23 July 2009

The Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne is a Puritan woman who has an illegitimate child while her husband (who is assumed dead) is nowhere to be found. Hester refuses to reveal the identity of the child's father and is condemned to wear a large scarlet A (for adultery) for the rest of her life. Her ultra-creepy husband, Roger Chillingsworth, soon arrives from Europe and is furious. He tells Hester to tell no one that he is her husband and then attempts to learn the identity of her lover. Roger is determined to torment this man once he finds him. He soon befriends the fragile minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is nursing a secret shame. Scandalous Puritans!

When I picked up Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, I knew the plot basics but little else. I must confess that I had mixed feelings about this book before I read it. On one hand, I was expecting lots of mushy romance, of which I'm not a big fan. On the other hand, I was also expecting a lot of shame and misery, which, sad to say, I kind of enjoy in literature. By the time I finished reading this novel, I realized that there was lots of the agony I expected but not really any of the tender sentiments I've come to expect in tales of forbidden love. However, this book is more than just pious Pilgrims writhing in an internal hell. The Scarlet Letter is a very intense psychological novel that I found quite compelling.

I especially enjoyed the way Hawthorne contrasted his three main characters. Hester, suffering from public shame, comes to accept her fate and is ultimately better for it. Arthur, tormented with secret guilt, is nearly driven insane due to his personal conflicts. Roger, consumed with bitter revenge, succumbs to evil. I enjoyed following these characters' changes, even though I found the spineless Arthur a difficult character to sympathize with. I thought Roger was a very creepy villain. I'll put it this way: If holding grudges were a team sport, Roger would be my first round pick. The Scarlet Letter is also well-paced. The opening scene of Hester's public shaming grabbed my attention and many of the confrontation scenes scenes (especially the final one) were very dramatic. Hawthorne's style was another big plus for me. Although he's obviously a 19th century writer, his narration is not daunting like so many other authors from this time period. You doesn't have to be an English major to follow the story.

This is a great book for anyone who enjoys historical fiction, classics, or intense psychological novels. And anyone who has ever been humiliated in public, nursed a shameful secret, or been obsessed with getting even will relate to these characters (even if you do dislike them.)

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