“She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
I didn’t remember much about my first time reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter years ago. I recalled a bit of dense writing, a picturesque Salem setting, and the piercing image of Hester standing on the scaffold, emblazoned with an embroidered “A.” I began this reread not knowing whether I would love the story or loathe it.
And yet, while reading this time around I was struck by the poignancy and cleverness of the novel. Somehow I’d forgotten how the main story is framed so smartly as some town lore, how brutal the agony of the guilty figure feels, and how methodically hidden meanings are gradually revealed. Culminating in a backdrop of mossy woods, nighttime witchery, and eerie symbolism, this striking novel was the perfect book to kick off my October reading.
In my lukewarm memory, this novel was mostly about Pearl, Hester’s daughter. However, Pearl is less of a character and more of a physical embodiment of the scarlet letter, a living and breathing reminder of Hester’s wrong-doing in the eyes of the town. She’s mischievous and often cruel, but again and again we’re brought back to the fact that she’s still just a child.
This novel presents such an interesting discussion of guilt and shame. We watch as a key figure is eaten away my hidden guilt–slowly, slowly, but surely enough. Over time we see Hester’s “A” change in meaning and even become valued by the townspeople. Yet the guilt that lies unseen in the heart of a certain character only worsens over time. Hawthorne’s message is clear: better to live the truth openly, whatever the consequences, than to be rotted away by undisclosed shame.
Hawthorne’s writing is dense at times, particularly in the beginning as he construct’s the main story’s outer framework. Once you get past that gnarled opening section, Hester’s plight pulls you in and keeps you engaged. Haunting, emotional, striking–The Scarlet Letter is an excellent autumnal read.
Thoughts on The Scarlet Letter or any of Hawthorne’s other works? I’d love to hear them.