Recently I thought I might make a little project and reread some of the books I read in the long ago days of high school and have not read again since. I’ve read two books and have now decided to drop the project because it is not as fun as I thought it would be. But you will get two reviews, this one and one more and then I am going to let it all slip back into the hazy recesses of time.
I decided on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as the inaugural book. I have very little recollection of it. I remember Hester Prynne and her fancy scarlet “A” and something about a reverend who was into secret self-flagellation. I remember thinking Hester proud and defiant for standing up to those boring Puritans. Girl power! What I found on rereading was not quite what I remembered.
The book begins with a “sketch” called “The Custom House.” At first it seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the book. It is just Hawthorne writing about what it was like to work at the custom house. My teacher either did not assign this or I was so traumatized by it I completely blocked it out because Hawthorne drones on and on in laborious, mind-numbing detail. He complains about how soul-sucking work is — and as I read I felt like complaining about how soul-sucking the introduction is! Finally he comes round to the book at hand. He finds in the records of the person who previously held his job a file with a faded scarlet “A” in it and the outline of Hester Prynne’s story.
I love how 19th century novelists oftentimes felt the need to preface their books with stories like these about finding old manuscripts or meeting an old friend who told the tale or somehow themselves getting involved in events quite by accident. It’s as if they are trying to give the story some kind of legitimacy of truthiness or to let themselves off the hook for saying something controversial or too fantastic. “Don’t blame me!” you can hear them saying, “I’m just telling you what the manuscript said/the stranger told me/what happened on my vacation.” I have a hard time believing that readers of the day didn’t see through the ploy, which means everyone played along in a little game of make-believe.
But back to the book. If you skip the “Custom House” introduction you will have missed nothing and no one will blame you for it. If you are having trouble falling asleep at night, however, I highly recommend reading it word by tedious word. You won’t be able to keep your eyes open for long!
The Scarlet Letter itself begins dramatically with Hester Prynne being led from jail to the scaffold of shame where she must stand for three hours, scarlet letter blazing on her chest and crying baby in her arms. The entire town of Boston, much smaller then, turns out for the event. They stand and stare and whisper. Hester is alone in her shame because she refuses to give up the name of her partner in crime. The good Reverend Dimmesdale exhorts Hester to confess, but she stands in silence, outwardly proud and beautiful, inwardly swimming with pain and fear.
Hester is then taken back to prison for the rest of the day where she is visited by a man just arrived to town named Roger Chillingworth. He is a physician who has been wandering the New World learning about the medicine and herbal lore of the Native Americans. Turns out Chillingworth is Hester’s husband! They married in England before coming to the the New World. Hester is quite surprised to see him because she thought he was dead. He had sent her to Boston and was going to join her later but never turned up and never wrote. Here he is now, several years later, demanding to know who the father of baby Pearl is and vowing his revenge. That he cares so much after he essentially abandoned his wife is kind of weird. But given the time and place, Hester is his property and now she is damaged goods. He wants compensation!
Hester refuses to reveal the name of Pearl’s father. Chillingworth forces Hester to agree to pretend she does not know him at all, and Chillingworth ingratiates himself into the community as the brilliant doctor everyone consults.
Hester is released from jail and moves out to a little cottage on the edge of town where she makes a living with her needle. Along with being a visible sign of her sin, the scarlet “A” so expertly and fancily embroidered, is Hester’s advertising billboard. She gets employment from the governor and all the high up muckity-mucks in town making them dressy outfits for important occasions because even the sober Puritans enjoyed elaborate dress for ceremonial events.
And nothing happens for a very long time.
Seven years pass but it seems longer because Hawthorne tends to relish spending time on details that work themselves up into being heavy-handed metaphors for the state of mind of a character. He’s really blatant about it too and will eventually tell the reader what the metaphor means, relieving everyone of figuring out the obvious for themselves. I bet it is for this reason alone that it is mostly high school freshmen who are given The Scarlet Letter to read. With Hawthorne kind enough to tell us the meaning of everything, a five-paragraph essay is a piece of cake! Scarlet A’s for everyone!
Pearl is a half wild girl of seven who is constantly making innocent, yet unsettling remarks and observations to the adults. Along with her needlework, Hester has been unselfishly performing good deeds in the community—nursing the sick, watching the dead, giving food and clothing to the poor. For many the scarlet “A” has come to stand for angel. The health of Reverend Dimmesdale has diminished as his sanctity and fame as a minister have grown. And Roger Chillingworth, suspecting Dimmesdale has a secret, has wormed his way into sharing a house with the good Reverend all the better to torment him while ostensibly keeping an eye on his health.
And of course Dimmesdale does have a secret. Along with the scourge marks on his back, there is literally a scarlet “A” on his chest that no one sees, not even his trusted physician. Though one day when the Reverend has fallen into a deep sleep in his study, Chillingworth sneaks in and moves his shirt aside to reveal the mark. With such confirmation, Chillingworth redoubles his psychological torments.
Hester and Dimmesdale have a secret meeting in the forest where Hester spills the beans on Chillingworth’s identity. She also says she has spoken to the captain of a ship who will take her, Dimmesdale and Pearl to Europe where they can start a fresh life together. The minister feels as though a weight has been lifted, his energy returns, and a few days later he delivers an unforgettable Election Day sermon. But Chillingworth has discovered their plan of escape and booked passage for himself on the ship as well. Defeated, after the sermon Dimmesdale climbs the platform Hester stood on seven years ago, confesses his sin, and dies in Hester’s arms. Having formed his life on revenge, Chillingworth no longer has a reason to live and dies soon after. Conveniently, he leaves Pearl a large inheritance.
A twisted story of sin, guilt and revenge. Hester gets to live because she confessed her sin right from the start. Well, she kind of had to. No way to be a single Puritan woman with a baby. While she constantly suffers the ignominy of the scarlet letter, her guilt and sin are out in the open instead of secretly eating her alive. Nor does she take revenge on Dimmesdale. She loves him and protects him; her public sacrifice and shame is the source of his greatness as a minister.
Hester is the proud and defiant woman I remember but she also lives in a kind of purgatory where she is forever tormented by the “A” on her chest, by the whispers of her neighbors, by moments when Pearl defies her and makes her wonder whether her child is a punishment or a salvation. She protects Dimmesdale with her silence because his life and career are worth more than hers. She keeps Chillingworth’s secret because she must obey her husband even though he does not behave as one. In the forest when Hester reveals Chillingworth’s secret to Dimmesdale he has the temerity to tell Hester that everything that has happened is her fault and he can never forgive her. Hester nearly grovels. She, once again, accepts all the blame. While she may bend, she does not break. She throws herself at Dimmesdale’s feet and cries, “Thou shalt forgive me! […] Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!” And he does.
For all the focus of the story on Hester and the scarlet letter she wears, the real thrust and moral of the novel lies in Dimmesdale’s hidden scarlet letter and the torment of secret guilt. Hawthorne is even nice enough to tell us as much at the end of the book:
Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister’s miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence: — ‘Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!’
In other words, you don’t have to walk around with a badge of shame on your chest, but don’t go about pretending to be without sin altogether. It’s like what Jesus said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8.7) — and that happens to be from a story about adultery too. Coincidence? Doubtful.
I expected more razzle-dazzle and fireworks from the novel than there actually are. One’s memory plays tricks. The Scarlet Letter turns out to be a quiet story with slow build, told more in scenes than in an A-B-C sort of start to finish narrative. It’s an easy to read book in spite of the “thee’s” and “thou’s” and a few other archaic usages and the occasional dull passage. Our morals have changed enough that kids might be a little baffled why a child born outside of marriage is such a big deal. Heck, I recall not being so terribly impressed by it thirty years ago. But while our idea of what constitutes sin may have changed, the novel still speaks to us about the consequences of hiding our guilt.