Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

THE SCARLET LETTERI used to have a story for why I picked The Scarlet Letter up at the point in time I read it (2017). I am still reviewing from my backlog, however (though I have also been reviewing as I read: double-timing it) so I don’t remember all of the circumstances. I remember buying The Scarlet Letter at the Regulator Bookshop on a Ninth Street date night and sitting in the Triangle Coffee House (I think—its name has changed constantly over the years), my husband and I reading our new novels side-by-side over, well, probably a hot chocolate or an Americano. I remember not being super happy with those first many pages, but then I also remember loving it by the end.

The Scarlet Letter is the type of classic that I mostly blog to review. It is the sort of book that I meant to read when I made that 5000+ title list of “best of” books. I had read it before, in high school, but I didn’t really remember it. Let’s be honest: I probably didn’t read all of it. I was too busy being a high schooler to do school work. I was that kid.

Though many neo-modern people might howl about this book, calling it—who knows?—anti-feminist? outdated? puritanical? conservative?—I love reading partly for this reason: books take us outside of our own culture, out of our own PC little worlds, and challenges us with the wisdom and folly of other times and places so that we can better see our own. I guess I can stop giving that disclaimer. I have given it for so many of the books that I have reviewed lately. Perhaps it’s all the movies being remade lately from old stories, that are fiction-revisionist and absurd.

The Scarlet Letter is about Hester Pryne, and it’s a little hard to say much without ruining the tension of mystery in the book. Though you likely already know what it’s about, we’ll keep it to this, here: one act of indiscretion creates a cauldron of guilt, sin, pride, blame, and curses, that absorbs the life of three people in an early New England town. One of them is Hester Prynne, a heroine who is truly riveting to watch, especially with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s careful, deft writing. The book flirts with a line of sensuality, but it’s mostly an absorbing work of psychology (and a little romance) and a tightly told tale that will keep the reader guessing.

It’s old fashioned in its telling and writing, which means it won’t be for every reader. But if you do read classics, this is a must-read, especially if you have any interest in American History. The bit of reading that I did at the beginning and was not enjoying was the Introductory. It is somewhere around 40 pages long and, unless you are about to teach on the text or something, don’t bother. Go to Chapter 1, I think, where only about a page of book-end exists. (Old books, I find, almost always book-end their text with some extra-story, pulling back and explanation of some sort. We see it as quaint, now, but it’s a part of story-telling, a device that was used with great success and celebration for many years. It’s still used, just not as much among snooty people.)  Then get lost in the book. It’s a quick read, but I think you’ll find yourself enjoying the tension and the shades of this atmospheric tragedy.

Obviously, I enjoyed reading this book more than I expected. High schoolers don’t seem to love it, in general, though they’re the ones who mostly read it. So I’m going to suggest, yet again, that while I don’t think it’s bad to have high schoolers read The Scarlet Letter, it’s a later re-reading that will probably hit home more. I do wish more grown-ups read classics. There’s so much to think about and talk about here, as well as much to entertain.

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QUOTES:

“’Wondrous strength and generosity of a woman’s heart! She will not speak!’” (p64).

“My heart was a habitation large enough for many guests, but lonely and chill, and without a household fire” (p69).

“…such loss of faith is ever one of the saddest results of sin” (p80).

“…Heaven promotes its purposes without aiming at the stage-effect of what is called miraculous interposition” (p110).

“Why should a wretched man, guilty, we will say, of murder, prefer to keep the dead corpse buried in his own heart, rather than fling it forth at once, and let the universe take care of it!” (p120).

“This feeble and most sensitive of spirits could do neither, yet continually did one thing or another, which intertwined, in the same inextricable knot, the agony of heaven-defying guilt and vain repentance” (p134).

“Leave this wreck and ruin here where it hath happened. Meddle no more with it!” (p178).

“The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread” (p180).

“’We must not always talk in the marketplace of what happened to us in the forest” (p215).

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