for this group and my prayers for you and your family.

I'm on the fence about reading Hunchback. No real reason why other than I should finish Portrait of a Lady instead.


message 28: by Trudy (last edited Aug 21, 2014 03:08PM) (new)

Trudy Brasure | 95 comments Ah Chillingworth is disturbing! And what a description of his discovery of the secret.
I like stories that make you really think about the morality of certain behaviors. The sin of improper sexual relations has always spun stories of lives torn and ruined in the aftermath - not so much ruined by the event itself but of the weight of disapproval thrown upon those involved by the moral rectitude and self-righteous customs society heaps on this particular misdeed.
Who really is the vilest soul in this story?
Are some mistakes not redeemable?
Who's most at fault?
I really love to work through these moral land mines. (Reminds me a little of Tess of the d'Urbevilles - which I loved.)


message 29: by Renato (new)

Renato (renatomrocha) I'm not really feeling this one... so far everything's been really predictable and I don't think the writing or story is particularly special as well... :(


message 30: by Trudy (last edited Aug 27, 2014 10:50AM) (new)

Trudy Brasure | 95 comments I'm glad I re-read this (some 20 years after high school!). I remembered virtually nothing of the plot, so the ending was a surprise for me.
I'm certain that this writing style is overwrought for most modern tastes, but that's also part of the enjoyment of reading classics, for me. The way they could use words! Impressive.
This was a tragic love story. If circumstances had been different, Arthur and Hestor would have made an outstanding marriage - a model and a practical benefit for the whole community.
The highlight of the story for me was the meeting in the woods. It was very bittersweet and a view into what could have been as well as a poignant revelation of the relationship that had developed between them. I loved that they sat there silently holding hands as the moments ticked by.
Defintely not a book that everyone would enjoy - but I did. :)


message 31: by Renato (new)

Renato (renatomrocha) In the back of my head, I've been thinking that perhaps I was not really enjoying this book because I've been too distracted lately - moving to a new place, a million things to arrange, I'm constantly planning what to do etc..

Now I reached the part where Hester talks to Roger about Arthur (chapter 14) and I have a question: Roger has always known that Arthur was 'the guy' for sure? Hester confirmed it before? Somehow I missed that...

I thought he only supposed Arthur had a secret... I'm telling you I'm too distracted =/


message 32: by Trudy (new)

Trudy Brasure | 95 comments Roger doesn't discover the secret until Arthur is in a deep sleep and he looks to see why the minister always covers his heart....


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments I admire Hester for how she endured all that torment, yet still had compassion for people.

It's ironic how the Puritans escaped England to avoid persecution, but they not only didn't have compassion, they almost gleefully persecuted anyone who didn't abide by their own strict rules.

Chillingworth seemed to fit right in with the Puritans, he devoted his whole life to tormenting Hester and Dimmsdale, while maintaining his moral superiority. Then, when Dimmsdale died, he had no reason to live.
All in all, this book was not my cup of tea, but I would give it a 3 star rating because of my admiration for Hester.


message 34: by Renato (new)

Renato (renatomrocha) Trudy wrote: "Roger doesn't discover the secret until Arthur is in a deep sleep and he looks to see why the minister always covers his heart...."

Oh of course, I remember this passage! LOL at me. Thanks a lot, Trudy!


message 35: by Renato (new)

Renato (renatomrocha) I finished the book today and rated it 3 stars. Here's my review.


Terry ~ Huntress of Erudition | 504 comments Renato wrote: "I finished the book today and rated it 3 stars. Here's my review."

Hi Renato,
I rated this book 3 stars also - To me, 3 stars means it is a good book, the subject matter was interesting, presented well and the writing was good or even excellent, but I wouldn't want to read it again.
I too did not understand Hester's motivation to stay where she was persecuted and not only raise her daughter there, but come back later and live there by herself after Arthur died and her daughter married and moved to Europe.


message 37: by Wanda (last edited Sep 18, 2014 06:23PM) (new)

Wanda (wandae) | 65 comments I finished the audiobook a few days ago. It was the Recorded Books version narrated by Flo Gibson which I can't recommend. Maybe I would have liked the book better with a different reader or if I'd read it myself but I was left rather underwhelmed. After that l-o-n-g preamble in the Customs House and then all the florid and convoluted writing I thought the ending was rushed. Here's my review: (view spoiler)


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