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meganbaxter

meganbaxter

I'm a grad student, an avid reader, a huge nerd, fervent roleplayer, wife, cat lover, tea snob, and obsessive keeper of lists.
The Scarlet Letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nina Baym, Thomas E. Connolly

I feel like The Scarlet Letter just kind of bounced off of me. I liked it, without ever really connecting to it. I often have strong opinions about, well, just about anything I read. In this case, not so much. (Although there have been other classics that I've felt at a loss to explain my reaction to.)

Okay, slow down, let's take this with the plot, first. Actually, let's start with the prologue. It's long and unnecessary, given that why its there is to tell us that the book is "based on true events." You know what? I really don't care if it's based on true events, and an author troubling to tell me that about fiction isn't any more likely to win my favour than one who says they made this whole thing up. But it's not so much that claim to veracity as the long time we took to get to it.

But the book itself I found no such slog. The basic story, that of a woman carrying around a visible mark of her sexual sin, is well known. The red "A" is theoretically for adultery, although at that point, Hester thinks her husband is dead. But the book is not about her shame - it's about how she turns her punishment into a source of strength.

And even more so, it's about how having sins not rooted out and publicly punished eats away at her cohort in the aforesaid adultery, the upright minister, who punishes himself far more severely than, in the long run, Hester is punished. And she has her daughter, Pearl, as consolation, but he has, well, no solace, and a false friend bent on making everything worse.

The book is over the top at times, but that feels purposeful. It's Hawthorne's view of what the Puritan reign in New England was like, when outward appearance of piety was as or more important than inner experience. (On the other hand, we know now that the illegitimacy rate in Puritan settlements was shockingly high, not only given their values, but also compared to other contemporary colonies. The Puritans, or at least, the larger mass of people living under their auspices, were not abstaining from the premarital sex, or from adultery. One is tempted to draw a comparison to the high premarital birth rates in red states in the U.S.)

Hester lives apart from the community, but her humble acceptance of their punishment eventually redeems her and turns her into somewhat of a saint. Dimmesdale, the preacher, however, withers away, although the townspeople interpret that as a saint being called to God.

The scene in the woods when Hester and Dimmesdale are reunited is touching, and the last scene, where Dimmesdale's last sermon is remembered very differently by many different people, is very interesting.

And yet, there was a level on which this book never broke through and became something more dear to me. It's an easy and interesting read, but I'm left without any of the emotions I might expect it to stir.