Review of Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"

Published: Sunday, 30 September 2012 Written by Nicole Bertrand


Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Secrets borne with Letters as punishment?

Isbn#: 978-0-333-3934578-0

Review by: Nicole Bertrand


A menagerie of secrets and a labrynth of lies, The Scarlet Letter never ceases to keep the readers exceedingly curious.  The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a well known classic which is regarded with much prestige in the literature world.  However, does this book really live up to the expectations one has when picking up a book of such repute?  This piece of literary art begins with a complex and long prologue which was accounted by a nameless narrator. Later, we see that this narrator is the surveyor of the customhouse in Salem, Massachusetts.  His job required him to search the attic of the customhouse where he unearthed many documents; one of which was a manuscript containing a scarlet letter ‘A’ embroidered with gold thread.  This manuscript contained the details of the story attributed to the scarlet letter written by the surveyor of about two hundred years before the time of the narrator.  Sadly, the narrator lost his post as surveyor and proceeded to write an account of what he had discovered, and thus, The Scarlet Letter was born.

The story begins with an adulteress, Hester Prynne, being let out of jail in seventeenth century Boston, clutching her baby, Pearl.  She wore dark clothing and bore a striking scarlet letter on her breast.  An elderly onlooker was then seen to be educated by a man in the crowd that Hester was an adulteress.  Her husband had sent her to America, but had never accompanied her to the country.  The whole town thought him to be either lost at sea or dead; and according to the townspeople, she had taken the opportunity to have an affair of which the baby Pearl was the product.

As any modern day case of adultery, the community wanted badly to know the identity of the father of Hester’s illegitimate child.  She is lead to the public scaffold for ridicule by the community and intercession by the clergy and magistrates in hopes that she would reveal the identity of the father.  Not only were they curious, but it was not fair that she bear the utter ignominy of it all alone, as if it were she alone at fault.  Hester accepts her fate but does not relinquish the identity of the baby’s father.  This alone keeps the readers curious.  Why would she suffer alone? Who could be the father of baby Pearl?

Hester lives for seven years, providing for herself and her child by practicing her trade, that is: sewing.  Pearl, however, has grown into quite the peculiar child.  Her own mother thought her to be impish and sometimes unearthly.  Also, the entire community notices that Pearl is not the average girl and the more superstitious even concluded that Pearl may be immortal.  The reason why Pearl behaved so strangely is a mystery that readers can only hope to find at the end of the novel.

Not too far from Hester, another part of the story was being told.  This stars reverend Arthur Dimsdale and Roger Chlingworth, the town physician.  The Reverend was known to give spirit filled sermons which moved everyone in the audience.  Unfortunately, the reverend was seen to be infirmed as of late, although the general public was kept in the dark on this matter.  Hester Prynne then comes back into the picture and seems to have either uncovered a secret or was in the process of harboring one.  What secret could involve Hester Prynne, the reverend and the physician? Was everything as pleasant as it appeared to the people of the community?


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne presents an issue with which I can relate; not only as a female individual but as a member of a community.  For instance, even today if a woman gets pregnant out of marriage, she is looked upon with scorn by the community. The society’s attitude is even more condescending when the pregnant female is a mere girl like myself.  Our society, although it has become more lenient over the years, is very judgmental. Pregnant unmarried females are still seen to be looked down on regardless of the father. As a female, I am able to sympathize with Hester who had to raise a child on her own while withholding from the community the identity of the father.  I cannot deny however, that due to my love for interesting stories, I was able to finish the book to the end, solely to uncover the many secrets it holds.  Also, I can empathise with Hester who must have felt so alone, not a confidante in the world, and only an elfish yet beautiful child to call her own.


Moreoverd, I have advice for prospective readers—The Scarlet Letter is not for the faint of intellect.  The structure of this book in my opinion, is very complex, jam-packed with large archaic words, enough to have had me with a dictionary for every two lines. This influx of new words and sophisticated structure, were especially seen in the prologue, which at first I did not understand at all. Also, the version I read was in old English so it took quite a bit of time to read in comparison to other books that I have read. Apart from the constant need for definitions to numerous words, I enjoyed reading The Scarlet Letter because of its well-developed plot and merely because it was a challenge for me.


On a brighter note, I absolutely loved all the unexpected twists and literary richness of this novel.  For instance, I had no clue who the father of Pearl would be and the marvelous yet disturbing story behind it.  All in all, if you’re a mature reader looking for a book to keep up your curiosity while filling up your vocabulary, The Scarlet Letter is the novel for you.



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