Written in 1850 but set in 1642, The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, a single mother in puritanical Boston. Hester was married, but her husband is presumed dead, missing at sea on his voyage over to the USA and so, when she has a child out of wedlock it’s too much for the puritans to accept. She is punished publicly, forced to stand on public display for several hours and then imprisoned. Furthermore, for the rest of her life she must wear a red letter A on all her clothes (A for Adulterer).
Whilst on public display Hester spots her ‘dead’ husband in the crowd. He enquires what her crime is, and, unable to bear the shame, he assumes a new identity, Roger Chillingworth. Chillingworth poses as a physician and, together with Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, visits Hester in prison in order to question her about the child’s father. Hester refuses to speak. In private, Chillingworth then tells her that if she ever reveals his true identity he will find and kill the child’s father.
When Hester is released from prison, she lives a quiet life with her daughter, Pearl. The hypocritical townsfolk are wary of her, yet find themselves secretly pitying her and wanting to help. Hester is generally avoided, stigmatised as she is by her scarlet letter. Pearl, also, is viewed with suspiscion and the two of them live amongst the people, yet outside of society. Meanwhile, Dimmesdale falls ill and so Chillingworth moves in to his house in order to take care of him. Suspecting his illness is really caused by guilt, Chillingworth is hell-bent of revenge. I don’t like spoilers, so I won’t say here who Pearl’s father really is, or how the story ends. Suffice to say this is a story about sin, guilt, hypocrisy and a mother’s undying love.
I remember studying the puritans in history lessons and being slightly freaked out by their beliefs. It’s just all so extreme and that comes across in The Scarlet Letter. None of the old ‘he who is without sin cast the first stone’ here, Hester is relentlessly persecuted but holds her head high throughout.
Because it was written over 150 years ago the language can make it a bit difficult to get into I think, but I was hooked by the subject matter. I don’t know much about the Puritans, but their way of life seems so alien to todays society that they intrigue me. The context of this book is therefore essential, I don’t think I would ever have picked it up if it weren’t for the setting. As it stands, I really enjoyed it. I tend not to re-read many books, certainly not ‘classics’ (ie old books!) as I find them difficult to get into due to the prose. Yet one day I just may return to The Scarlet Letter. I feel it deserves more of my attention.
“What a strange, sad man is he!” said the child, as if speaking partly to herself. “In the dark night-time, he calls us to him, and holds thy hand and mine, as when we stood with him on the scaffold yonder! And in the deep forest, where only the old trees can hear, and the strip of sky see it, he talks with thee, sitting on a heap of moss! And he kisses my forehead, too, that the little brook would hardly wash it off! But here in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him! A strange, sad man is he, with is hand always over his heart!”
If you like tales of an outcast in a judgemental society you might like The Crucible
If you like stories about trying to blend into an uncaring society you might like Two Caravans
If you like the storyline you might like A Month Of Sundays