After reading The Scarlet Letter I’m convinced that Nathaniel Hawthorn’s idea to write a book about adultery in seventeenth century Boston must have come after he decided to write an allegory on sin, guilt and expiation. I always tend to resist novels who push too hard on symbolism (The Great Gatsby for instance) and this is probably the book where I noticed more explicit metaphors, allegories and similes. I can understand why it’s so popular in schools: there’s a lot of stuff to discuss and analyze.
There was a great review in GoodReads that pointed out something I also noticed: Hawthorne is one of those writers that seems to stand over your shoulder annoyingly pointing things out to you. You can just hear him: “See how the light hides from Hester’s face? See what I did there? How about the brook Pearl doesn’t cross until her mother I wearing the letter again? How clever was that?! Students will be writing PhD thesis about that one for centuries!”
Pearl was decked out with airy gaity. It would have been impossible to guess that this bright and sunny apparition owed its existence to the shape in gloomy grey (…). The dress, so proper was it to little Pearl, seemed an effluence, or inevitable development and outward manifestation of her character, no more to be separated from her than the many-hued brilliancy from a butterfly’s wing, or the painted glory from the leaf of a bright flower. As with these, so with the child; her garb was all of one idea with her nature.
Hawthorne not only is explicit about using Pearl’s dress as a symbol, but he also explicitly tells us what to think about it. I always get a bit offended when this happens, as if the author is underestimating my ability to get it.
Despite all this, I still give it a 3 out of 5 because the story is interesting and every chapter got me curious about what would happen next. I just wish we would know more about the main characters. Despite their complex inner debates, they’re still very much allegorical. Pearl in particular is not really a character in her own right, but just a manifestation of her parents’ sin.
I liked Hester. She’s a strong heroine and the only character who faces her faults and accepts them. I was impressed with her grand-entrance into the story, as she leaves the court house with “natural dignity and force of character” and almost proudly displaying the letter A in “elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold threads”.
Actually, I though Hester’s talent with the needle was a fascinating detail. If I was asked to write an essay on this book, that’s the element I would chose: Hester in her shame making a living by embroidering objects of vanity for the most respectable members of her society. In the end, her “art work” becomes crucial to help society accept her once again. At first her scarlet letter is a mark of shame, it marks her out as being different from her community, but despite this shame, the rich embroidery Hester gave the letter also acts as a mark of her defiance against the stigma placed on her and her refusal to let the letter control her completely. This also got me thinking about how embroidery is used in other books. If a certain female character is expected to like embroidery and doesn’t, this seems to be a strong indicator of her non-conformity to rules. This happens for instance to Aerin in The Hero and the Crown and Morgaine in The Mists of Avalon. I would probably have a great time writing this essay!
Throughout the book I also couldn’t help make other connections with other books: sex defining women’s place just like in The Handmaid’s Tale, Pearl expressing her parent’s closeted inner feelings, like the daemons in His Dark Materials, and of course the puritan environment of The Crusible. In fact, I’ve just realized that it was these unexpected literary connections that greatly contributed to my overall enjoyment of The Scarlet Letter.