In all honesty, this isn’t my first time attempting to read The Scarlet Letter. I last picked it up a year or two ago, and called it quits a few pages into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s introduction. In the spirit of full disclosure, after getting a little further into the introduction this time, I again gave up on it and skipped forward to the first chapter without much hope for what it could hold. I was very pleasantly surprised! Once Hawthorne’s writing style was able to purpose itself to characters and plot I was much more engaged and enjoyed it quite a lot. Perhaps one of my favorite things about this book relative to others that I’ve read is that it was written in such a way as to leave the characters open to so many different interpretations. Hawthorne left the ending somewhat open ended, which is not uncommon in novels, but I was left thinking about the characters long after; I’m still not sure I’ve settled on an understanding of what role each character played or what they represented in the grander scheme of things.
I’ll begin with a quick summary, as per usual. The novel opens with our introduction to the scarlet letter and the woman who wears it, Hester Prynne. The letter A over her heart is meant to shame her in the eyes of her fellow Puritan townspeople for her sin of adultery, which has also left her with a daughter – Pearl. Her husband only enters the town in time to see her shamed on the scaffold, and chooses to take on the false identity of a physician by the name of Roger Chillingworth in order to avoid shame himself, and to seek out revenge on the other unknown adulterer. The story then skips forward by a few years, and we are introduced to Pearl not as an infant but as a young child. She is described as “impish” and often referred to by the town people as being demon offspring because she seems to have no real moral code so far as it pertains to the strict Puritan religion. Hester loves Pearl dearly but also believes that she was sent by God to remind her every day of her sin, partly because Pearl is enchanted by the A worn by Hester and constantly points it out or asks questions about it. The townspeople actually try to take Pearl away from Hester, and Hester pleads to minister Arthur Dimmesdale to convince everyone to allow them to stay together, which he does. Hester continues to do charitable work with her incredible talent as a seamstress, and eventually becomes a very benevolent and respected figure in the eyes of her neighbors. The story now shifts slightly to focus on Dimmesdale and Chillingworth, who becomes his physician when the young minister becomes increasingly ill. Though the townspeople and minister himself believe the physician to be a great friend, the reader is able to see that he is in fact only concerned with discovering the secret that torments Dimmesdale, which Chillingworth believes is linked to Hester. In fact he turns out to be right – the young minister is Pearl’s father. Keeping this secret, along with the effects of the physicians influence, have led Dimmesdale’s health to greatly deteriorate until he finds himself atop the shameful scaffold at night trying to punish himself for his sin. Hester and Pearl encounter him in this moment, and the ever perceptive Pearl from then on asks her mother why the minister always has his hand over his heart, and how that is connected to the A her mother wears. In an attempt to flee from the evil in Chillingworth’s heart, Hester and Dimmesdale meet in the forest (which is rumored to be the devil’s playground of sorts) and plan to leave together by boat. Pearl throws a fit when her mother tries to remove the A she wears, and this forces Hester to put it it back on in order to be recognized by her daughter. The day before they are meant to leave, Dimmesdale preaches his greatest sermon but having mentally devolved somewhat in addition to his physical weakness, impulsively decides to mount the scaffold once more and confess his sins to all the townspeople. He then reveals a scarlet A seared into his chest (much to the dismay of Chillingworth who claims this is the only way they could escape his wrath), and dies upon the scaffold.
I think one of the most interesting things about this book was that I wasn’t completely sure who the “main” character was. That is, at first I thought the story was about Hester, then about Pearl, then about Dimmesdale, and so on. Which actually is an interesting tendency I’m now reflecting upon – to want one character to focus upon. The conclusion I have tentatively come to, however, is that the book truly is about its namesake, the scarlet letter. This A is a part of every primary character in some way – Hester wears it, it appears on Dimmesdale’s chest, and Pearl embodies it. And the story itself is about how this A has impacted each life, or rather how the sin it represents taken different shape in each person.
I was fascinated by the transformations Hester and Dimmesdale undergo in the course of the book. Hester begins at her lowest point. She is shamed by everyone she knows and outcast from society. She wears her sin upon her breast through a symbol and carries it in her arms in the form of her daughter. However, through all the work that she does to try and make up for her sin via kind acts, she becomes loved and respected by all. Dimmesdale, on the other hand, begins the book revered by all the townspeople. He is seen as the epitome of good works and faith. He keeps his sin a secret, which he claims is to better suffer without relief, and this becomes evidenced in his physical ailment. Though at the end of the novel he is still seen as an incredible minister, it is undeniable that he is also perceived as weak, and in his confession he taints the opinion many had of him. So Hester and Dimmesdale seem to be foils of one another, with the former admitting to and repenting for her sin and being transformed for the positive, and the latter denying it and dying as a result.
As interesting as Hester and Dimmesdale were, Pearl still captured my attention like no other character. I really looked forward to the sections of the book where she was mentioned; while all of the other adult characters were governed by their strict religious beliefs, it really wasn’t clear what Pearl was governed by beyond her own impulses. Her characterization as a child was really excellent – the way she asked questions incessantly and chased sunlight and challenged authority seemed very reflective of the children I’ve encountered in my life. As I mentioned, she is herself the scarlet A which brands Hester. What I think is peculiar about that is the immense beauty she has as a result. Her dresses are all stunning to match her, and this “indescribable charm of beauty” is what actually offends the Puritan townspeople. Is that because since her very existence is based in shame, she is supposed to be ugly as sin? So the fact that God created a beautiful child as the result of sin challenges the belief that all sins and shames are disgusting at all times. The same goes with Hester, though she is an adulteress she is also extremely talented and creates beautiful things, speaking once more to the fact that not all sin and moral code can be black and white, and people can do “bad” things and also “good” things without the two being mutually exclusive. To return to Pearl, I think she serves as a sort of reflection of consciousness. She was raised outside of the framework of Puritan society which gives all the other children strict religious be and so Pearl is free to see the ministers guilty action of shielding his heart with his hand without bias, and serves to give Hester purpose in continuing to do good deeds.
Overall I really enjoyed this novel. The vivid characterization carried the story rather than a plot that was handed to the reader, instead we got to choose how to see things. For example, we can believe that there was an A on the ministers chest or not, much like the narrator who found the A and has crafted his own story to explain it. But it also pushes us to think critically about moral frameworks, and the power of truth versus the power of belief. Hawthorne’s novel provided some fascinating insight into the human condition, and there seems to be one core idea that he was trying to convey, that has so resonated with those who read his book.
Knowers know that we ought to remember to view people as multidimensional figures, and to likewise be receptive to exceptions to our beliefs.