The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I bought this book twenty years ago, intending to read it then but I’ve just got around to it, I don’t do many things fast. It’s one of those books which always seem to be being mentioned which is why I wanted to read it as I had only a vague idea of what it was about. I’m sure everybody else has read it. The book was first published in 1850 and has been described as a romantic mystery. It is set in 17th century New England.

Hester Prynne is a young married woman whose husband has been absent for many years so when she gives birth to a daughter the powers that be in the American Puritan town in which she lives, decide that she must wear a scarlet letter on her breast as a punishment for the rest of her life. The letter is A for adulterer and Hester could have been condemned to death but instead she has to stand on a wooden platform/scaffold for three hours with her baby daughter, Pearl.

Hester’s misfortune doesn’t get her down and she shows great character in coping with the situation and refusing to divulge the name of Pearl’s father. As she is a talented needlewoman she embroiders her letter A in gold thread, using fancy stitches which gain the admiration of the women of the town.

The mystery is, who is Pearl’s father and is he amongst the observers.

I can’t say I really enjoyed this book because it was obvious who the father was and I was so annoyed that he was such a hypocrite and just left Hester to struggle on on her own. The fact that he had a bit of a guilty conscience didn’t go anywhere close to him redeeming himself. To my way of thinking he was more than a wee bit of a swine.

Poor Hester was not good at choosing men. Her husband, Roger Chillingworth turns up in town just in time to see the spectacle of Hester being shamed but they keep quite about their relationship and when Roger realises who has been ‘keeping company’ with Hester he sets about befriending the culprit with the intention of dosing him up with herbal ‘medicines’.

Anyway, there wouldn’t have been a story if Hester had been a good judge of men and I must admit that I feel a sense of satisfaction that I’ve read it at last. The Scarlet Letter was on my list of 55 classic books to be read within five years or so at A Room of One’s Own.

12 thoughts on “The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. This is one where I could actually “feel” it happening to me — or the potential that it might. A society simply banishing you — how terrible and horrifying. This was set right before the witch burnings started in Salem. The potential women (especially) faced in those days — for scrutiny, banishing, outlawing. They were basically in prison. It’s disgusting and I love that Hawthorne tackled it. Definitely not a cozy read though. 🙂 I don’t think Hawthorne was trying to make the father’s identitity a mystery. I think he assumed the reader would pick him out and wanted you to watch the guy self-combust due to the laws of society and the judgmental faces, and the husband who loved vengeance more than love.

    Congrats on getting this one read! I was pretty proud when I finished it a couple months ago. It was hard to get through in places, but I ultimately liked it. 🙂

    • Jillian,
      Yes, I was puzzled to see it described as a romantic mystery because it’s not how I would describe it. I think it was much the same for women everywhere at that time. ‘Witches’ were fairly often burned in Fife, where I live, but they were generally old women that someone just wanted to get rid of, for their house or land or maybe because they knew too much about something.

      In Scotland people who had ‘loose morals’ had to sit in church and be lectured to on their bad behaviour, men and women were treated the same and of course Robert Burns, who Hawthorne mentions, was quite a regular!

  2. What I remember most clearly from reading this is how Pearl’s father irritated me beyond belief. He is one of the most annoying fictional characters I have ever read about. “Swine” is absolutely right, though a spineless one.

  3. I too have had this book on my shelf for years and not got around to it. I can’t decide if your review makes me want to read it or give it away:) But I suppose I will read it eventually. Hawthorne also wrote ‘The House of Seven Gables’ which I also have and have not read…but I did tour the House of Seven Gables in Salem MA. It was awesome! It’s very hard for me to put down my mysteries long enough to read these kinds of books. But I will try…

      • Peggy Ann,
        Thanks, Scotland in the Gloaming is quite something! Lots of the places in the photos are close to us and there’s even one of Dumbarton Rock. I can’t manage to finish the Guardian cryptic crossword tonight, never mind the Carole’s Chatter ones!

    • Peggy Ann,
      I bought the House of Seven Gables recently, I didn’t realise the house actually existed. I warn you that the first part of Scarlet Letter, which is called Custom House, seems never ending and quite tedious. I thought I was about the last person to read it, and that people in the US might have to read it at school. I think I’m going to read August Folly next.

    • Margaret,
      Honestly I was very tempted to give up because the bit at the beginning is very slow, but it was on my list so I was determined to beat it.

  4. The Scarlet Letter was required reading back in my day. God only knows if they even require any reading any more.

    What was interesting, thinking back on it, is that (a) it was required reading for 15/16 year old teens, given the subject matter and (b)that I can’t recall it being leveraged as any kind of morality lesson.

    Another thought this conversation/rememberance stimulated is that we look back on how awful women were treated back in that age and feel so good about how far we’ve come, yet there are women all over the world who are STILL being treated even worse for the same reasons (and less!) We’ve even had “honor killings” (being done by strict adherents to Sharia) here in the US – google Noor al-Maliki. It’s appalling.

    • Pearl,
      They probably have to read something like John Grisham at school now, my ‘boys’ read Catch 22.

      In the recent past some evangelical preachers seem to have taken the sinning Rev. as a role model!

      We have exactly the same ‘honour killing’ problem here and they also take young daughters on holiday to Pakistan for a holiday and before they know what has happened they are married off to some bloke they don’t know and it’s only discovered because the girls never get back to school here. We’ve recently expanded postal voting here so it’s available to anyone who wants it – with the result that the women from certain cultures are having their votes stolen and used by the men in the family. I could go on and on, but it gets me too mad!

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