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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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21,29621564 (3.39)1 / 630
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)

Romans (13)
  1. 122
    The Crucible by Arthur Miller (SandSing7)
  2. 102
    The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (chrisharpe)
  3. 30
    Elective Affinities by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (LCBrooks)
    LCBrooks: Allows for interesting comparisons on the subject of double marriage.
  4. 10
    Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton (aulsmith)
    aulsmith: Sex and guilt in Calvinist cultures.
  5. 21
    The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (chrisharpe, kxlly)
  6. 10
    Elsie Venner A Romance of Destiny, Part One by Oliver Wendell Holmes (Midnightdreary)
    Midnightdreary: Similar exploration of the question of sin, inherited or otherwise.

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English (207)  Spanish (3)  French (2)  Dutch (2)  Italian (1)  All languages (215)
Showing 1-5 of 207 (next | show all)
I somehow managed to avoid being assigned The Scarlet Letter in high school, but since it is such a well-known text (and frequently cited as one of the most important works of early American literature) I decided that I should give it a read.

My problems with the book started early with the unnecessarily long establishment of a frame narrative. Hawthorne uses the first forty pages of the book largely to discuss life as an employee in a Customs house, something which has no discernible connection to the main story (if there had been such a connection, I'm sure Hawthorne would have pointed it out). There's nothing wrong with a frame narrative, but the same effect could have been accomplished in a tenth the number of pages. This problem reoccurs throughout the text.

The next issue I had manifested immediately after the main story proper starts, when it is revealed that Hawthorne has decided to begin the narrative after the most interesting events have already occurred. Hawthorne paints as best he can a picture of a Puritanical society where religion comes first, and a main character who is supposed to be no pushover. Depicting how a woman like Hester deals with the feelings that she develops for her minister in such a world is potentially fascinating, and provides a way of showing the conflict between personal and societal values, but instead whatever occurred in Hester's mind that led her to the most central (albeit undepicted) event of the narrative is never disclosed.

Instead of an interesting character study we get an opening that offers a quick glimpse of the scorn the people of Boston heap onto sinners, which would also have been an interesting path for the narrative to take- the suffering inflicted upon a woman by others in service of a faith that emphasizes love and forgiveness- but the story quickly jumps forward in Hester's life to a point where the village has largely grown to accept her because of her pious actions (and it is even stated that her ostensible ignominy has led to her skills with a needle being more highly sought after).

The story's opening also introduces Hester's husband, a character who paradoxically is perfectly forgiving of Hester for cheating on him but who then devolves into a mustache-twirling villain for the rest of the text. His evil plan mainly seems to center around giving his target, the minister, very effective medical care mixed with subtle suggestions that the minister isn't a great person- bwa ha ha ha! The husband also represents a wasted narrative opportunity, as instead of exploring the way the husband uncovers who has cuckolded him, the story just chalks it up to the husband being insightful.

There are other problems with the story telling- Pearl is not in any way a realistic or interesting child character, the minister suddenly turns evil for a few pages for no sufficiently good reason, etc.- but the most central flaw of The Scarlet Letter is that Hester, who should be a dynamic female character, is instead relegated to a largely passive figure who goes about suffering her punishment with a stiff upper lip and swallowing the pain caused by everyone, including her child. One wonders how Hester ever had the nerve to engage in a relationship with her minister when it takes her seven years to even tell said minister that the man living with him and feeding him mysterious mixtures is her husband out for revenge. In a story ostensibly about her, Hester is flat and boring, occasionally blaming herself for her lot and otherwise not doing much besides serving as a quiet, suffering martyr, though there is an incongruous line about her feeling jealousy.

All of this is exacerbated by Hawthorne's prose, which is overwritten without painting much imagery or communicating anything with subtlety. I found little beauty in the language, even when the subject was rosebushes, a dell in the woods where a young girl plays in a stream, or the various costumes of the sailors and soldiers assembled in the town square. The latter example highlights how Hawthorne's book would have been better with some serious cuts: he describes at length the various groups attending the Election Day gathering despite the fact that he doesn't do it in an interesting manner and it is of no import for the story. At times my eyes glazed over reading this book, and it quickly became a struggle to force myself to go back and actually read the words, as the odds that I had missed anything important seemed slim.

In sum The Scarlet Letter squanders the parts of its narrative that were potentially interesting, contains characters that are either boring, unrealistic, or nonsensical, and all this is communicated through some truly sub-par writing. My heart goes out to all the high school students who are being forced to read this, and to those who have to teach it as well. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
I tried reading this on my own years back and didn't get past the Custom House, yet wanting to read more. In English class, when my teacher gave us the opportunity to select a classic American novel to read and The Scarlet Letter was on the list, it really wasn't difficult to decide on a book. Although I anticipated reading The Scarlet Letter, I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did, much less become one of my favorite books. Basically, the story is about a young woman named Hester Prynne living in Boston back when it was run by the Puritans and still a town, not a city. Hester commits adultery and bears a child with her paramour, and even though the church authorities try to get her to give up the identity of her lover, Hester refuses. For her crime, Hester is forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her chest as a visual reminder of her sin for the rest of her life to ostracize her from everyone she meets. However, Hester takes this punishment and makes it beautiful with her talent at embroidery, redemption being an important motif in the book.

Hester starts her life anew as a mother of her daughter, Pearl, and is charitable and a good member of society, however, in spite of her good deeds, she is always an entity unto herself never fully joining society again. Pearl, her daughter, is essentially a bastard child and not integrated with the other children in Boston for her free spirit and more importantly, her origin. Through all of these troubles in her life, Hester has a sense of dignity and grace that is so surprising given her circumstances.

Another facet of this marvelous story us the love triangle between Hester, Roger Chillingworth, and Arthur Dimmesdale. Chillingworth is Hester's husband who was believed to be lost at sea but comes back to Boston to find Hester being punished for adultery. Dimmesdale is a popular young pastor in town, and more importantly, Hester's spiritual adviser and lover. At the beginning of the novel, Chillingworth visits Hester in prison and makes her promise to not reveal to anyone that he is her husband so that he can wreak revenge on Hester's lover. Hester does not give up her lover's identity, but promises to keep Chillingworth's secret. Dimmesdale being very sickly, hires Chillingworth as his physician, and Chillingworth realizes Dimmesdale's identity and begins not just learning all about the minister, but really working into Dimmesdale's heart and implanting a sense of guilt in him that doesn't just weaken Dimmesdale physically, but emotionally since his guilt for being righteous to the public but a sinner in the eyes of God is slowly killing him. This is insight into the human heart is, for me, what makes The Scarlet Letter a truly memorable novel.

I highly recommend The Scarlet Letter to anyone sixteen or older. The language, although it may be somewhat archaic, is worth deciphering for the unbelievable story Hawthorne tells so masterfully. The symbolism of light and dark, color, and even religious comparisons make The Scarlet Letter not just a tale of morality, but a tale of the human condition, and one that everyone should read at least once. Please read The Scarlet Letter. I hope that not only will you come to love it as I have, but see why this masterpiece truly deserves the title of American classic. ( )
  literarybuff | Dec 8, 2014 |
This book is about a woman who has just been released from prison after being charged for adultery. She has to wear the letter "A" on her as her punishment so everyone will know. The story carries on to her being pregnant and explaining what happens to her and the baby within the next seven years.
Teach how to not pass judge anyone without getting to know them. Not caving into what society wants.

High School ( )
  hatease | Nov 30, 2014 |
A young woman is branded and made an outcast by her community. This book address the stereotype, and her struggle to overcome society's criticism.
Age: 8th grade and up (according to School LIbrary Journal)
Source: Puyallup Public Library
  amandapanda613 | Nov 24, 2014 |
Hawthorne creates a very strong female character in Hester Prynne, but her male characters are either weak or vile. I loved this book in high school and college, and loved it again this time, but read it from a different perspective than I think I did so much earlier in my life. Recommended. ( )
  whymaggiemay | Oct 28, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 207 (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
Nathaniel Hawthorneprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Baym, NinaIntroductionsecondary 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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:04:49 -0400)

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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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