As a non-American, I've managed to get to the grand old age of twenty-seven without being made to read The Scarlet Letter, so I approached it with fresh eyes. I knew the basic storyline, having read Hillary Jordan's When She Woke last year but my only other experience with Puritan America is watching a performance of The Crucible once. The central motif, of being made to wear a badge of shame, definitely intrigued me.
The story opens with Hester Prynne standing in the middle of the town, wearing a scarlet letter 'A' and holding her illegitimate daughter, Pearl. Despite the disapproval and judgement of the whole town, Hester refuses to name the father of her child and she is shunned by everyone around her. The Scarlet Letter is about her life after being ordered to wear the letter, in particular her interactions with Pearl's father and with her husband, who has arrived at the town after being held by the Native Americans and who is living under an assumed name. The tension between private and public lives and the effect of secrets are the main themes of the novel.
I didn't really know what to expect from The Scarlet Letter in terms of style, so I was pleasantly surprised by how satirical the whole thing was. I love a bit of satire if it's done right and Hawthorne was downright scathing at times, particularly when relating the 'suffering' of Pearl's father, who has the cheek to imagine he has been affected more than Hester, despite being able to carry on his life as normal. The religion of the Puritans is held in particular contempt by Hawthorne, who adds a sexual undertone to the way the women of the town relate to Mr Dimmesdale ("the virgins of his church grew pale around him.") In fact, the whole character of Dimmesdale was a study in hypocrisy and weakness, contrasted with Hester's quiet determination. The satire made the book for me, I don't think I would have enjoyed it without it.
The Scarlet Letter is a very good book, so it's a shame that it is burdened with one of the most awful introductions I have ever read, The Custom House. My edition explained in a preface that Hawthorne felt like his story was too short for publication, so he added a lengthy and tedious introduction in which he relates in detail the personality and appearance of every single person working in a custom house in Salem, and I mean every single detail. To be fair, it does give some useful information about the time period and there is an interesting moment when Hawthorne 'discovers' the scarlet letter, but on the whole the book would be so much better without it. I'd honestly advise new readers to the book to simply skip it, in case you get put off what is a very good story.
I'm glad that I picked up A Scarlet Letter. It's one of those stories that has made it's way into public consciousness, so it was interesting to finally read it for myself. It's not going to be my favourite classic, but it was well written with interesting themes and it's definitely worth a go.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1850
My Edition: Penguin English Library, 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 12/72
My list of classics to read is here.