Great Book: The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthone

The fourth book that succoured me during my recent travels was another old friend, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I believe this was on my reading list in English class in high school.

One of the original American novels, it seems much older than it is (1850) because of the language and setting. Hawthorne's characters are early members of Puritan Salem, when the area was first being settled, and he doesn't bother resisting the urge to sprinkle his text with 'hither' and 'wherefore' in order to capture the feeling of the remote period.

The story is of three individuals in the aftermath of a sin. Hester Prynne, the adulterous wife, was forced by her pregnancy to openly acknowledge her sin and bear her punishment in front of the eyes of the world. Roger Chillingworth, as the cuckolded husband names himself, hides his shame; no-one knows he is the injured party, and no-one knows about the secret lust for revenge that he cherishes. Reverend Dimmesdale hides his sin as well, and the poison of pretending to be a holy man while his lover and child live in shame percipitates in him a deadly illness.

This could have been a love story, but it's emphatically not. Hawthorne so completely dismisses the sinful event itself that the action starts perhaps a year later, as Hester is brought to justice both before the public and her returning spouse.

Hawthorne doesn't whitewash the sin that Hester and Dimmesdale committed by appealing to the love between them (although Hester does so, briefly). A life for them together elsewhere is an unhealthy dream.

Strikingly, he seems to give full credence to the reality of the 'witches' tortured and killed in Salem several years later. Mistress Hibbins, who we are informed will be executed in the infamous trials, features as a character who tempts Hester to Devil worship. What's up with that? It seems to mar the otherwise very strong psychological realism.

Yay audio books on MP3 player! Boo Flo Gibson! Why do I keep listening to books she reads? Oh, right, because they're free. She was not a good choice for this book. Nathaniel Hawthorne in the introduction writes of himself as a young man. Hester Prynne is a young woman. Dimmesdale is a young man, if prematurely aged by his illness. She manages to make them all sound like cackling harpies.

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