Y’all know I love Nathaniel Hawthorne. He’s just so much fun with his creepy, over-the-top, supernatural symbolism. And The Scarlet Letter is the perfect example of this. I last joined Hester Prynne on her 7 years journey with the embroidered ‘A’ upon her breast my junior year of high school. A lot has changed in my life since then – not so much for Hester.
The low-down? We meet Hester as she’s released from jail and made to stand in all her shame upon the town scaffold as the curious townsfolk stare at her – for three hours. She stands tall and proud, red ‘A’ blazing brightly in the sun, and her little babe held tightly in her arms. You see, Hester has been naughty – she’s mothered a child (the elfish Pearl!) out of wedlock. The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale begs her to name the man and co-conspirator in her wicked dance between the sheets. Hester refuses and spends the next seven years bearing her ignominy boldly. Meanwhile, her husband – the delightfully renamed Roger Chillingworth – has reappeared in time to become the deviously twisted, yet altogether neighborly physician to his newest pal, Rev. Dimmesdale. All the while Pearl dances devilishly in the sunlight.
Hester’s a cool, hip-hip lady. Too hip for Puritan New England. I love her as a protagonist and a woman you can really put your faith into. She doesn’t let the symbolic letter upon her chest keep her down. She almost embraces her punishment – ornately embroidering the ‘A’ to stand in stark contrast to the bleakness of her clothing. Before long, the ‘A’ sheds its obvious allusion to adultery and instead comes to symbolize the idea of ‘Able’. She’s the sort of Scarlett O’Hara of her time.
In contrast, I never have much time for old Dimmesy. He lets his shame and horror of fathering little Pearl cripple him. He who wears his ‘A’ in secret lets the weight of all its meaning beat him down until he’s knocking on death’s door, literally. The Reverend is a weak character and not very interesting. Roger, as his counterpart, is far more intriguing in all his EVIL.
And then there’s little Pearl. She functions mostly as a symbol of all the SEX. She’s the personification of Hester and Arthur’s sin. I prefer to see her as a symbol of freedom and advancement. She’s also kind of crazy.
But the real question? Should you read The Scarlet Letter? Um..yeah. Of course you should, silly! Hawthorne’s tale is overwrought with literary devices – mostly symbolism. Everything is a symbol. The forest, the ‘A’, Pearl, the scaffold, the town…yada, yada, yada. Can you see a drinking game forming here? On top of all the metaphors, there’s an underlying current of magical realism that’s a crowd pleaser and who doesn’t love a good scandal? If you find yourself pouring over the current tragic happenings between K.Stew and R.Patz, you’ll love this novel! And yes, you might have to warm up a bit to Hawthorne’s richly layered prose and powerhouse vocab, but you’ll come out a winner who’s read the word ‘ignominy’ more times than anyone else you know!
Kidding aside, The Scarlet Letter is a classic for a reason. After all these years, you can still find parallels to our societal norms and rules. Just think of Hester’s time upon the scaffold the same way you think of K.Stew’s million pictures of shame in everyone tabloid right now. We still grapple with the sourness of infidelity and how to go about punishing such a crime. Or is it a crime? Should K.Stew stand with her head held high or shudder in fear? Do we hee and haw over adultery or still hold it as a serious crime? Should there be legal ramifications? What about the undertones of female sexual liberation? After all, despite the fact that Hawthorne keeps the deets decidedly vague, we can put together that Hester married the artist formerly known as Mr. Prynne, not out of love, but out of a need to secure her ability to eat and have shelter over her head. Why couldn’t she just wait and marry for love and have all the lovely sexy times she could stand? And then you have to question, was R.Patz really just not that good in bed?
Go forth and judge for yourself!