I read The Scarlet Letter, in high school or middle school or whatever the age that people think is a good idea to make kids read stuff like this, and of course didn’t get it. I mean, I thought I got it, it was about a woman who committed adultery and was forced for the rest of her life to be branded as an adulterer by a big letter A on her clothes.
Up until recently I remember it being basically anti Puritan propaganda. Those mean old Puritans who actually took sin seriously and went around hating everything and everybody and thought it was more holy to look dour all the time. That sort of thing. Also, for some reason, in my head Hester was punished for her adultery, but the man who sinned with her got off with nothing. I don’t know how I came to that conclusion, but after re-reading it I was glad to find out that that wasn’t true.
For anyone who has been living in a small box in the woods somewhere and happened to get their hands on a computer to read my blog, and doesn’t know the story, The Scarlet Letter is set in the early part of the 17th century in a New England village. It chronicles the life of Hester Prynne who was found with child after her husband had been presumed dead. She is asked to reveal the identity of the father of her child, but she refuses. She is sentenced to wear the letter “A” sewn onto the front of her dress for the rest of her life. The remainder of the book watches the child grow, and the identity of the father slowly come to light as well as the identity of a mysterious stranger in the village with some connection to Hester Prynne. Both Hester and her baby daddy (is there another word for this? I hate to use it in a review) suffer in different ways. She must go for the rest of her life shunned by society and left alone to raise her child, and he must maintain his own good character, knowing all the while that it is a lie.
So, as for the Puritan bashing. It’s still there. I wasn’t wrong about that. It was a little more nuanced perhaps than I originally thought, but we are all supposed to take umbrage at the horrible treatment these sour awful mean-spirited joyless people give to poor Hester Prynne whose only sin was falling in love. As far as the nature of the Puritans, I suggest everyone go read Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints. I think he gives a much fuller and more accurate account of the Puritans. He doesn’t gush about them, but he doesn’t take the easy and popular way out either.
As for my other problem with the book, that of the difference in how the genders were treated, it was completely different than I thought. In fact, if anything, I’d say the mystery man was punished even more than Hester was. He didn’t have the relief of his sin being already exposed and was forced for seven years to carry it in his heart without confessing it and continuing to compound it with lies.
So, first let me get out of the way that I think Hester should have been punished. I do. She was wrong. She sinned. She made a vow and I don’t care how hastily it was made or how old and gross the guy was with whom she made it. She married someone else, and can’t be sleeping around. There is no way around that. Nor do I think Hester ever really repented. I thought for a while she was going to, but later I found reason to believe she wasn’t sorry for what she had done.
Sort of a side note, that I picked up on personally because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, is the role the women of the village played particularly at the beginning of the book. There are a group of women who are discussing Hester’s punishment and how it wasn’t enough. Some wanted her skin branded, another wanted her to be put to death. The way it was being talked about wasn’t the way Christians should mourn for another Christian who has sinned greatly. It was being talked over with glee. You could tell that the women didn’t think they could ever sin the way Hester did. Now, this is something we can take away from the book, not just as women, but as fellow believers. Sometimes if we witness wrong or know someone in disgrace we have the reaction these women did. We get outraged and congratulate ourselves for not being “that bad.” I think this would have been a great opportunity for these women to befriend Hester and talk to her about grace and forgiveness.
There was a particular passage that stood out to me about the village women that I’d like to highlight. Time has gone by since Hester was first made to wear the letter and her reputation as a good seamstress had been spreading. She would often be called upon to sew this or that article of clothing. The public shunning; however, was still pretty intense. “Dames of elevated rank, likewise, whose doors she entered in the way of her occupation, were accustomed to distil drops of bitterness into her heart; sometimes through that alchemy of quiet malice, by which women can concoct a subtle poison from ordinary trifles; and sometimes, also, by a coarser expression, that fell upon the sufferer’s defenseless breast like a rough blow upon an ulcerated wound.” This is something I’ve noticed a lot more recently. It probably won’t be a big surprise to anyone when I say women hurt each other in really sly and awful ways. We need to stop it. I don’t have any big life changing answer about how to stop that, but it should stop. I mean, if women in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time were doing the same thing they do to one another in the 21st century. I think we, as a gender, need to be more gracious. Again, Hester sinned. They shouldn’t have overlooked this, but they should have exhorted her as a sister. They should have been in her life before this tragedy took place. They should have been praying and they should have been caring. We need to do this same thing today.
Carrie mentioned in her review that she thought it was mercifully short (or something to that extent). I couldn’t agree more. It WAS interesting. In a way it was strangely fascinating, but I think if it had gone on much longer my brain would have melted. The writing was clunky and strange. One particular passage I actually laughed out loud over was when Hester and her child were walking into the Puritan village and they came across some sour faced horrid little Puritan children who happened to call out, “Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!” (I’m tempted to add…said no child ever)
Anyway, it was a good read, and I’m happy to have some issues with it laid to rest and to have wrestled with some other topics that I wouldn’t have thought of as a younger person. If you’ve only read this once and you were too young to get it, I would absolutely suggest a re-read.