The February selection for Carrie‘s Reading to Know Book Club is The Scarlet Letter, chosen by Shonya from Learning How Much I Don’t Know. I don’t think I have read it since high school, so I figured it would be good to revisit it, especially when I found it as an audiobook.
As most people know, The Scarlet Letter is about Hester Prynne, whose sin of adultery has produced a child in a 1640 Puritan community and whose punishment is to wear the letter A for “adulteress” on her bosom. I’ve been looking around at other reviews, study guides, and such, and many seem to see the story as a strong woman overcoming the confines of a repressive society. But I saw it described in a couple of places as a psychological romance or drama, and I think that is where the strength of the story is.
The audiobook for some reason leaves out the first chapter in which the narrator finds the scarlet letter in a custom house before telling the story behind it. We first see Hester emerging from the prison, the scarlet A already on her chest, with her child in her arms, sentenced to stand on a public scaffolding for three hours. She had been married, and her husband had sent her on ahead to this country, but her pregnancy became evident too long after arriving for the child to have been her husband’s. In all the intervening time he has not been heard from and is assumed dead. Hester steadfastly refuses to name the other guilty party in her sin.
The first time I read the book, it took me a while to realize who it was. If I were reading it for the first time as an adult, I think I would have figured it out much faster. It was interesting reading it knowing who he was from the outset, as there are clues everywhere. I’ve wrestled with whether to name him or not: I don’t want to destroy the suspense for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I don’t know how much I can say about the book without naming him. I’ll give it a try.
The psychological drama comes in the contrast between Hester’s publicized guilt and its consequences, ostracism from society and the resulting extreme loneliness, versus the consequences her partner in sin’s suppressed guilt: the torment of hearing praises heaped on him for his goodness when he knows he is a hypocrite. At first I thought he kept quiet because he was spineless, but later the author shows he is concerned as well about the negative repercussions his guiltiness could have if it were known, thus he feels “caught,” and his guilt begins to affect him physically.
Hester’s long-lost husband shows up at the first scaffolding scene, but signals to Hester to remain quiet. When he speaks to her later, he swears her to secrecy about his real name and their relationship. He understands, in one sense, her sin, because theirs had not been a marriage of love, and he was much older than she. But he determines to find and exact revenge upon Hester’s partner. He has become a doctor of sorts and goes by the name of Roger Chillingworth, fitting for his cold heart. There is more psychological drama when he thinks he has found the guilty party and determines to “dig” until he knows for sure, and the guilty party thinks he is a friend and doesn’t realize the danger.
The book could be easily divided into sections based on three scenes at the scaffold, where each of the major characters appear each time. The first I’ve mentioned; in the second, the other guilty party has been driven in the middle of the night to the scaffold in his guilt and pain. Self-flagellation, fasting, and vigils have not alleviated his guilt, so he goes himself to the scene of Hester’s shame — yet under cover of darkness, where he is tortured at the thought of being found out. Hester and her daughter, Pearl, happen to be walking by at that same time, and he calls to them to join him. They do, and Pearl asks if he will stand with them the next day at noon. He says no, but he will at the Judgment Day. Then the light of a meteor reveals the face of Chillingworth watching them. The final scaffolding scene takes place near the end of the book, with the same characters, yet in a public setting, where everyone’s fate is resolved.
The book is replete with symbolism: the A, of course, and the different meanings associated with it through the years, Chillingworth’s name and misshapen form representing his heart, Hester’s dressing little Pearl in scarlet, the scenes in the forest, the wild rosebush by the prison door, various manifestations of light and darkness. Pearl herself seems symbolic until the end of the book and acts something like a conscience for her parents. At one point she tells Hester, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom.
There are two things I don’t know that keep me from understanding this book more fully. One is Puritan society. I don’t know if how it is viewed here and in general (legalistic, harsh, repressive) is what it really was. This community is totally graceless, but the quotes I have read from Puritans have not been, though I admittedly have not read a great deal of Puritan literature. One source said that Puritans believed that whether you were “elect” or not would show in your life, thus Hester’s partner’s dilemma and struggle between his public persona and private sin. But all of the sources I looked at spoke of either being “elect” or earning one’s way to heaven (which did not seem possible for anyone in the book), yet neglected the real truth of grace that reaches out to the fallen sinner to provide redemption.
The other thing is Hawthorne’s transcendentalism and how it affected his views. I looked into this a bit when rereading Little Women (linked to my thoughts) but didn’t feel I really got a handle on their beliefs. Maybe someone else who read this book for this challenge will have more insight into that.
But I could definitely see the themes and contrasts between judgment and grace, penitence and repentance, and true versus perceived identity (both Hester’s partner and Chillingworth present different personas from what they really are and tend to self-destruct because of it). I don’t know if I would say I enjoyed the book, but it was an interesting study.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)