Saturday, February 13, 2010

Girl on Book Action: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

ISBN: 0-307-29084-0


The story of Hester Prynne – found out in adultery, pilloried by her Puritan community, and abandoned, in different ways, by both her partner in sin and her vengeance-seeking husband – possesses a reality heightened by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s pure human sympathy and his unmixed devotion to his supposedly fallen but fundamentally innocent heroine. Exploring themes such as community and isolation, innocence and guilt, and secrecy and exposure, Hawthorne brings readers into a world where public and private life are inextricably linked – a reality that heavily influences the actions of the novel’s characters. In its moral force and the beauty of its conciliations, The Scarlet Letter rightly deserves its stature as the first great novel written by an American, the novel that established American literature equal to any in the world.


Aside: As most of you remember, this book was the winner of the first reader’s choice poll some weeks ago. I know you’ve all been eagerly awaiting my thoughts on it.

My Thoughts:

Indeed, what did I think of this little book? I have to admit, I was often quite bored while reading the long, largely superfluous descriptions. I mean, the man has skills with words, but perhaps it’s my TV-addled modern-ADD brain, but I kept wanting to skip ahead to when something was happening, because when things were happening I was mostly interested in what it was – although, not much actually happens either. This is no Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre (why am I only thinking of novels written by women as comparisons?). The story is touching in a lot of ways, but also very far removed from our modern sensibilities. I think most of us have no understanding of why adultery is such a big deal in this Puritan community, which is just as well, if you ask me.

I would have to say that the 40+ page introductory section about the Customs House felt overdone and was blatantly boring. I understand that he was attempting to establish the basis for the novel, but it could have been done in fewer pages – the descriptions of the decrepit old men who work in the Customs House did not add anything to my understanding of the book as a whole, and if I’m honest, mostly just helped me go to sleep at night.

I thought Hester was an interesting character, even if she serves as one of those terrible examples of what women think they have to endure for some strange notion of honor or virtue or penance for being female. Even so far removed from that culture I understood her motivations and didn’t judge her harshly for the way she chose to behave in any given situation. In some ways, I also think the argument could be made that we still choose to suffer through similar bouts of conscience and guilt for things that we should not feel guilt. As much as we think of ourselves as liberated from the trappings of the ‘feminine’ and all its bizarre ideals, we (I speak here primarily of women) still seem to think we need to live up to some kind of unwritten standard for behaviour and in turn we expect men to react a certain way to our manipulation of these standards. Feminism still has a long way to go, but at least we don’t have wear a scarlet letter for doing things men have always done without blame.

In conclusion, I should stay that I’m glad that I read this at times dreadfully boring story, but I don’t think that I’ll be revisiting it any time in the next ten years at least, unless I get desperate for a soporific bedtime story, in which case I’ll just read the Customs House over and over again.

No comments:

Post a Comment