Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I feel bad that I've fallen so far behind on my reviews, because I've read some great books this year that are definitely going to get the short shrift because it's been so long since I read them. That includes this one, possibly the most widely-disparaged book ever to find its way onto high school reading lists.

Of course, it's not too surprising that The Scarlet Letter doesn't connect with most high-schoolers. For those unfamiliar, the story concerns Hester Prynne, a single woman in a strict Puritan community, who is discovered to be pregnant and sentenced to spend the rest of her life wearing a red letter "A"--for adultery--as punishment for her transgression. As for the father, well, that's the Reverend Arthur Dimmsdale, the town's most respected citizen and the next thing to an angel in the eyes of the townfolk.

What follows from this is a long meditation on sin, guilt, the nature of love and religious belief, all written in Hawthorne's typically slow-moving and flowery prose. Oh, and the book opens with a fifty-page framing story about an accounting house where the record of The Scarlet Letter is found, to discourage the rare kid who found the adultery story compelling.

And, in spite of all this, I loved it. It might be the best thing I've read so far this year.

Some of this is just my literary taste--I love Hawthorne's baroque verbiage and slow pace, but I can see how it could be a turn off--but there's more to the story than that. For one thing, the novel is full of ambiguity. As I recall, it never even spells out that Rev. Dimmsdale was the father until the very end of the novel, although the reader is expected to have intuited it pretty early. The meaning of the scarlet "A" is never explicitly mentioned either, and those are two of the main plot points of the book! They aren't hard to discern but it does demonstrate the confidence Hawthorne has in his readers.

 Hand in hand with the plot ambiguities, Hawthorne allows a lot of moral wiggle room as well. Until a short speech at the end, which feels shoehorned in to please censors, Hawthorne casts no shade on Hester. In fact, as the story progresses, she sometimes seems like the only moral person in a town full of hypocrites. Knowing how Hawthorne felt about Puritans, it seems likely that he DID feel this way, but it's still strange to see a woman have an illegitimate child and come out of the situation better then she went in. I don't know that I've ever read a book this old that was so loath to pass judgement on its characters.

Also, despite its stuffy rep, The Scarlet Letter is a deeply strange book. Occurrences throughout--Hester's vindictive ex, a vision in the sky, Dimmsdale's ever-increasing torment, and Hester's possibly-demented daughter--point to supernaturalism without ever spelling it out. At points, it feels almost like a Gothic novel, with "ghosts" everywhere, and skeletal hands behind the scenes pushing things along, except in this case, the hands are God's and the devil is a disgruntled ex.