Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

Tonight I finished reading my first book of the year.  This happened not a moment too soon, as this occurs on the last day of the month.  For this month, I re-read The Scarlet Letter.

Why didn’t I pick a new book?  It isn’t as if I don’t have a long list of books on my shelves that I’ve yet to read.  But I chose this one for two reasons:

  • The last time I read this book was in high school.  While I did enjoy the story, the analysis of the story and its associated workload has a way of detracting from one’s enjoyment of reading.
  • It had an important message for me that I wanted to explore again. (More below)
  • I’m fond of making bulleted lists.

For some reason I thought that this book would be an easy read.  Perhaps that was due to its length, or perhaps because I’ve read it before and am familiar with the story.  But the language used is stiff, formal, and difficult to wade through for the modern English user.  I’d probably put it one or two steps below Shakespeare, but it is much more approachable.  But this is not a dealbreaker for the story.  In fact, the period-accurate language only enhanced the atmosphere and made it easier to imagine each scene.

This isn’t a review of the story so much as it is my interpretation of what happened.  Be warned, there are spoilers.

One thing to note about Nathaniel Hawthorne is that he did not appear to share many of the strict Puritan beliefs of his community.  In fact, he could trace his ancestry back to John Hathorne, a well-known judge in the Salem Witch Trials who never showed remorse for his actions.  Nathaniel changed the spelling of his last name in order to distance himself from this man, and then he created a character like Hester Prynne.  Because of this, I’ve interpreted this story not as a tale of redemption from a great sin, but more about the perils of strict and unchecked moral guardians in a community.

This story is about a woman named Hester Prynne, who found a lover and became pregnant by him after her husband was lost and presumed dead.  Because she lived in a Puritan society, she was punished greatly; the beginning scene shows her coming out of her prison cell and sentenced to stand in front of the town center for half a day with her child to show how shameful her actions were.  Her punishment didn’t stop there, and for the rest of her life she was made to wear an embroidered “A” on her clothing to stand for adultery.  At the start, you can find her neighbors arguing over whether this punishment was suitable.  Some of the women even called for her death in accordance with certain bible verses.  Yes, they were arguing in favor of execution for a woman simply for having extramarital sex.  And this way of thinking was normal in their civilization.

Hester endured years of scorn for her moment of passion, including one moment when city officials tried to deny her custody of her child.  It wasn’t until seven years later, when she became known for more charitable work, that public opinion turned and became more favorable.  Despite the abuse she suffered, or perhaps because of it, Hester continued to do real good in her community.  Other townspeople tried to go to Heaven; Hester tried to provide for Pearl and help her neighbors.  Perhaps it was the red A that taught her that even sinners and the less fortunate are worth a bit of kindness, too.

Because of the abuse she suffered, Hester decided never to reveal the name of her child’s father.  But that man was tormented all the same, not only from his own guilt and fear of facing the crowd but from a man bent of taking his revenge.  It turned out that Hester’s husband was not only alive and well, but arrived in town just in time to see his wife’s humiliation.  From there he vowed to find her partner and make him pay for touching his wife.  But his motivations are common in modern times as well, so this isn’t too surprising.

Arthur Dimmesdale’s cause of death is never fully explained, but a report I made on this story in high school speculated that it was most likely due to hemlock poisoning on Chillingworth’s behalf.  But Dimmesdale was in emotional torment long before Chillingworth set his plan in motion; he was wracked with guilt over fathering a child with Hester, and suffered more guilt over not being able to bring himself to admit it publicly.  Chillingworth used this guilt against him in subtle ways, including one discussion about faith, guilt, and confessing one’s sins.  There was also the hint of self-harm on Dimmesdale’s part; one scene in which Chillingworth stumbles across an asleep Arthur, he pulls the young man’s shirt aside and notices something that amuses him and gives him the final piece of evidence in his crime.  What he found was never revealed, but I took it to be a self-inflicted A on his chest as a display of private penance.

Either way, Arthur died as a result of the strict moral code in their community.  Whether he died as a result of his own guilt and self-harm, or he was killed by a man who decided he deserved death for sleeping with Hester, the cause is the same.  And Hester Prynne suffered for the same reasons.  This story is not about the pain of sin or finding redemption for past crimes, nor is about star-crossed lovers and the tragedy they experienced.  This is about the real damage that the self-righteous types can do to individuals in the name of morality and piety.

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