I’ve finished the first book of my reading challenge. One of my New Year’s resolutions a year or two ago was to go back and read some of the ‘classics’ that I missed in high school and college. One such book was The Scarlet Letter.
Reading books written 150 years ago requires me to slow down, to concentrate. I liken it to reading a book in a second language; a language of which I am familiar & fluent, yet it is not my first language, so I have to stop and consider the meanings of the various words and phrases. The style of the writing is such that I could hardly slog through the introductory chapter, The Custom House. I confess that I read the first half, then skimmed the rest. Then I got to the meat of the book, the story of Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Dr. Chillingworth. If you don’t know the story, and you don’t want to, skip the rest of this post, because there will be spoilers.
Hester is a young woman in Boston, circa 1649. She is married to the much older Chillingworth, who came to the colonies on a later voyage than Hester. He has not yet been seen in Boston, and because it has been over 2 years since she last saw him, and he can’t phone or IM, he is presumed to be dead.
Arthur Dimmesdale is a Puritan minister, one who is terribly popular with his congregation, for he is young and handsome and his sermons hold so much feeling, they are said to be so beautiful that they save souls.
When we join the story, Hester is completing the jail sentence for her crime. What crime, you may ask? Though she has not seen her husband in over 2 years, she has just given birth to a baby girl, named Pearl. Upon her release from prison, Hester is condemned first to stand on a platform in the center of the village, holding her baby and wearing a scarlet letter “A”, identifying her to all as an adulterer. She will be required to wear this scarlet “A” for the rest of her life. In the midst of her shame, she spies the man she had assumed dead, Dr. Chillingworth. He urges her to keep his identity secret, and seems to forgive her somewhat for her transgression. He does not, however, forgive her paramour, and wishes to seek his revenge. Hester will not reveal the identity of Pearl’s father.
Arthur Dimmesdale is tortured by a deep secret. He has committed a sin so great that he fears his soul has no chance of ascending to heaven, and if this sin were discovered, the punishment would be death. Though he might prefer death to the slow torture of his guilty conscience, he feels that he has much work to accomplish here on Earth, through his sermons, so he does not confess his sin.
Have I spoiled the story for you? This is but chapter 1 of the tale. Hawthorne’s glimpse into the mores and customs of the Puritans is a fascinating, if slow, read. If you’ve not yet read it, I highly recommend that you do.
Note 1…I found myself interested in renting the movie version with Demi Moore, but when I read that in the film, they don’t ever succumb to temptation, I gave up that idea. Where is the main story, without little Pearl as the incarnation of that big red ‘A’? And the cover made it look as though there might be some steamy scenes in the film, which is never the case in the book. There was a public television mini series released in 1979 that I thought of renting, but that’s 4 hours. Ouch.
Note 2…Because Hawthorne and his ancestors are from early Salem, as were some of mine, I was curious to learn whether we might be distant cousins. Alas, I could find no connection. So he doesn’t get added to the list.