The Books: “The Scarlet Letter” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

ScarletLetter.jpgThe Scarlet Letter – by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This was another one of those “had to read” books in high school that I yowled my way thru in protest. The hi-falutin’ language … the bleakness, the foreignness of that world (at least to my naive eyes) – Bah, what a mess!! The Crud (teacher) did his best with it – and I still remember his lecture on the symbolism thruout. Even though I found the book soooo boring, he – with his clues of what to look for – helped us through it. He helped us crack the code of symbols, and that’s all I really remember of the book.

In 2001, I launched my “let’s go back and read all those books from high school” project. I started with The Scarlet Letter. And, naturally, was amazed by the book – reading it as an adult. His writing! The flashes of insight. Also, the development of the characters! Hester is not just some boring symbol (although she is that as well). She’s also a real live person – with stubbornness, gumption … she came to life for me. The Scarlet Letter – unlike Tess of the D’Urbervilles – contains a real possibility of redemption. Redemption through sacrifice and suffering, a la Dostoevsky. And Hawthorne, in his writing, lets us know that this is not meant to be a literal tale, not really. The last sentence of the book contains the word “legend”. So this is meant to seem like a tale passed down through generations … one that has taken on mythic or legendary status. As in: “so once upon a time there was a woman named Hester Prynne … and here is what happened to her …” That style really works perfectly. Even in the descriptions of nature – and the townsfolk – and the red beams of sunset – all of that combine to create an IMAGE of a world, almost like a postcard, or a medieval painting. We are not meant to be IN that world … we look at it, in wonder and compassion … we see all the elements, it is an incredibly detailed portrait … but we are meant to maintain our distance from it, just a bit. It is, at its heart, a STORY – and it is meant to be SEEN as one.

I’ll always remember this second reading of the book because I finished it while sitting in the dirt in line in Central Park, 7 hours into my wait. Story here, if you haven’t read it.

Here’s an excerpt. The line about “borrowing from the future” startles me in its brilliance and insight. But then – most every page of this remarkable book has some kind of sentence like that one. Astonishing.

EXCERPT FROM The Scarlet Letter – by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Hester Prynne’s term of confinement was now at an end. Her prison-door was thrown open, and she came forth into the sunshine, which, falling on all alike, seemed to her sick and morbid heart, as if meant for no other purpose than to reveal the scarlet letter on her breast. Perhaps there was a more real torture in her first unattended footsteps from the threshhold of the prison, than even in the procession and spectacle that have been described, where she was made the common infamy, at which all mankind was summoned to point its finger. Then, she was supported by an unnatureal tension of the nerves, and by all the combative energy of her character, which enabled her to convert the scene into a kind of lurid triumph. It was, moreover, a separate and insulted event, to occur but once in her lifetime, and to meet which, therefore, reckless of econmy, she might call up the vital strength that would have sufficed for many quiet years. The very law that condemned her – a giant of stern features, but with vigor to support, as well as to annihilate, in his iron arm – had held her up, through the terrible ordeal of her ignominy. But now, with this unattended walk from her prison-door, began the daily custom; and she must either sustain and carry it forward by the ordinary resources of her nature, or sink beneath it. She could no longer borrow from the future to help her through the present grief. To-morrow would brings its own trial with it; so would the next day, and so would the next; each its own trial, and yet the very same that was now so unutterably grievous to be borne. The days of the far-off future would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days, and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame. Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast, — at her, the child of honorable parents, — at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, — at her, who had once been innocent, — as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.

It may seem marvellous, that, with the world before her, — kept by no restrictive clause of her condemnation within the limits of the Puritan settlement, so remote and so obscure, — free to return to her birthplace, or to any other European land, and there hide her character and identity under a new exterior, as completely as if emerging into another state of being, — and having also the passes of the dark, inscrutable forest open to her, where the wildness of her nature might assimilate itself with a people whose customs and life were alien from the law that had condemned her, — it may seem marvellous that this woman should still call that place her home, where, and where only, she must needs be the type of shame. But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghostlike, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime; and still the more irresistibly, the darker the tinge that saddens it. Her sin, her ignominy, were the roots which she had struck into the soil. It was as if a new birth, with stronger assimilations than the first, had converted the forest-land, still so uncongenial to every other pilgrim and wanderer, into Hester Prynne’s wild and dreary, but life-long home. All other scenes of earth – even that village of rural England, where happy infancy and stainless maidenhood seemed yet to be in her mother’s keeping, like garments put off long ago – were foreign to her, in comparison. The chain that bound her here was of iron links, and galling to her inmost soul, but could never be broken.

It might be, too, — doubtless it ws so, although she hid the secret from herself, and grew pale whenever it struggled out of her heart, like a serpent from its hold, — it mgiht be that another feeling kept her within the scene and pathway that had been so fatal. There dwelt, there trod the feet of one with whom she deemed herself connected in a union, that, unrecognized on earth, would bring them together before the bar of final judgment, and make that their marriage-altar, for a joint futurity of endless retribution. Over and over again, the temper of souls had thrust this idea upon Hester’s contemplation, and laughed at the passionate and desperate joy with which she had seized, and then strove to cast it from her. She barely looked the idea in the face, and hastened to bar it in its dungeon. What she compelled herself to believe – what, finally, she reasoned upon, as her motive for continuing a resident of New England — was half a truth, and half a self-delusion. Here, she said to herself, had been the scene of her guilt, and here should be the scene of her earthly punishment; and so, perchance, the torture of her daily shame would at length purge her soul, and work out another purity than that which she had lost; more saintlike, because the result of martyrdom.

Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee.

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12 Responses to The Books: “The Scarlet Letter” (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I actually enjoyed this book when I had to read it in high school, but could never bring myself to read it again. I just gave it another shot, but had to stop while I was reading about little Pearl. Can’t seem to read about her without putting my own kid in her place, and feeling like I would have done anything to keep her from being hurt. Time definitely changes perspective. When I was in high school I just thought Pearl was creepy.

  2. Brendan says:

    I love this book and all, but I really wish Hollywood would fiddle with the ending to make it more palatable.

    Oh, yeah. I forgot.

    Next up? Moby Dick where they catch the whale and eat it and all get rich on the blubber. Onew Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest where McMurphy gets away and starts a rock band. Catcher in the Rye where Holden mass markets his hunting cap and finds comfort in achievement.

    Arrgh. Nathaniel Hawthorne was a FREAK of nature. When you think about the writing of that book, I mean, writing that story in the privacy of his own home, and knowing what it would do to anyone who read it? Wow.

  3. tracey says:

    I need to reread this one, too; I read it so long ago — high school? — but I remember that it blew me away. My upbringing was so Puritanical, so legalistic, so two-dimensional, really, that this book just stunned me, on many levels. Hester and Arthur were revelations to me — the way what they did made them more human, more full of grace. My family would wag their fingers at people like Hester in real life, but this book really opened my young sheltered eyes, in the best way possible.

    Bah. I’m not explaining this well at all. It’s just I haven’t thought about this book in SUCH a long time and now all these thoughts are swirling around in my head, all willy-nilly, so I’m not making much sense!

    I realize now, maybe even RIGHT now, this moment, how important this book was to me. It changed me. I really think that after reading it, I began to separate, mentally, from some of the views held in my family. Still maintaining faith, but making room in my heart for people to be human, flawed. That was so HUGE for me.

  4. red says:

    //I really think that after reading it, I began to separate, mentally, from some of the views held in my family. Still maintaining faith, but making room in my heart for people to be human, flawed.//

    Wow. That made me all choked up. What a gift, tracey!!

  5. tracey says:

    You know what, sheila? I’m going to put this book on the list. I can’t stop thinking about what it did for me. It’s a sense of something profound — like, my heart beats faster thinking about it — but it’s also somewhat vague, because I read it, you know, several centuries ago.

    I need to go back and have a present-day experience of it. That’s why I think your project — your personal literary revival — is so cool. I need to make my own list of those books fro ages ago and start revisiting.

  6. tracey says:

    Vanna, I’d like to buy an “m,” please.

  7. red says:


    When one is swirling with memories from centuries ago, one cannot be expected to remember every little “m”!!

    You know, hearing your story, Tracey, of reading this book really really touched me and gets at the heart of what literature, at its best, can do. It’s like the story I tell every year of my friend Mitchell having Stuart Little read to him. That simple act saved his life. He saw OUT of his narrow world … and everything followed from there.

    The best writers don’t write with such epiphanies in mind. They just write to tell the best story they can tell. But sometimes – right place, right time – a story HITS … and you’re never the same afterwards.

    I think Hawthorne would be so so pleased to hear what his little symbolic tale did for you.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts when you read it again.

  8. tracey says:

    I love that story of Mitchell’s. You must please tell him I have a huge crush on him.

    But you are so right, SO right. This has been such an important little reunion for me today — you have no idea. I look at myself with such disdain most of the time and this, today, has shown me something so basic: that I am not that person my upbringing was forcing me to become.

    It’s strange; I feel so grateful for this book suddenly. Because now, all these years later, I have the perspective to see that that certain narrowness, that tightness that I grew up with, that stuff that oppresses me, I HAVE escaped a lot of it. And this book was one that opened that hidden door in my mind, that door that led to a different world than the one I inhabited.

  9. red says:

    A world where grace (which you write about so eloquently) is possible. What a gift.

    We are ALL fallen. And, ironically – Hester is the LEAST fallen of them all.

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