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The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter (original 1850; edition 1961)

by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Maxwell Geismar (Afterword)

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21,93223160 (3.39)1 / 661
Title:The Scarlet Letter
Authors:Nathaniel Hawthorne
Other authors:Maxwell Geismar (Afterword)
Info:Washington Square Press, Inc., New York,
Collections:Your library
Tags:fiction, literature, American literature, 19th century

Work details

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

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Showing 1-5 of 221 (next | show all)
Let me just say it: “I dislike Hawthorne.” I was bored by “The House of the Seven Gables” and somehow never had “The Scarlet Letter” inflicted on me in high school (maybe that’s why I didn’t grow up hating literature like a lot of kids who are forced to read the novel). However, because it’s been languishing on my bucket list of classics I’ve never managed to read, I decided to get it over with once and for all. Mercifully, it’s only about 250 pages.

The lack of action and meaningful character development coupled with a hand-wringing narrative style worked better to send me off to sleep at night than the ocean waves on my $25 sound machine. The mind-numbing introductory sketch (“The Custom House”) is a good example. Although it provides some biographical insight into Hawthorne, it has almost nothing to do with the story. The novel itself is the familiar “fallen woman” story, in this instance with only 3 characters to worry about: Hester Prynne (said “fallen woman” who has borne the child Pearl out of wedlock), Arthur Dimmesdale (the hypocritical clergyman who fathered the child and does most of the hand-wringing in the book) and Roger Chillingworth (the aged wronged husband who has returned from abroad and is set on revenge). As is well-known, the setting is the Puritan settlement of the 1630’s in the Boston area. The Puritans had a pretty narrow view of things and were intolerant of anyone whose behavior didn’t align with their moral compass. In our society today, where somewhere between 40 and 50% of children are born to unmarried couples, it’s hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Likewise, it is difficult to find any sympathy for Dimmesdale. It took him entirely too long to own up to his paternity of Pearl. Chillingworth also was hard to swallow. The wronged husband wheedles his way into becoming Dimmesdale’s personal physician and sneaks around trying to destroy the clergyman’s health in obscure ways using medicinal plants. Today, he’d just grab some DNA from Dimmesdale’s toothbrush and be off to the lab. And, Hester – why didn’t she just rip the stupid scarlet letter off her dress? Okay, maybe the Puritans would have taken umbrage, but was that the only dress she had? Couldn’t she have worn her yoga pants when she was home alone with Pearl? If not, didn’t she need backup scarlet letters for all of her clothes? She was a talented seamstress, wasn’t she? Seriously, at least Heather is a sympathetic character – a strong woman who protected the identity of her spineless lover and carried on the best she could under intolerable circumstances. If there’s a good scene in the book (one in which the characters become people the reader can actually care about), it’s the episode (“The Pastor and His Parishioner”) where Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest, confront their situation and plan their escape. Of course, in the end, nothing comes of it. We could discuss the symbolism of the book at length, but I need to get working on my bucket list – now where did I put “Moby Dick?” ( )
  sdibartola | Aug 10, 2015 |
I'll admit that this book was too hard for me in 11th grade. I used it mostly to learn about 50 vocabulary words, but after reading the Cliff's Notes, I actually loved the story and wish I could have comprehended it on my own. ( )
  engpunk77 | Aug 10, 2015 |
[From Books and You, Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1940, pp. 83-86:]

I am bound to confess, however, that on rereading The Scarlet Letter for my present purpose the profit and pleasure I gained were of a limited character. I see no harm in putting things in their proper place, and I must point out to you that the last forty years have seen the rise in America of at least half a dozen much better novelists than Hawthorne ever was. It is only prejudice and the fact that they are alive and in our midst that can blind us to it. But The Scarlet Letter is a famous romance, and it has been read, I suppose, by every American who has read anything at all. For my part I found the introduction, entitled The Custom House, more interesting than the tale. It has charm, lightness and humour. The first thing you ask of a novel is that you should believe it; if you feel instinctively that the characters do not behave with ordinary common sense the spell is broken and the novelist has lost his hold on you. Now, Hawthorne early in his narrative was faced with a difficulty; a reason had to be found why Hester Prynne, free to go anywhere, should decide to remain in the place where the humiliation to which she had been exposed must make her life intolerable; and he found it naturally enough in her love for Arthur Dimmesdale, which was so great that she preferred, notwithstanding the attendant shame, to remain where he was. But Hawthorne did not face a much greater difficulty, for if he had he could never have written the story he did: the facts of life were not unknown to the Puritans, who were as practical as they were pious, and no stork brought the baby to a Hester who never suspected that such an even was in prospect. It is incredible that she should not have gone to some distant place to be secretly delivered of her child, and if the lovers could not bear to be separated, it is hard to understand why, since on a later occasion they had no difficulty in arranging to sail back to Europe together, they should not have adopted such an obvious course when the occasion was so much more urgent. For all they knew Roger Chillingworth was dead and, like Benjamin Franklin with the respectable Miss Read a century later, they could have effected a common-law marriage.

Hawthorne did not posses the gift of creating living characters; Roger Chillingworth is merely a bundle of malignancies, not a human being, and Hester is but a fine piece of statuary. The Reverend Mr Dimmesdale comes to life only when, the pair having finally decided on flight, he is anxious to know the precise time at which the vessel on which they propose to sail may be expected to depart. He has composed his Election Sermon and is unwilling not to deliver it. That is a nice and human touch.

It is not then for its story that I would have you read The Scarlet Letter and if you have done so already to read it again, but for the impressive quality of its language. Hawthorne formed his style on the great writers of the eighteenth century. Such a phrase as: “there was never in his heart so much cruelty as would have brushed the down off a butterfly’s wing” might well have been written by Sterne, and he would have been pleased with it. Hawthorne had a delicate ear and great skill in the construction of an elaborate phrase. He could write a sentence half a page long, rich with subsidiary clauses, that was resonant, balanced and crystal-clear. He could be splendid and various. His prose had the sober opulence of a Gothic tapestry, but under restraint of his taste it never became turgid or monotonous. His metaphors were significant, his similes apt, and his vocabulary fitting to his matter. Fashions come and go in literature and it may well be that the hairy-chested, rough-neck prose which is favour today will in the future lose its vogue. It may be that readers will ask for a more formal, a more distinguished way of writing; authors then will be glad to learn from Hawthorne how to manage a sentence of more than half a dozen words, how to combine dignity with lucidity, and how without pedantry to please both the eye and the ear.
  WSMaugham | Jun 20, 2015 |
I read this one mostly in short chunks on my phone over couple of months, which is not really ideal. I thought the story was slow to start, and I expected to have more about Hester directly than the book actually has. ( )
  queen_ypolita | Jun 20, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 221 (next | show all)
No one who has taken up the Scarlet Letter will willingly lay it down till he has finished it; and he will do well not to pause, for he cannot resume the story where he left it. He should give himself up to the magic power of the style, without stopping to open wide the eyes of his good sense and judgment, and shake off the spell; or half the weird beauty will disappear like a dissolving view. To be sure, when he closes the book, he will feel very much like the giddy and bewildered patient who is just awaking from his first experiment of the effects of sulphuric ether. The soul has been floating or flying between earth and heaven, with dim ideas of pain and pleasure strangely mingled, and all things earthly swimming dizzily and dreamily, yet most beautiful, before the half shut eye. That the author himself felt this sort of intoxication as well as the willing subjects of his enchantment, we think, is evident in many pages of the last half of the volume. His imagination has sometimes taken him fairly off his feet.

» Add other authors (106 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hawthorne, Nathanielprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baym, NinaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Coetzee, J. M.Introductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Connolly, Thomas E.Editorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dwiggins, W AIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Francisco, SellénTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gibson, FloNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harding, BrianEditorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hill, DickNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Marx, LeoForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Wauters, AnnieNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.
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Book description
The Scarlet Letter is about a woman who is an outcast in her community due to her child outside of her marriage. It is the story of her life and the life of her child as they are scorned for their sin while the father looks on blameless. This story is about dealing with guilt and seclusion.

I had heard this story for a while. My father always brought up the "A" that was sewn into Hester's dresses. And I think the story-line is really interesting, but I just didn't really like it. There were whole chapters that I felt were pointless. It was just a really slow read.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553210092, Mass Market Paperback)

Hailed by Henry James as "the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country," Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter reaches to our nation's historical and moral roots for the material of great tragedy. Set in an early New England colony, the novel shows the terrible impact a single, passionate act has on the lives of three members of the community: the defiant Hester Prynne; the fiery, tortured Reverend Dimmesdale; and the obsessed, vengeful Chillingworth.

With The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne became the first American novelist to forge from our Puritan heritage a universal classic, a masterful exploration of humanity's unending struggle with sin, guilt and pride.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:25:14 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Hester Prynne, a young wife in colonial New England, is sentenced to wear a scarlet "A" on her clothing, as a public acknowledgement of her sin of adultery.

(summary from another edition)

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3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0142437263, 0143105442, 0141199458

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