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The Classics Companion

I have a (small) obsession with books and tv shows. Proud geek.

The Scarlet Letter (Penguin Classics)

The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nina Baym, Thomas E. Connolly I was first introduced to this by my English teacher, who was (and still is) desperately trying to get me to love American Literature. Before someone has a go at me, I don't hate American Literature. I actually read a lot of it. It's more the typical, heavily American books that frustrate me, where America is so blatantly there that it is almost cliché. Gatsby I'm looking at you. Hence, my slow dislike for idealised American Literature. If it's written by an American author, but it isn't overly obvious that it is set in America, I'm happy. Hence, my absolute adoration for The Scarlett Letter.

I first heard about it from watching Easy A, a rom-com film with Emma Stone in it. It's hilarious, but the whole plot evolves around the wearing of an 'A', as seen in the Scarlett Letter, and the harsh reality of society when it comes to accusations. Essentially, this is the plot for The Scarlett Letter.

The Scarlett Letter focuses on the story of a woman, Hester Prynne, who is labelled as an adulterer for sleeping with a man while married, hence becoming pregnant. Set during the Puritan years of 1642 to 1649, we see Hester Prynne develop into a deep, and emotional character. She is forced to wear a red 'A' on her chest (it, at first stands for Adulterer), hence forcing public humiliation on her as her punishment after being found guilty. We follow her guilt, her acceptance, her love for her daughter, and the daughters growth from ignorance to understanding concerning her mothers status. Pearl, the daughter, is a brilliant character: moody, mischievous but undoubtedly the character that gives us the most interesting insights into the adult characters. She's at the age where she asks pointed questions, not knowing their impact, hence revealing emotions and key plot areas that are gained so innocently.

The forefront of the novel deals with the impact of guilt and sin on someone's life. We witness Hester live with her punishment of continual public humiliation, and you see her struggle to make a respectable life for her and her daughter. This humiliation allows her to get a very strong, and different insight into humanity. Most novels are written from the point of view of a person in the middle of events. The Scarlett Letter shows the power of separation and stigma, and how it can shed new light on society and it's actions/views. Although we feel for Hester Prynne, I felt more sorrow for the elderly Puritan minister, Dimmesdale, who struggles with the sin he has committed. His health rapidly deteriorates as he tries to come to terms with his sin, and we see his desperate attempts to reason with himself: does he tell society in one of his sermons and therefore be free of guilt, or does he live with it, even though it's destroying his health yet keep his positive public image.

If you want to know his sin, you can click on the show/hide button below:


Less so, we see the way society evolves in it's views of things, or more particularly people. Originally, the 'A' on Hester's breast is widely known to mean 'adulterer', but this comes into discrepancy as the novel develops. Through trying to make a better life for her daughter, regardless of her position, the symbolic 'A' becomes increasingly ambiguous. Some people view it as 'angel', due to the good things she's done, some view it as 'Able'. More so, it shows how society's views are meaningless - they are only a social construct.

For me, what made The Scarlett Letter stand out was it's language. It's one of those books where you just sit, read a few pages, and marvel at the beauty of the English language. Hawthorne has a way of writing that is an art form, it is not just a communication device. It is a piece of art. You can tell every word is perfectly placed, whole-heartedly thought about and placed in the exact position it should be. Not only does it have an amazing, heartfelt plot, the language is phenomenal. It's like a whirlwind of beauty, mixed in with a beautiful plot that makes it a truly amazing novel.