Great Novel No. 14: “The Scarlet Letter”

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

***

The Scarlet Letter

And so we reach a kind of seminal moment in the 100 Great Novels list. Up until now the books have all come from a small, damp, and foggy island near the coast of Europe — that is to say, England. With Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, however, we finally cross the great Atlantic Ocean and land on the shores of American literature.

Published in 1850, this is considered by many to be the first quintessentially American novel. So it’s somewhat strange, perhaps, but also in a way appropriate that the story is set during the 1600s, at a time when America for all intents and purposes did not exist as anything but a new British colony.

In the small Puritan town of Boston, Massachusetts, a woman named Hester Prynne has been caught in adultery; a three-month-old daughter and a husband in England who sent her over two years ago bear witness. In punishment she is made to wear a letter A upon her dress, embroidered in scarlet thread. Hester continually refuses to name the father of her child (called Pearl), not even to her husband who returns secretly and does not reveal himself to the townspeople. But still he swears to discover who her lover is and to eventually bring his vengeance down on them both.

The rest of the plot you will have to discover yourself. And you should make a point of doing so. Though the year is young, I suspect little of what I read will be able to match this book’s beautiful prose and compelling imagery. I’ve read some of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, but that was quite some time ago now, and reading The Scarlet Letter has allowed me to rediscover him for the first time. If you do choose to try it out for yourself I encourage you to hold on past the introductory chapter. Hawthorne liked to tag autobiographical pieces onto his stories and this one begins with a sketch of his time as a customs agent in Salem. It’s not entirely uninteresting and it does bear some relation on the story (if only in a fictionalized way), but when you’re expecting to dive straight into the novel it comes as something of a surprise.

Past the introduction is a work that defies easy categorization. It deals with a solid period of history, and without actual supernatural occurrences, and yet at times it has all the atmosphere of a surreal fantasy. A shooting star one night becomes a flaming letter A in the heavens; sunlight peeking through the trees in a dense forest becomes an indicator of spiritual states. Allusion and symbolism are also used a bit more conventionally, as when a motherly contrast is drawn between Hester and the Virgin Mary, both of whom are pictured carrying infants; or when we read of Pearl being dressed in red, a living scarlet letter to proclaim her mother’s transgression.

And above all the critics have long noted Hawthorne’s complex “inner portraits” of characters, where the drama is found in their psychology and motivations. Here they come alive and seem like more than mere plot complications; instead they are the plot. Their journeys provide the spine and substance of this poetic and memorable meditation on sin and salvation, on shame and repentance, on judgment and mercy. The Scarlet Letter has well-earned a future place on my shelf.

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