Book report #26 (2021)

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pub 1850

When I read this book back in 1983, it was under duress – a high school requirement. This novel was part of what we referred to as the ‘fallen women’ section of Grade 12 english, a trilogy of reading that including this, Doctor Zhivago, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Each is a high school english teacher’s dream and student’s nightmare – so many quotable bits, so many themes and symbols, so much lofty and impenetrable language.

As such, for The Scarlet Letter, I recalled very little about the story, characters, or language other than the very basics: a woman is found to have committed adultery, and so is required to wear an emblem of her sin and shame – the titular scarlet letter – for the rest of her life. (It is likely that I did not even finish reading the novel, as was a bit of a habit in high school.) While the re-reading filled in the details – the child, the husband, the clergyman – it was very weighty with language and circuitous sentences that made it a fairly simple story told in a complicated way. I think the entirety could have been just as well served in a short story (which was Hawthorne’s better medium, apparently), to the relief of many a high school student for the past 150 years. The story touches on many heavy themes as well – good vs evil, the physical manifestations of evil or wickedness, the effect of alienation as a punishment, emancipation, puritanism, and love.

Hawthorne seems excessively fond of the comma, with sentences so chopped and riddled with them as to challenge comprehension. The book seems even longer than it is because of the rereading required of many sentences just to recall the thread of the story. For example, from a rambly bit about the emancipation of women in Chapter 13:

“Finally, all other difficulties being obviated, woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms until she herself shall have undergone a still mightier change, in which, perhaps, the ethereal essence, wherein she has her truest life, will be found to have evaporated.”

Wow. No wonder it took another few decades for women’s rights to emerge, after being lost in such run-on sentences.

Better is this from Chapter 18: “She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.” This is the moment where Hester removes her mark and literally lets her hair down. She is hoping and planning for a future away from the oppression of her town and society. Alas, it is not to be, but that time of unburdening gives her hope and courage to make a change, and that phrase is the perfect (and brief) description of the emotional and spiritual burden of the physical scarlet letter.

While I selected this book in order to fulfill the “book studied in school” category, it was interesting to see the presentation and perspectives of shaming and shunning as mechanisms to correct the behaviour of citizens into conformity with public norms. Similarly, the notions of public virtue and private vice, of personal or unpopular choice decried as selfishness, and of elitism as a public good – it was distressing to see parallels to modern times, reaffirming the notion of needing to learn from history so as to not repeat it.

“When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived.”

“Meagre, indeed, and cold, was the sympathy that transgressor might look for, from such bystanders…”

3 – a book published before 1939
9 – a book that has been made into a film
16 – a book with a colour in the title
32 – a book studied in high school

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