Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

A Book Review

By Melissa Fortuin

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Year published: 1850

Genre: Historical fiction romance


Today I feel like opening with a joke… so here goes. What subject is a witch best at?

Spelling.

I have few friends. Clearly, my sense of humour is the biggest culprit haha. Considering a relation to the subject at hand, I felt like a tiny injection of humour would be very beneficial for the audience, simply because once again I have decided to tackle a rather macabre piece of literature. Also, it’s spring! So in order to celebrate my almost favourite season (oddly enough winter is my favourite season…might explain the desolate choices in works of literature), I decided to review a very depressing, psychological and allegorical piece of art. Don’t those visuals just scream springtime? No? Having last tackled Wuthering Heights in the previous issue (this book was published a mere three years after) it would be difficult to call you blind on what seems like the birth of a melancholic trend.

Considering Wuthering Heights was a gothic historical romance, guess what we are touching on today folks? It’s dark…and a romance. Yay! Please trust when I say I honestly do possess a broader tastes. It’s just that this book jumped at me from a pile of books scattered along my table. So I picked it up and figured why not? Romance always adds a touch of hope unless the main characters are named Romeo and Juliet and we all know how that one ends. Wait… I just realized that perhaps the romance here just will not end in the fairytale one would expect, where our princess defeats the ulterior forces of evil, therefore free to claim her prince and knight in shining armour (I am a huge sucker for unexpected deaths in literature and movies, hence you’re looking at a huge Game of Thrones fan over here, team Stark forever). And we know our dark 19th-century literature just loves sudden and unexplainable deaths.

Lighthearted tone aside, this was my first time reading this novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which is considered his best work and is an American classic. It is also my first attempt at reading and digesting anything done by Hawthorne. I’ll admit right off the bat, it was not the easiest read and I have done Chaucer, but more on that later. It is not, however, my first dealings with similarly subject structured pieces centred around Puritan life. Elements of two former lovers of mine Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Miller abound, so if you are a fan of either you may most likely love this novel. I have read most of Poe and the work of Hawthorne alongside his shows they share commonality by diving into mystery and melancholy riddled aspect of the American puritanical mindset. Themes such as good and evil, the impact innately of humans afflicted by base emotions such as guilt or sin, as well as the steady degradation of our minds’ mental state. Miller, on the other hand, focuses less on the actual sins that were documented at the time of the Salem narrative, and more on witchcraft and the ultimate effect this had on characters. The Scarlet Letter is sin then consequence was as The Crucible is consequence leading to sin. The overall paintings are similar, only the easel and brushstrokes used are different.

So, do you have an unexplainable witchy taste in your literature that does not make good conversation during Sunday family lunches? Grab your Earl Grey and settle in with me over here. Although, witchcraft is kept to a minimum. So let’s do a quick synopsis with as little to no spoiler alerts as possible.

The setting is 17th century Boston around a Puritan colony. Hester Prynne, a young woman, is released from the town prison with her infant daughter Pearl. She bears a scarlet letter A on her chest. This is the punishment for adultery. Her husband had sent her to America ahead of him, as this was the age of great settlement throughout America especially Protestants who wanted further ‘purification’ of the Church. But unlike her, he never arrived. It became apparent that he had died during the treacherous journey. While waiting upon the arrival of her husband Hester has had an affair since she has clearly fallen pregnant, but she decides she will not name the father, even though doing so will lighten her sentence. The letter, with her public shaming, is the punishment for her sin and deceptiveness. The day she is led out of prison, she is harassed by the town elders and despite this still refuses to identify her lover. But one of the onlookers is no stranger to Hester and is, in fact, her husband himself, now going by the name Roger Chillingworth, who upon bearing witness to his wife’s treatment, makes the decision to seek revenge and torment the individual he believes to have wronged him.

This novel is such a beautifully wrought dive into the psychology and understanding of the human heart and nature. Here, we examine the darkest regions of the human soul, by portraying the deeply hidden depravity within all of us. The themes of love, revenge, self-sacrifice, sin, the roles of females in the society at that time, femininity as a whole concept, isolation on the human psyche, fate and free will (like in Macbeth) and the role of our memories in relation to our present comes together in a great swell of language and utterances, mesmerizing me more and more with this perplexingly strong and brave woman. I TRULY feel in love with this classic figure. There is something about a heroine, who shuns acting as or being what her society deems her as acceptable to be… That rejects opinion and limits in a time when doing so left so much to lose. Some heroines like Joan of Arc wields the sword, but here Hester’s sword was her quiet determination in not allowing her past sins to define her. She had a tragic flaw, and so did everyone else around her too possess flaws. The same people who demanded the letter A. Through all the judgement, hatred and adversity, she becomes her own master in her repentance and atonement. She was going to save herself and confront her demons on her own terms. I think, in our current climate, therein echoes so much of these messages and understandings. We’ve become dictators on the sins of those around us and left little room for forgiveness and growth. We have become addicted to labelling, shaming and shunning. There is barely any understanding left, isn’t there? Or even worse, barely any room for private confrontation within ourselves and the growth that follows thereafter. Nothing is sincere enough. And whatever happens, well…what did you do to allow it to happen to you? This has become the mentality, unfortunately.

I have so much more to say about why I think this is a book especially relevant to our times, but I think I will leave it up to you to read it and decide. Get swept up in the surreal blending in with reality so flawlessly that it becomes apparent a greater force exerts itself on the characters and us, but done so delicately that it is almost impossible to tell where one brush stroke ends and another begins. I’m sure once you’ve closed the last page, you won’t find this book forgettable.