After a lost weekend with my nose to my dissertation grindstone, I thought I would write about one of the books I have been spending a lot of time with recently – The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Before deciding to dip my toe into American literature for my Open University Masters, I knew very little about The Scarlet Letter, besides the odd bits I had seen of the dire Demi Moore film at my teenage sleep-overs. However, the blurb had a wonderful quote on it which made me think The Scarlet Letter was going to be right up my street: ‘The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread’. Brilliant!
I will admit that it took me a little while to get into this book. It is not immediately easy, partly because the Puritans themselves seem as dry as my guinea pig’s sawdust – I think that infects some of the prose – but also because the story did not start with our heroine, Hester Prynne, as I had expected, but with a section called ‘The Custom House’. This section serves as a first person introduction by Hawthorne himself to The Scarlet Letter. It has some interesting bits, like his description of his ancestors, his description of romance and his account of how he supposedly found out about Hester Prynne. However, a lot of it is rather tedious descriptions of his work and his colleagues at ‘The Custom House’. I am sure these are rather valuable, historically speaking, but they were a unnecessary distraction for me to be honest.
After I’d hurdled over ‘The Custom House’ though, things improved a lot. Hester Prynne is beautifully described in the first few chapters; the beautiful women with the mysterious child, strongly associated with wild roses, brave and defiant, but also stigmatised. The rest of the story is not only a wonderfully realised recreation of 1640s Boston, but also a sophisticated and though-provoking read. Why does Hester protect the identity of the father of her child? Why does her husband hide his identity? Why does she return to Boston in the end? My mind was a-whirl with questions as I was reading The Scarlet Letter and some of those questions were never answered. The Scarlet Letter is a highly ambiguous book with no easy answers which I respect, like and find frustrating in equal measure! For every fault with this book, like the symbolism which is as subtle as a hammer blow to the head(!), there are many more delights.
Overall, I think this is a book I have come to appreciate the more I have dug beneath the surface and ‘studied’ it. I do find this with some books though, do you? I also think it is a very important book to read for anyone interested in American literature, as it is one of the first ‘American novels’ in my opinion.