Sunday, June 7, 2015

*The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oxford World's Classics, 1998
originally published 1850
302 pp


If you look at a random reader review of this novel, one of the first things you're apt to see is that The Scarlet Letter was assigned in someone's literature class in high school.  I wasn't that lucky (I took a more classical route -- Shakespeare, the Greeks, etc.)  but then again, I may not have appreciated it as much as I do now, having just read it. I can see why a lot of readers might be turned off of this book -- the language is on the archaic side (lots of thees, thys and thous) -- but once you get past that hurdle, there is an excellent story here.  It is a dark tale that kept me mesmerized for four days, once completely through the night until the sun came up.  If you've ever had an empty feeling (meaning you wanted more) upon turning the final page, well, that's exactly how I felt when I'd finished. I LOVED this book.  I LOVED Hester Prynne.

Since this plot is so well known, I won't rehash it here.  Once again I happened to choose a novel that has been very well covered in academia, and one which can be examined from several perspectives, including  themes, characters, and symbolism. Go look it up -- there are a huge number of scholarly works on this novel (as well as some pretty awful high school essays to be avoided at all cost).  If you haven't yet figured out my reading raison d'etre,  I move right into the psychology of the individual, especially the darker side of human nature, and this book is a goldmine.

Hester Prynne on the scaffold facing the townsfolk before going back to prison.
The Scarlet Letter is an example of an American romance.  That does not at all mean the Harlequin variety,  but rather it is a way of writing  that deals more with internal truths rather than recreating external ones.  Here's a very brief description:

The term ‘Romance’ is frequently used to talk about a particular type of prose which has been considered as the distinctive voice of American fiction. As opposed to the realistic English novel of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Trollope, Elliot or Thackeray (or Tolstoi, or Balzac, or Galdós for all that matter) the American Romance is more emotional and symbolic, less realistic and less structured than the novel. The protagonists of the Romance are heroic, mythical figures, typically lonely individuals facing dark forces which in some mysterious ways grow out of their deep unconscious selves. Frequently the hero dies in the end. Setting is not used realistically, but as a space that recreates the psychological world of the characters. Hawthorne defined it as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with nature of the other”. Through Romance, a fiction is created to expose the inner truth of a real situation.
In writing this book the way he did, Hawthorne was able to come up with a story set some two centuries in his past, allowing him the freedom to examine how human nature may have functioned under the repressive hand of the Puritans. Here he employs different perspectives to relate his tale; he also, as with other romance writers of his time, uses symbolism in nature to great effect.  His darker thematic concerns include alienation, isolation, and hypocrisy among others, and he does such an excellent job of revealing just how these forces worked on the main characters to make them who they are.

It is truly a shame that so many people dislike this book, because it is seriously one of the best I've had the pleasure to read this year.  If you read it slowly, you will discover that rather than it being "boring" or "a yawn" (as some readers have described it), it  is actually a beautiful and human story that I will never forget as long as I live.  If you read it in high school, you might want to go back and read it again, this time slowly. It is worth every second of time you give to it.  Now I'm hoping I'll find something equally as good from around this time...this book has set the bar.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Say what you will, but at least try to be nice about it.