Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, 1850 (with some continued mention of The House of the Seven Gables)
I’m going to try to be Fair and Balanced like Fox News in this review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s major novel. In other words, I am going to launch into a highly biased rant against Hawthorne’s many flaws whilst ignoring the perspective of anyone whose tastes, opinions and values may differ from mine.
I kid; I kid. I wanted to loathe Hawthorne, but certain elements of The Scarlet Letter reversed the tide of my affections. I will explain. First, some background information about the book:
Hawthorne wrote about New England. He was particularly interested in the Puritans and their cultural legacy. He had a relative who convicted “witches” in Salem, a judge who never expressed regret for his actions. Both of these novels have a strange vein of magic running through them. Is it or isn’t it magic? Are we superstitious or are we skeptics? Was my ancestor an evil man who sent innocents to the gallows, or was he a hero who eradicated witchcraft from Salem? Hawthorne seems to toy with these questions, but his novels ultimately express a belief in magic and witches, in my opinion.
Every American high school student is forced to read The Scarlet Letter, so I am sure that you remember that it’s about Hester Prynne, a woman who sleeps with her pastor after her husband disappears. She gets caught, because she gets pregnant, and she is forced by her strict, Puritan community to wear a scarlet “A” for adulteress on her clothing. She never gives up the identity of her lover.
I don’t have a problem with Hawthorne’s plots. The presentation is awful, though. In both novels, Hawthorne withholds the most interesting elements of his story. In The House of the Seven Gables, Clifford and his cousin have a secret drama that ruined Clifford’s, health, psychology and reputation. Instead of telling the reader about that, Hawthorne talks for about 15 pages about chickens. Just the stuff that chickens do in the yard. 15 pages. Yes, their behavior is a metaphor for some stuff, some stuff that the reader has already internalized and does not need to spend 15 pages thinking about, especially not in the form of an overlong chicken allegory.
Let’s think about the plot of The Scarlet Letter. Here are the plot elements:
- A Puritan woman’s husband disappears into the wilderness for two years.
- She has an affair with her reverend.
- She gets pregnant.
- She gets convicted of adultery.
- She hides the identity of her lover.
- Her husband returns.
- He asks her to keep their relation to each other concealed.
- Her husband moves in with her lover and torments his guilty conscious.
- Her lover is super tormented by his religious guilt.
I would say that 1, 2 and 3 are the most interesting elements of this plot. 7 and 8 are the least interesting. Be honest, would you rather read about religious guilt or forbidden romance? Forbidden romance, obviously. As an irreligious person, I could not empathize with Reverend Dimmesdale’s guilt.
In fact, religious guilt is my absolute least favorite literary theme. So boring. Stop tormenting yourself and become an ubermensch! Obviously, his obligation is not to God or his flock. His obligation is to his child and the woman he impregnated. Run away! Make a life! Forget your guilt, it helps no one! Don’t waste your life feeling shitty about loving a very lovable woman. Dummy. Reverend Dumbsdale.
That rant really got away from me. My point was that Hawthorne dedicates zero pages to the romance between Hester and Dimmesdale and 150 pages to their feelings of sinfulness and guilt. Waste of their time and waste of my time as a reader.
Hawthorne’s management of his pacing in The House is equally bad. He moves in a Brownian motion between a small set of ideas: Phoebe is youthful and pure, Hepzibah is dour, Clifford is feeble and loves beauty, the Pyncheon bloodline is degenerating, the sins of the fathers are blah blah blah. He ping pongs back and forth between these few ideas with no sense of urgency or forward movement.
Rant over! Here’s what I love about Hawthorne: Hester Prynne. Hester Prynne! Based on my (exhaustive) knowledge of English literature, I think that Hester Prynne is the first woman in literature whose virtue is divorced from her sexual purity. Hawthornes depicts his fallen woman as admirable, which just doesn’t happen in other books. (Except maybe Nancy in Oliver Twist, who I also love.) I really loved Hester and wanted her to escape from her life of shame, which she never does.
If you think about it, Hawthorne’s ideas of women are feminist. He suggests that Hester would have been a “prophetess” of sorts if she hadn’t lived in such a judgmental society. He makes it clear that she’s the most badass person in her tiny, hater-filled town. He demonstrates that shaming people for their sexual behavior is unproductive, hypocritical and cruel. That’s a good thing for an author to do.
You might like The Scarlet Letter if:
- you sympathize with women who are publicly punished for their harmless private behavior.
- you are anti-slut-shaming.
You might not like The Scarlet Letter if:
- well, there are a lot of reasons, but you should probably just read it. Everybody else has and you don’t want to be uncultured do you? No, you don’t. You want to be buttermilk. Not just regular milk. Because you want to make good cornbread.
Final thoughts: I really didn’t enjoy or understand The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I’m glad I revisited it. Hawthorne’s style might be yawn worthy, but Hester Prynne is a literary heroine of the first order.