Book #25

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne's concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true heroine of American fiction. Arthur Dimmesdale, trapped by the rules of society, stands as a classic study of a self divided.

This novel is essentially an exploration of Puritan regime and beliefs. They preach massively against sin and punish sinners as they deem appropriate. Each of them claim to be living devout and pure lifestyles, but the novel shows us that none of them really are; each of them a hypocrite, they condemn our protagonist to a life of shame, and futilely brand her with a mark to declare her mistakes, despite the bigger proof of her misdeeds walking alongside her every day in the form of her daughter.

Hypocrisy looms all around; it seems ridiculous that a woman, widely known to be a witch who enjoys summoning the devil at night, is kept safe and respected due to who her family is. Hawthorne also makes clear that the inhabitants of New England had travelled there to leave behind the religious and social constraints they had previously experienced, yet all they seemed to do was set up entirely similar rules and hierarchies to those they had so wilfully tried to escape.

I did find some passages slow to get through, bordering on pedantic. Some of the language is difficult to engage with, and I'd have loved some more background to all of the events. Being more of a socio-historical commentary than a story, however, this wasn't to be.

Hawthorne's depiction of the Puritan colonists at this time was enlightening, if a little bit frightful. There was a lot going on, and I'm sure I missed a lot of it, but I enjoyed the journey. Symbols, social commentary, and the human condition all came together to give me an unforgettable glimpse of the Puritan pietism, and the demons that can be unleashed as a result.