Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance

Wait... "A Romance"?
Yes, that is the subtitle Nathaniel Hawthorne gives to his magnum opus. I know what you're thinking: "A romance among the Puritans? This is going to be about as grotesque as a Russian luau."  Now, before you go complaining that I'm insulting Russians, let me point out that I thoroughly enjoy their food, music, novels, ballet, folk tales, fur hats and Faberge eggs. I just don't see them as embodying the aloha spirit.  In the same way, the plain, somber, gray-clothed Puritans aren't the first people who come to mind when you want to read about a vibrant and undying loooove.  >insert googly eyes here< Perhaps this is why The Scarlet Letter sat on my shelf for 12 years with nary a peek from me.  I thought it would be dour and depressing, what with all the "Sinner!" and "Evildoer!" finger pointing.

That is where I was wrong. I humbly repent, in the most literary way possible.  I will admit that I suffered through the first half, as did the main characters.  That section focused a lot on Hester's de facto shunning by the community, which was very puritanical (how fitting, I know), and the plot came across as heavy-handed with overly repetitive allusions.  But the book in its entirety turned out to be a very interesting exploration of many themes, including sin, legalism and guilt.

In the latter half, we see how Hester's development as a human has taken her far beyond the Puritan settlement.  To couch it in Puritan terms, although they view her as an outcast and sinner, she has become more Christlike than any of them.  The minister, however, is still wracked with guilt and we see the contrast between how these two people have dealt with their unacceptable behavior. We also see Chillingworth develop from a husband wronged into the worst sinner in the community.

I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in a discussion of social and religious themes.  The plot moves slowly but there is character development, albeit from the narrator's point of view.  What I mean by this is that there isn't a lot of dialogue or monologue coming from the characters.  The narrator explains what the characters are thinking, feeling and doing.  Don't give up on the book if you find it initially distasteful, either.  After chapter viii, you will not be bludgeoned repeatedly with the community's view of Hester. (Not as much, anyway)  It is also intriguing to read this book in view of Hawthorne's internal conflict between his Puritan ancestry and his distaste for that religious sect.  Although he disapproved of his gloomy ancestors' religious persuasion, he felt a real connection to the town of Salem and a strong sense of his place in New England.  This comes through in the novel's end, as the protagonist eventually returns to the town of Salem despite her treatment by its inhabitants.  We can imagine that Hawthorne would have done the same thing.

Best contrast: between the marketplace and the forest
Most conflicted character: Dimmesdale
Most surreal character: Pearl
Favorite short quote: "It is remarkable, that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society."   [There are a few excellent sections which are too long to feature here.]
This book makes you want to: wander contemplatively through the forest, meet the author
This book makes you glad you don't have to: endure legalistic piety, sew your own clothes
Sense of place: 9 out of 10

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