Becoming Well-Read: The Scarlet Letter

Ashley: We all knew this had to happen eventually: In order to become what society considers “well-read,” I must read Super Old Books

My definition of “super old” is anything before the 1900s, and such Super Old Books scare me. I don’t think there’s a book I love written before 1910 (Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton is the oldest book I reread now and then), and while it’s disheartening to think that I can’t find love over the course of thousands of years worth of literature, wading through thousands of years worth of literature is also daunting. The further back I go, the more confusing it all becomes, with references to a time and place that require introductions and elaborate footnotes to decipher. And while history is cool and learning can be fun, my favorite book is The Hunger Games, not Anna Karenina, you know what I mean? (Note: I’ve never read any Tolstoy, but fellow Scribd editor Alex P. is pretty into him.)

Nevertheless, I’ve decided to take a small step into the deep, dark sea of Super Old Books by reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (originally published in 1850, which is not too far away from my 1900 cutoff in the grand scheme of time). The shame I harbor at not having read Hawthorne’s classic before is as deep and dark as the Super Old Books ocean.

Back in high school, during junior year, my English class focused on American literature. As a hotheaded 16-year-old, my immediate response was, “This class will suck, America hasn’t been around long enough have any good books, much less important ones.” And then we were assigned A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway and the aforementioned Ethan Frome, and their mix of despair in the face of grand problems told with such simplistic style convinced me that, actually, Americans knew the secrets of souls and stories. Once I got through the drag that was AP English in senior year, I spent four years of college focusing on American literature.

The Scarlet Letter never came up, though. There was a particularly hard class about post-Civil War American literature and its exploration of corporations. I spent a lot of time trying to find The Lost Generation (because they are my favorite bunch) in various classes. I took a class about actual Puritan literature. But none of these covered Hawthorne and I never bothered to correct the mistake. Until now

What I Think It’s About: Piece of cake, since I’ve seen Easy A at least twice: Rumor-mongering and hypocrisy rage rampantly through a tight-knit community (high school). The reputations of many women known or at least suspected to have many sexual transgressions before marriage are tarnished. In the end, Dan from Gossip Girl finally gets the girl he deserves. A is for adultery.

What It’s Actually About: A retrospective on the religious beginnings of America from the progressive lens of a romance written over 200 years later. Hester Prynne, a married woman in the New World whose husband hasn’t made it across the ocean yet, has a child and is tried for adultery. As punishment, she must wear the letter A stitched to her garments, a symbol of her ignominy (you will get very familiar with the word “ignominy”). A is for adultery … or is it? Maybe it actually means Awesome. Angel. Adverse. There are lots of A words — the Puritans really should have thought this through some more. But then where would we get all the symbolism?

Why You Should Read It Right Now: Because you’re not in high school English class anymore, so you can finally appreciate the beauty of Hawthorne’s sentences, particularly as they pertain to the universal inner turmoils of the characters. (If you are still in high school English, hi, what’s up, how are you, have fun learning what “physiognomy” means.)

I’m not going to lie and say The Scarlet Letter is an easy read, given its shortness and well-known story of sin and suffering, love and forgiveness. Plenty of sentences required multiple re-readings for me to grasp even a basic meaning (Hawthorne really likes long sentences in really long paragraphs full of asides separated by commas), but other passages had me internally yelling “YES, you’ve described the human condition perfectly!” 

But you don’t have to take my word for it: Early on in the novel, as Hester is led through the marketplace amongst the crowds of people come to judge her, showing the scarlet letter on her chest for the first time, Hawthorne writes: “It was no great distance, in those days, from the prison-door to the market-place. Measured by the prisoner’s experience, however, it might be reckoned a journey of some length; for, haughty as her demeanor was, she perchance underwent an agony from every footstep of those that thronged to see her, as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon. In our nature, however, there is a provision, alike marvellous and merciful, that the sufferer should never know the intensity of what endures by its present torture, but chiefly by the pang that rankles after it.” The whole novel basically grapples with that insightful last sentence.

Later, in a chapter titled “Another View of Hester,” Hawthorne (or at least, Hawthorne’s unnamed narrator) says: “It is to the credit of human nature, that, except where its selfishness is brought into play, it loves more readily than it hates. Hatred, by a gradual and quiet process, will even be transformed to love, unless the change be impeded by a continually new irritation of the original feeling of hostility.” That’s one of the best summations of the oft-discussed and dissected dichotomy between love and hate, and it only took two sentences instead of two hundred pages. (Now, if only I could figure out how to help America stop continually irritating the feelings of hostility we harbor towards each other these days, maybe our politics wouldn’t be in such disarray.)

And those are only the more hopeful observations about human nature as they pertain to Hester. The other focal characters — Pearl (Hester’s daughter), Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (The Secret Sinner, aka Pearl’s daddy), and Roger Chillingworth (Hester’s husband, a doctor, who is all up in the three other character’s secrets and wants some revenge) — deal with the darker (but no less wonderfully human) parts of societal punishment. Sure, The Scarlet Letter ostensibly is about boring old Puritans and their strict religious principles (nobody can make Puritans cool, okay?), but it’s much more broadly concerned with humanity’s hypocrisy about right and wrong.

Even though it sort of hurts my brain, it’s also fascinating to see how this book about Puritans, written by a man living between the two phases of the Industrial Revolution, remains relevant to today’s America. There’s a perfectly valid feminist interpretation to take of The Scarlet Letter. There’s a clear line between America’s Puritan roots to the religious moral arguments made today. There are a gazillion solid but contradictory arguments to be made about the message of this novel. And really, what could better represent contemporary America than all that?


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