Review: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In high school, a classmate of mine read and made a presentation about this book. Since then, I’ve wanted to read it for myself, so I bought a copy when I saw it at Coles.

Read: June 17 – July 20, 2023

Book contains: public shaming, talk of religion, revenge plot

Okay, But Not a Book For Me

Hester Prynne is brought before the town in a display of shame. She has mothered an illegitimate child and is condemned to wear a scarlet letter A (for Adulteress) upon her dress. However, not long after the act of adultery, her husband—thought dead at sea—returns to New England to discover her betrayal, he and embarks on a quest for vengeance upon the man who fathered his wife’s child.

Something that really took getting used to was the length of the sentences. They’re all so long! It messed with my reading comprehension a little at the beginning, because even though I don’t mind a long sentence or two, it was nearly every single one. Like other Arcturus classics, the text was small and the margins narrow, but the sentences each still took several lines. Luckily, I was used to it, and by about halfway through the book, I barely noticed it anymore.

With that in mind, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to get through this book so smoothly without the audio recording of it that I found on Spotify by Classic Audiobook Collection []. There were a few readers that I disliked, specifically because their voice was either flat or hard to understand with a thick accent, but otherwise, it was quite enjoyable. Unlike other books, it was a single 7-hour recording (with a new reader each chapter, of course).

The book is written in the past tense, though there is discussion in the present tense as well, as the narrator informs the reader of the customs and ways of the community. The copy that I bought includes an opening chapter called Introductory to The Scarlet Letter, which is told in first person as the author relays a bit of his life and what led to him writing this book. The rest of the book is written in third person and flits between the different characters. The narrator also knows a lot of information that the characters do not know and chooses to share or withhold certain things.

The main cast includes Hester Prynne, the adulteress; her husband, whom she’d thought dead; her young daughter, Pearl; and Arthur Dimmesdale, a Puritan minister at the local church.

Hester is an interesting character because, though she was publicly shamed for mothering a child out of wedlock, she remained upright with pride and honour and grace. I found her an excellent mother to her wild-child, Pearl, dealing with all of the girl’s antics and energy almost effortlessly. There is a bit of a mystery surrounding who the father of her child is, which is figured out not quite at the end of the book, but not near the middle either. We also follow the narrative of her husband’s revenge plot as he searches for the father of her child—the name which she refuses to share. Robert (the husband) is a cold and intelligent man who seems to have lost his mind to jealousy and hatred.

Beyond the characters, the book itself was sort of interesting, but I found myself unable to get attached to the plot. The writing was okay, I suppose. It has that same style as other Classics from the 1850s. It doesn’t have any strange or unusual quirks aside from how long each of the sentences are. Other than that, I thought it was well written, if a bit confusing—I don’t see myself reading it again, but it’s definitely a book to be read with critical thinking in mind.

Honestly, I could have not read this book and been okay with that, but as I was making my way through the classics anyway, I’m glad I did. I assume it’s a lot deeper than I realize, so it’s a good book for deep thinkers and those interested in the discussion of ethics.

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