Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Classics Club: The Scarlet Letter

It was with a little apprehension that I started reading The Scarlet Letter by N. Hawthorne. I have to admit that reading about a situation where a woman is judged by people men whose only interest is to suppress any individual right we know now as self-evident, is not my cup of tea.  I know what women and specific social groups had to go through in those days, and I'm glad some of them persevered to allow evolution to take place so that we can now enjoy our "freedoms", but still I'd rather read non-fiction articles that will have no emotion than literature...  Anyway, back to the book:

This is the tragic story of a "wronged" woman, Hester, with a twist:  she has a child out of wedlock, and is ostracised by society and made to wear the scarlet letter "A" (for adultery) on her bosom, to serve as a reminder of her sins and as an example to avoid for the rest of society.  Yet, we do not witness her downfall, nor her death for that matter (Ruth by E. Gaskell comes to mind).
No, this heroine is strong-willed and keeps her cool when she has to step up to a scaffold for the world to see how she wears her punishment:

"... so artistically done, and with so much fertility and gorgeous luxuriance of fancy, that it had all the effect of a last and fitting decoration to the apparel which she wore"
At this point, it's also of importance to consider the surroundings:  we find ourselves in Puritan Boston, when even the thought of fun, laughter, and enjoyment in  general was unthinkable.  People live in dire conditions, under the instructions of the Scripture and the statute-book, which means any deviation should actually be punished by death (and this brought forward by women themselves) -- proof that blind obediance to such "laws" will more times than not harm a whole lot of people...

While reading this book, I found myself straying from the main object, Hester and her ordeal with little daughter Pearl, and picking up little details about the double moral standards in society (then but I'm afraid even now):  while the majority of them live in austere conditions under fear, the higher levels of society enjoy several "perks", one of which actually provides Hester with a living:  she gets to embroiden in a "sombre, but yet a studied magnificence" all clothing articles that were
"deemed necessary to the official state of men assuming the reins of power, and were readily allowed to individuals dignified by rank or wealth, even while sumptuary laws forbade these and similar extravagances to the plebeian order"
As long as someone held a certain position or was rich (and, of course, was a man), they could get away with anything.  And this is exactly what happens in this novel:  the main character may not really be Hester, but the father of her child, who, in the comfort of his position in society, can get away from his moral obligation.  While he is shown to repend and punishing himself, I couldn't help but discerning some irony in Hawthorne's writing, to signify that this is all too easy for someone who is ready to forego the doctrines of his faith but weak enough to let someone else take the entire blame for seven years (and why, oh why, would Hester agree to this? this is something I will never understand in these "wronged" women).

I really liked Hester's portrayal as a strong character, but never in a "outwordly" fashion.  No, she is shunned by the villagers and she settles on the outskirts with her daughter, keeping by herself most of the times, and only mingling with people for business purposes, or for charitable work (which is repaid by more scolding from those in need... food for thought!).  She knows she does not fit in the Puritan framework, and manages to expand her thoughts and beliefs beyond these constrictions. 

The other main character is Hester's actual husband, who appears in her life when she's in her lowest point, and who then tries to take over Pearl's father's soul. He is compared to the devil and as such I can't say I found his part very convincing.  He is found out, and it is only then that the actual father of the child comes forward and reveals the whole truth... just before dying!  So, no earthly punishment for him...

When all is revealed, Hester knows she can no longer live among her fellow parishioners, and sets off  with Pearl to lead a respectable life elsewhere - Pearl having also inherited quite nicely from Hester's husband (now, isn't this sweet - the man trying to destroy the mother in the end helps out her daughter...).  Yet, even whith such little "comforting" details, I presume necessary for the audiences of the time, I can really admire Hawthorne for introducing major themes that may have been overdue for revision:  morality, sin and dignity (or lack thereof).



  1. I had to read this one at school - an interesting look at early Puritan New England... Your review hits it spot on.

    1. It's really a lesson in history...

  2. I keep meaning to read his, I never read it at school.

    1. I think it's very revealing of a by-gone era...

  3. I was also very surprised that the whole thing didn't end as a tragedy and that the fallen women is once again killed off. But despite this, the book didn't really work for me, mostly because of the over-the-top symbolism. It seemed that every two sentences we're force-fed another metaphor/comparison/whatever (e.g. light hides from Hester’s face, Pearl and the brook, her embroidery, etc).

    Like I wrote in my review, it's like having Hawthorne standing over your shoulder saying "See what I did there? Clever, hem?"

    1. I fully agree - yet, I think that was the only method to present such issues to an audience that was as reluctant as can be...

  4. Astute review. I found this to be a poignant and timeless novel. My own review:




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