The Scarlet Letter

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.

17 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter

  1. This is a good book! I had to read it in high school, and of course, we studied every word, phrase, paragraph and symbol. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, and am glad you did also.

  2. It’s a good story, but you’re right about it being a difficult read. The only time I read that book was in high school, and it was one of those books that finally sparked my interest in reading. Moby Dick and East of Eden were the other heavy hitters!

  3. I have to admit that I haven’t read the Scarlet Letter. Yes, I know…….I’m way behind the times. :) That’s cool that you are related to so many famous people! I wonder who I’m related to….

  4. I saw the movie and it was trash. What sticks out in my mind is that as the credits are rolling, it says “loosely based” on the book. I think they even live happily ever after. Hollywood sucks.

  5. I love that you’re doing this! Every summer I try to read at least one classic that I missed or don’t remember – Lord of the Flies, Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird which is now my favorite. I’ve never been disappointed.

  6. I never saw the Demi version, but in school we watched the mini-series after we read the book. I recall really enjoying the mini-series but I’m pretty sure we spread it out over a week.

    I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  7. I’m really glad you are doing this. The Scarlet Letter gives such a glimpse into another time and place, it seems so foreign to us on one level, and so exactly, humanly us on another. I read it in high school and it broadened my perspective.

  8. I recently reread Jane Eyre. Still as good as the last time. Some classics are classics for a reason. Others…
    If you have time read Jane Eyre.

  9. Ginger, my first thought was, I’ve read Jane Eyre…my second was that it’s probably been close to 15 years, maybe more, since I did. Maybe time to pick it up again. :)

    Mom 101…I read To Kill a Mockingbird on this same New Year’s Resolution. I loved it. Loved the movie, too. Sad, sad, sad, though. I read the Great Gatsby in HS, and I don’t remember being terribly impressed. The symbolism was great, but the story didn’t get me. Maybe it’s time to try that one over again. Haven’t read Lord of the Flies. ;)

    Autumn’s Mom, you made me glad I didn’t get the Demi Moore version. Seems like it truly sucked.

    Cherry, Maybe I’ll get the PBS version and watch it an hour at a time over winter break…or since Ted and Maya go to bed so early, I could watch it an hour a night, if they’re not interested. Hmmmm. Or I could just enjoy having read the book.

    Mom, I agree, it was so interesting to see the different perspective that time has brought…and to note that Hawthorne had a very different perspective as well.

    ML, it might be fun to read in a class…I was thinking as I was reading it that I know I’m missing a ton of symbolism here, but I didn’t want to go and do the research. :)

    Beenzzz, give it a shot. You won’t regret it.

    Py, it only took a few great classics to turn you from not really reading books into quite the reader, huh? They’ll do that, I guess. :) I haven’t read Moby Dick or East of Eden, but E of E is on my list…maybe after I finish this reading challange. ;)

    Gina, I’m glad you love Hawthorne. Have you read any of his other work?

  10. I fell in love with “The Scarlet Letter” all over again when my oldest son read it for sophomore English. I really found it to be quite entertaining. Have you ever read Hawthorne’s story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”?

  11. I’m almost embarrassed to admit I have never read “The Scarlet Letter”, especially as everyone seems to have read it in High School, but your review makes me want to give it a whirl. There’s a Classics Challenge coming up, perhaps I’ll read it then. Thanks, J.

  12. p.s.

    You are so right to liken reading a classic to reading in a second language…it always takes just that little more effort, but in the end it’s quite rewarding.

  13. hey! i think i commented about this book right when you put your list up. I’m glad you liked it! it was really hard to read but the story was fascinating. And as much as I like to say that I look for the “deeper meaning” in books, let’s face it…we all enjoy a straight up good story every once in a while!

  14. Your description that reading the old classics is similar to reading in a foreign language was beautiful. I loved The Scarlet Letter when I read it so many years ago. What a horrible period in which to live.

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