Friday, October 23, 2009

The Reading List: The Scarlet Letter

It must have been a work of vast ability in the somniferous school of literature.
-- p. 142

The Scarlet Letter is an gloomy, slow-moving, and arguably overwritten tale about sin, stigma, remorse, and social judgement. Like a classic opera, it revolves around five central characters:

Hester: Her husband hasn't been seen in years, and yet she's just had a baby. That adds up to bad news in Puritan Boston, so she's condemned to wear a Scarlet "A" on her chest so that the good Christians of the town will remember to scorn and mock her. She turns into a defiant loner. We are told that she is generous and kind to the unfortunate, but never actually see her in the act.

Pearl: Hester's daughter. Hawthorne is continually in raptures about wonderful elven Pearl, wild, free, sharp, and spirited. This is in contrast to her actions, however, which reveal her as kind of a pain in the butt.

[Spoilers follow for the next few paragraphs, kind of.]

The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale: At first, it seems like the book has an incredibly poorly kept surprise in store: that the Reverend had something to do with Pearl's mysterious conception! But at some point, Hawthorne just begins writing as though we've known it all along. We have, of course, but I do not recall ever actually being told. Maybe I missed a page or something. The Reverend is of course wracked with guilt for his terrible sin, and over the seven years of the book is in a steep physical decline.

The Husband, Roger Chillingworth: Thought lost at sea years ago, he awkwardly shows up just as Hestor is being pilloried. Sizing up the situation, he decides to do what any thoughtful person of good judgement would: remain incognito, figure out who the father is, and become his roommate.

The Puritan Society: Embodied by any number of cameo representatives, the Puritan Society is the villain of the book. It hypocritically shuns Hester, lets Pearl (who is obnoxious, but innocent by any standard) take the collateral shunning, embroils the Reverend in an unresolvable crisis, and provides the cover for the Husband to be a grade-A jerk.

So that's the set-up for our drama, which consists for much of the book of Hester remaining proud despite the scorn of her neighbors and of the Reverend gradually cracking up. Eventually, they meet in the primeval wilderness outside of town to see if they can figure a way out of their plight. The plot begins to move a little in the final quarter, as a plan is hatched and complications ensue.

But Why Is It Classic?

Vida, casting a vote back when The Reading List was was being assembled, suggested that "The Scarlet Letter is great, but not one of those 'can’t put it down' books." I agree wholeheartedly. It is not by any means badly written, and although the style is a touch heavy-handed it is not especially difficult reading. It has passages of considerable grace and occasional wit. Yet at the end of a chapter one is not dragged helplessly onward, and once put down the book does not cry out to be picked up again. It took me several weeks to get through it, but only because I read three or four more engaging books in the interim.

Now doubtless there are any number of websites just itching to tell me why The Scarlet Letter is the best book ever, but I wish that as an educated amateur reader I could suss it out for myself. But no such luck. My instinct tells me that Scarlet Letter is much ado about relatively little, a short story's worth of soap opera that has been filled out to novel length by a narrator who would just as soon deliver pronouncements as develop his tale.*

My best guess is that the novel is well-regarded because it is either (1) a fairly clear-eyed look, for 1850, at the American past, and/or (2) a "psychological" novel. As a historical novel, Scarlet Letter is reasonably impressive. Hawthorne was writing in a country that was still far from comfortable with its own national identity, and yet he takes a pretty broad swipe at the received mythology of pilgrims, founding fathers, and the like. The psychology of the novel, on the other hand, feels a bit overwraught to me, though, and if anyone really is congratulating Hawthorne for his insights into human conciousness, I'd have to point out that he's writing a good three decades after Jane Austen and doesn't seem to have an equivalent grasp of human behavior.

As with most other novels, it would be shooting fish in a barrel to write a sophomore lit paper claiming that The Scarlet Letter is "really about" the dichotomy of nature and culture, but we'll leave that idea to the sophomores I think.

Looking for a hint, I checked out the back flap, a place where publishers traditionally try to line up the strongest arguments for you to read, or at least purchase, their product. Here's what I found, in its entirety:
"[The Scarlet Letter's] Hester was the creation of someone who loved Woman, saw her, as Verdi did, as necessarily tragic and alone, but emotionally sacred in a diminished world... Hester is the only character in the book big enough to sustain a conflict -- with the harsh Puritan world -- equal to Hawthorne's own. In a book without heroes, Hester is a unique literary heroine." -- From the Introduction by Alfred Kazin
Huh. I'm guessing the book jacket designer has since lost her job. And if this has something to do with what underlies The Scarlet Letter's enduring presence on the cultural map, I'd have to dissent. I don't know who "Woman" is, and I don't know what "emotionally sacred in a diminished world" might mean, but I can say with confidence that Hester is by no means a "big" character. To the extent that she's developed, it would be fair to call her smart, resourceful, stubborn, and strong, and one hell of a seamstress to boot. But she's hardly a vividly drawn or especially memorable character; she simply isn't given enough to do in the novel to render her so.

Enlighten Me!

In sum, The Scarlet Letter seems a representative piece of good-quality Nineteenth Century fiction. It's fine. But, why all the fuss? Why has it endured? What qualities of excellence, overlooked by me, landed it on the short-list of name-brand classics? Discuss.

Link: A good discussion of The Scarlet Letter at Amateur Reader's "Wuthering Expectations."

* But this from a reader who considers the technical chapters of Moby Dick (an otherwise fabulous book) to be pointless, self-indulgent digressions that should have been (and perhaps still should be) excised to the novel's benefit by a good editor. So I might not be your go-to guy for 19th Century American letters.


Rebel said...

yeah..... you are forbidden from reading Gone with the Wind - you just won't get it.

I wasn't overly thrilled with the Scarlet Letter, but it is a story that stuck with me well after I read it, and I believe I went back and read it a second time long after HS. But I like emotional, "overwrought" if you will, psychological novels.

The Calico Cat said...

It's made a hell of a good movie though... (I have never even attempted to read it.)

DrSchnell said...

Gotta disagree with Calico Cat - the movie version (at least the version with Demi Moore from sometime in the mid-90s) sticks in my head as one of my least-favorite movies that I've ever seen. Maybe there's other good versions out there...

Elaine said...

Keep in mind that Nathaniel's forebear, Judge Hathorne (Natty added the W himself) presided at the Salem witch trials....a grisly chapter in the history of the Puritan movement and Massachusetts colonies, not to mention family heritage. Nathaniel Hawthorne, therefore, was very concerned with guilt, shame, and the effects these have. Hester's career--detailed at the end, not illustrated in prose during the narrative--included her caring for and counseling many troubled souls, partly because her "sin" made her approachable, and her suffering had made her sympathetic. The "Scarlet Letter" became part of the family's coat of arms and a symbol of pride--hardly what had originally been the intent.

I think this novel is usefully read in company-- with a good leader/teacher--but otherwise is not going to be valued. However, aside from's a significant work of American Literature, and you HAVE TO read it, dammit! or you ain't educated. Or so i was told.

mrs.5000 said...

The Scarlet Letter kinda failed to grab me when we read it in high school and when I listened to it on tape this summer. I can't say I DISliked it. Rebel's word "overwrought" intrigues me, because it seems overwrought and underwrought at the same time. Makes me think of that lost pasttime, tableaux vivants, those carefully composed but motionless scenes people apparently once found so compelling.

fingerstothebone said...

I haven't read The Scarlet Letter (I was always in remedial English in HS), but I am just now reading Wuthering Heights (I didn't go to JHS in this country, so missed this one too). I have to say that I find both Catherine and Heathcliff rather tedious and odious and do not care much for their brand of passion or romance. I hope it all ends soon.

Ah yeah, and the above spam does appear to be from Taiwan. Again.

Elaine said...


WUthering Heights was never required reading, but a lot of 8th grade girls did read it in my day. Now--doubt anyone does! It is a "Gothic" novel, written of course by a very sheltered and uninformed young woman. _Jane Eyre,_ however has some painfully realistic portrayals of the boarding schools endured by the Bronte sisters (and of the tasks and dreams of being governess, one of the few gainful employments open to young women of "good family.") I think WHts could be considered the "Endless Love" of its time.....

Aviatrix said...

I heartily agree with you about Moby Dick. Once upon a time I made a list of classic works of literature that everyone alludes to, and tried to read them, but that plan ground to a halt with Moby Dick.

I submit that The Scarlet Letter (which I haven't read either) did so well because it was about sex. It's only about implied sex, but you had to take what you could get in the 19th century. The most interesting thing you've told me about the book is the idea of the poorly kept secret that you are never told, just know. It sounds like it could be worked into that sophomoric essay as a metaphor for Puritan society.

d said...

jane austen had 'good' insight into the human condition? i agree with fingers. very tedious. but i didn't really like 'scarlet letter' either.

Jennifer said...

I, um, responded to this thread a little more thoroughly than would actually probably be polite to post as a comment, so anybody so inclined can check it out elsewhere:

mrs.5000 said...

@fingers: I can't remember much about Wuthering Heights, except that "tedious" and "odious" certainly ring a bell. I liked Jane Eyre, so concluded that Charlotte was the truly deserving sister of the Brontes. It's easy to imagine you in the Jane Austen camp (bustling and campy camp though it seems these days).

boo said...

I like his short stories better because they do highlight what he did so well. The Scarlet Letter is a drawn out version. I hated it in high school but loved it later when I was a sophomore in college. It's one of those books where a body can finally use some of analytical skills and not just read about others doing it. All the excitement of finding things in it does overpower the objectivity a bit.

There are good drinking games with Hawthorne and symbolism but they don't play as well with this book. You can get wasted on Ethan Brand though. Just saying.

Your Chillingworth description made me laugh.

Michael5000 said...

It looks like frequently L&TM5K reader Jennifer has written a whole post of her own in response to this post.

@fingers: In my life, anyway, Wuthering Heights was more of a university thing than a junior high thing. I liked it a lot, but it was the only fiction in my diet at the time so it may have had some positive bias. (Just as an aside, it's hard to imagine you in remedial anything.)

Jenners said...

I think you said it in your post somewhere ... the part about making commentary about Pilgrims or soemthing. Yeah...that's it. I read for my own enjoyment and I don't think classics have to be boring. well-written = well-written. Good story = good story. Perhaps this was the first of a kind for a certain type of book.

fingerstothebone said...

@Mrs5000 -- yes, Jane Austen camp for me! Sparkling over brooding any day.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Mark van Doren thought that The Scarlet Letter was valuabvle exactly because of Hawthorne's insightful understanding of Puritanism, so there's precedent, however preposterous. That Kazin stuff is insane. Is it better in context?

Are you sure you want to dismiss Hawthorne's psychological understanding because it's not the equal of Jane Austen's? Because that wipes out pretty much everyone who came after her! Who's left standing - Tolstoy, maybe Proust?

Hawthorne's characters are psychological reduced, like a wine sauce. A lot of their humanity has been boiled away, so they're not quite real anymore, but what's left is concentrated.

The plot, similarly. There are so few episodes, but the big ones (Chapter 12, on the pillory, or the forest scene) are packed with meaning.

One more thing - it's a little too easy to talk about symbolism in The Scarlet Letter. The novel is actually about symbols, and the meanings we attach to them. So there are at least a couple of layers to work with, one for the high school students, a more complex one for later.

Michael5000 said...

@A.R.: Thanks for stopping by. I think the notion of SL being "about symbols" might have helped me find more interest in it. It also makes me wonder if the semiotics crowd ever payed special attention to it.

It's true, it's tough to beat Jane Austen's for precise observations of how people think and act. But at the same time, the restricted social world that her characters move in is something of a hothouse setting. I feel that many subsequent writers, not even necessarily the best of them, have brought back deeper [a word for which, even as I use it, I hate myself for using] insights by taking their characters out of the lab and into the wider world.

As for the Introduction, I habitually avoid forewords on the way in because I am stubborn and don't like to have my opinion colored in advance. In this case I wasn't inclined, having read the back cover, to read the Introduction afterwards, either.