Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

While I was in Tennessee on a trip to present a paper at a conference and visit family members, I accompanied my cousin to a house of a friend on a Sunday evening. The purpose of the visit was to rummage through some items the friend had set aside for a yard sale or for a charity. My cousin’s friend invited her to the house to see if she would like to take some of the things off of her hands, as well as to chat for a few minutes, before packing the things up and taking them to the donation center. The friend and her family greeted us at the door and led us to a lounge filled with decorations, clothes, and books. My cousin looked through the trinkets, but did not find anything to her liking. I was not expecting to find anything; I was just there for the excursion. However, two books caught my eye. One of them was a dictionary and a thesaurus compiled into one volume. “This book could come in handy for a poor student like me,” I thought. The other was a Penguin Classics edition of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. This romance happened to be on my list of books to read, and having seen the recent movie Easy A, I figured somebody was going to ask me to deconstruct its components anyway. I picked up the two books and asked my cousin’s friend if I could have them. The friend graciously gave them to me. Shortly thereafter my cousin and I said goodbye to the friend and we headed back to my cousin’s house for the night.

I returned to my hometown and began reading my personal copy of The Scarlet Letter. I highlighted words so I could find their definitions later on the Internet, and I underlined passages, especially ones about ghosts, so I could share them with my colleague in California, a friend working on his doctoral degree at Irvine. He certainly enjoyed the quotes I sent him, verifying that many books written in the nineteenth century mention ghosts. But I will not be talking about ghosts in this review. I am more interested in labels.

The Scarlet Letter tells of a woman accused and convicted of adultery in a time and place where Puritanism is the polity of the settlement. Hester Prynne gains a child as a result of an affair she has with the local minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. As punishment, the authorities sew a red letter A embroidered with gold thread on the front of Hester’s dress for the rest of the community to see. She submits to the punishment, but does not reveal the partner in the crime. She becomes an outcast, helping the community only when called upon to comfort the sick or to tailor an article of clothing for an order. She raises Pearl who seems to taunt her with impish glee. As for Arthur, he cowers under the thought of revealing his abominable sin to his congregation that lionizes him as a pious mentor and leader. He suffers from a heart malady, as well as from self-inflicted depression, as a way to atone for his secret sin. Unknowingly, Arthur does not realize his confidante and physician, Roger Chillingworth, plans to take revenge on him for his affair.

I finished the book and thought about the struggle the heroine endured in wearing a perpetual label near her breast. Her nemesis seemed to emanate from an action, or a gaze, than from a particular person. The narrator described the effect of the embroidered label in this way:

“Continually, and in a thousand other ways, did she feel the innumerable throbs of anguish that had been so cunningly contrived for her by the undying, the ever-active sentence of the Puritan tribunal. […] Another peculiar torture was felt in the gaze of a new eye. When strangers looked curiously at the scarlet letter,—and none ever failed to do so,—they branded it afresh into Hester’s soul; so that, oftentimes, she could scarcely refrain, yet always did refrain, from covering the symbol with her hand. But then, again, an accustomed eye had likewise its own anguish to inflict. Its cool stare of familiarity was intolerable. From first to last, in short, Hester Prynne had always this dreadful agony in feeling a human eye upon the token; the spot never grew callous; it seemed, on the contrary, to grow more sensitive with daily torture” (77).

Not even today’s brand names have this kind of power to attract attention. Howard S. Becker would have a heyday reading this novel with a labeling theory interpretation. When one thinks about the difference between good labels and bad labels, and how they apply to the story, many questions arise. How would today’s society react to such literal and blatant “labeling” of an adulterer or a single mother with a child born out of wedlock? Would the label be for the benefit of Hester’s soul or merely a way to ostracize an undesired deviant? Would committing her to wear a label for life encourage or discourage recidivism in the individual? Does such a punishment precede an act of recidivism? Or would the society give a different type of punishment to prevent the outcast from becoming alienated from the rest of society? In other words, is labeling a necessary part of reality so we can understand and communicate with one another, or is it our way of pigeonholing entities because we are too lazy or busy to get to know the person, thing, or idea? I do not pretend to know answers to any of these questions, nor do I have the space to extrapolate on these issues if I want to. Nevertheless, I believe we must be careful how we address people, how we label people, so as not to put a stumbling block before ones that truly want to change for the better. Fortunately, Hester Prynne transcends the symbol and molds it to become a good symbol of her longsuffering and kindness to the sick and the poor. She even goes so far as to wear it years later when everyone else has forgotten about the scandalous event and even until her last day on earth.

This edition includes an introduction by Nina Baym and notes by Thomas E. Connolly. Baym supplies a caveat that the reader should not to read this book as though it were a historical treatment of the Puritans. Connolly provides clear and interesting notes about particular customs and historical figures mentioned in the work. I recommend this book for readers aged 13 and older.



  1. I read The Scarlet Letter in high school as part of an American History class rather than an English literature class. I was amazed that a society that was supposedly Christian, there was no demonstration of Christian charity and forgiveness towards a woman who obviously repented of her sin. Even though this was a work of fiction, it opened my eyes to the hypocrisy that is so often found in "civilization".

  2. Interesting. The person who wrote the introduction to this book said the book was not supposed to be read as a historical document. The "Puritan" community, she wrote, was completely the author's imagination to suit the drama at hand. That may be true. However, it would be nice to read some academic articles to support that hypothesis. I think what is more relevant are the Salem witch trials. The story still creeps me out today.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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