Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Free Kindle version
Amazon Page for the version I read

This review was originally written as a school report, so it will differ in style to my other reviews.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne discloses the tale of a woman, living in an early American Puritan settlement, whose pregnancy reveals her sin of adultery, but who refuses to share the name of her partner in sin. Opening with Hester's walk of shame from prison to the punishment scaffold, readers then follow both Hester and other villagers important to her tale through seven years of humiliation, remorse, fame, and infamy.

Hester Prynne is made to walk, with her infant child, through the streets of her town and stand for several hours on the scaffold, as punishment for her sin. The titular punishment given is that of the scarlet letter A on the breast of her gown, worn at all times. Upon the scaffold, before all the townspeople, the young minister Dimmesdale urges Hester to make known the father of her child, that he may accept his punishment and therefore begin his path back to mercy and forgiveness.  Hester stoutly refuses and stands firm before her punishment.

(The following is whited out to prevent spoilers. If you want to read my in-depth exposition of the plot, highlight the text and read on. If you want to avoid spoilers, skip past this whited-out portion.)

After her stand on the scaffold, Hester and her infant return to the prison. An elderly physician, Roger Chillingworth, has just arrived in town; he visits Hester and her child. Through their private conversation, Chillingworth is revealed to be Hester's husband. Their plan was for him to follow Hester to New England, but when years passed without news of him, the town presumed him lost at sea. Chillingworth presses Hester into a promise to conceal his true relation to her, as she has concealed that of her adulterous partner. He vows to discover who this man is for himself, and work his own personal revenge.

A little cottage stands at the outskirts of the town, partly hidden from view.  It is there that Hester and her daughter, Pearl, begin their new lives under the shadow of the scarlet letter. Despite the townspeople's cruelty and shamefulness towards her, Hester becomes a vital member of the community. She is known throughout the settlement as the woman most skilled at needlework; this becomes her daily career. Births, deaths, public ceremonies, minister's clothing, and military uniforms all require Hester's handiwork. Only the pure wedding-garments for the town are without her needle's touch.

Little Pearl, as she begins to develop from infant to child, displays a wild and passionate nature. Her reckless, untrainable heart and beautiful but mischievous features, combined with her intricant, lavish attire, bring the townspeople to believe either that Pearl embodies the sin of passion that gave her being, or that she is of the Devil. Townspeople begin to wonder if it be best that Pearl be removed from under Hester's care, and given into more suitable upbringing. Such thoughts are made known to Hester by the former governor when she brings a pair of gloves to his home, where she discovers Chillingworth, Minister Dimmesdale, an elderly minister, and the governor discussing her child's fate.

The elderly minister attempts to test Pearl's knowledge of spiritual matters, but Pearl's flighty nature brings her to tell tales rather than answer truthfully. The governor concludes that this settles the matter, and Pearl must be taken. Hester cannot live on without her little Pearl, and pleads with the governor. As he will not sway, she turns to Minister Dimmesdale for aid. With passion and a trembling hand over his heart, the minister makes Hester's case plain, and convinces the other gentlemen that it is indeed best that child and mother not be separated. Pearl caresses the minister's hand before she and her mother return home.

Minister Dimmesdale is weak and frail physically, a fact visible to all. The townspeople adore their pastor and agree of the great joy in Roger Chillingworth living with the minister. Chillingworth is determined to worm out the secret which the minister buries within his heart, that the people are unaware of but which Chillingworth has seen hints of in the minister's speech and manner. The physician thus pours all his energy into this task, while the minister is left unaware of his close friend's ulterior motives. One night, however, Chillingworth bares the sleeping minister's chest to reveal something which gives Chillingworth a devilish delight.

The minister's secret eats at his conscience. Despite his many secret penances, he cannot be rid of guilt. In an attempt to shake his agony, Dimmesdale goes out at night to the public punishment scaffold. The elderly minister passes by without noticing. Hester and Pearl then begin to pass by; Dimmesdale calls them up to the scaffold with him. The three of them stand hand in hand. Pearl asks the minister to stand with them thus at noon, but twice he refuses. Just as he tells her daylight will not see the three of them standing together, a meteor lights up the sky, and the letter A in red crosses the heavens. At this moment, the minister becomes aware of Chillingworth, standing before the scaffold and watching the trio there.

Chillingworth, playing the friendly physician as ever, takes Dimmesdale back home with talk of sleepwalking. Hester and Pearl return home, as well. Later, Hester meets with Chillingworth in a garden. They speak openly of Dimmesdale's agony; Hester declares that, no matter what Chillingworth threatens to do in return, she will reveal his true identity to the minister. She and Pearl then return home, with Pearl interrogating her mother on the meaning of the scarlet letter and why the minister covers his heart with his hand.

Dimmesdale visits John Eliot and, upon his return through the forest, meets with Hester. She explains Chillingworth is her husband. They have a moment of peace and happiness together, and make plans to leave the settlement to build a new life back in England. The minister returns to town a changed man. Three days later, a great ceremony with a processional and Election Sermon celebrates the inauguration of the newly elected governor. The minister, as well as other church figures and military men, march through the town. Dimmesdale gives a passionate sermon as always. Upon the procession away from the church, however, Dimmesdale grows weaker and weaker; it becomes clear that he is dying.

The minister stops by the scaffold, beside which Hester and Pearl stand watching the parade. Disregarding Chillingworth's reprimands, he calls woman and child to him, and they help him climb up to the scaffold with them. There, with loving Hester and Pearl, and hateful Chillingworth beside him, he cries out to all the crowd his secret. He tears off his ministerial shirt to reveal what many later claimed was a scarlet letter A on his chest. He collapses, and after begging the forgiveness and love of Pearl and Hester, passes on into death.

Less then a year later, Chillingworth dies as well. Hester and Pearl leave the settlement. Years later, Hester returns alone to the cottage, still bearing the scarlet letter on her breast. She becomes a counselor and friend to many of the townspeople, who rather look up to her by this time. The many wealthy articles that come to Hester's cottage, and the fancifully stitched baby garments that she sends away, suggest that Pearl is happily married and mother of her own sweet child at home in England. Eventually two graves, separate but sharing a tombstone, lay in the settlement graveyard, with the epigraph that speaks of the letter A in red.

On the surface, this story appears to be a cautionary Puritan tale of the evils of sin. It deals specifically with sins of passion - both the passion of adultery, and that of hatred and vengeance. However, the nearly satirical or critical tone often found in passages speaking of Puritan tradition carries a more subtle lesson against pride and hypocrisy. Hawthorne seems to to be pointing out, as the Puritans had forgotten, that all sins are equally grave in God's sight. The Lord cares little for laws, such as the town leaders upheld, or outward appearances of righteousness, such as defined the minister Dimmesdale's life. Rather, He values the condition of a man's heart. As Dimmesdale's life and words taught, truth is above all else.

Flowery language and symbolism, as was typical of the time, can be found at nearly any point in this novel. However, the plot is not dry, abrupt, or disappointing, as can sometimes be true of the fiction of that time. The Scarlet Letter is not a happy tale tied off with a bow such as modern readers enjoy; neither does it focus entirely on moral lessons or harsh reality. Instead, Hawthorne strikes a balance between skilled storytelling and moral application, making his lessons all the more powerful as the readers can appreciate the medium through which they are taught.


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