“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

Robert McCrum introduces “The 100 Best Novels” in The Guardian of 6.1.14:

“…Nathaniel Hawthorne, describing “a tale of human frailty and sorrow”, insisted that The Scarlet Letter was “a Romance”, not a novel. This distinction, in his mind, was important. Where a novel, as he put it, “aims at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience”, a romance expressed “the truth of the human heart”. Here, in short, is the prototype of the psychological novel, a brilliant and groundbreaking example of a new genre within 19th-century fiction.

Hawthorne’s tale has a stark simplicity. In the 17th-century town of Boston, a young woman, Hester Prynne, is publicly disgraced for committing adultery and giving birth to an illegitimate child, a girl named Pearl. Forced to wear a scarlet “A”, Hester slowly redeems herself in the eyes of Puritan society. Over many years, she challenges the two men in her life – her husband and her lover – with the dark truth of their emotional responsibilities and failures, while at the same time wrestling with her own sinful nature. After seven long years of painful rehabilitation, she emerges as a strong, inspiring woman, while the pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, who seduced her dies of shame. Hester, too, eventually dies and is buried near Dimmesdale under a tombstone marked with a simple “A”.

Such a bare summary does few favours to an extraordinary work of the imagination that burns from page to page with the fierce simplicity of scripture and an almost cinematic clarity of vision. The Scarlet Letter is an astounding book full of intense symbolism, as strange and haunting as anything by Edgar Allan Poe (No 10 in this series), a writer whom we know Hawthorne much admired…

The most memorable and original aspect of The Scarlet Letter lies in Hawthorne’s portrait of Hester Prynne, who has been described as “the first true heroine of American fiction”, a woman whose experience evokes the biblical fate of Eve. Hawthorne’s achievement is to make her passion noble, her defiance heartbreaking and her frailty inspiring. She becomes the archetype of the free-thinking American woman grappling with herself and her sexuality in a cold, patriarchal society.

There is also something emblematic of the newly settled American society about The Scarlet Letter, the belief that the public individual, subjected to a merciless democratic scrutiny, is owed the human right of ultimate restoration, if he or she deserves it. Hester Prynne is more than just a mother with a baby, she is an outcast woman who will ultimately be welcomed back into American life, purged and cleansed of her sin. Readers of The Scarlet Letter during, for instance, the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s, could not fail to miss the resonance of Hawthorne’s “romance” with that bizarre political drama…”

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