The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet LetterThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ugh. Why on earth this book was standard fare in high schools across the country for so long is beyond me. Seriously. If you want to put teenagers off reading and make them hate English class, then by all means, put this one on your syllabus. By the time I got into the high school classroom, this book had thankfully fallen by the way side, and I–hallelujah–was never assigned it. And while I’ve enjoyed the Hawthorne I’ve read before (most of the Twice-Told Tales and I’m pretty sure I found The Blithedale Romance fascinating in graduate school, but that very well could be because my professor was brilliant), this was a serious chore to slog through. So, yes, Hester Prynne is an awesome character and kudos to Hawthorne for writing a fabulous woman way back in 1850 (take note Hemingway). But from the just boring and monotonous Custom House introduction to the please-just-let-it-end-and-be-over-with epilogue and every single overwrought, overemphasized symbol in between, I just couldn’t get into it.

I always told my students that there is a reason classic lit is still read. Great books stick around for a reason and not-so-great ones fall by the wayside. Or as WH Auden put it, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten. None are undeservedly remembered” (thanks John Green for that tidbit and totally agree with you about Lord of the Flies too). This book does have important things to say about America’s Puritanical roots, about judgment and freedom, independence and individuality. Our Puritan past still haunts the American identity on so many levels, and Hawthorne expertly imagines and brings to life those anxieties. Hester in effect destroys two men for no other reason than being strong, capable, and independent. Revenge and jealousy distort Chillingworth into a farce of the man he was before, and Dimmesdale is so weak and incapable of action that he allows his guilt to literally kill him. All the while Hester thrives, even under the weight of the scarlet letter; in fact, she turns it into a symbol of rebellion.

It’s the story’s pacing and Hawthorne’s need to beat the symbol of the scarlet letter into the ground that killed the book for me. It’s frickin’ everywhere. Pearl in the red dress, in the stars, written in the sunsets, and burned by psychokinetic guilt into Arthur Dimmesdale’s flesh–on every page there’s another scarlet letter and each time it appears, the narrator insists on expounding on its presence and impressing upon us its importance. The dialogue plods and is totally unnatural and forced. I’m sorry but none of Jane Austen’s characters drop “thees” and “thous” and “methinks” at every turn and her novels were written 40 years prior to this one. It’s emblematic of Hawthorne’s definition of “Romance,” which for him privileged ideas and symbols over realism. He is just more concerned about the idea he is creating than the story he is telling.

So there you have it. Not a fan of The Scarlet Letter and now I look forward to watching Demi Moore utterly destroy Hawthorne’s vision in her campy and gawd-awful 1995 movie. Should be a hoot.

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