Published in 1850 Hawthorne picks up the historical fiction baton and writes about the Puritans who came to America in the 1600s. The story opens with a description of the outside of a prison. Quite an auspicious beginning. It is revealed that a young woman will be passing through the doors into the public gaze of the town. Her crime? Well, we can see her crime – in her arms she’s carrying a baby and, on her dress, she wears the brand of a letter ‘A’. However, Hester Prynne has accepted her punishment and, seemingly, has embraced it. With her talents she has created a beautiful gold and scarlet adornment that she’s to wear for the rest of her life. You have to admire her chutzpah.
However, Hester drifts through the novel, fate accepted, concealing the identity of one man, and hiding the secret of another. Many questions are asked. Why doesn’t she leave this infernal town? Why does she feel hide bound to keep these secrets? Why should we care?
And we do care. Because three quarters of the way through the book Hester has an emotion. She hates. This is not of the Puritan way, surely. She expresses the desire to see a vile man thrown into the pits of hell. Does she feel guilt for these thoughts? Of course she does because she’s only human after all.
And that’s when it starts to pick up. Until that point we have Pearl. Little Pearl who ‘dosts’ and ‘thous’ her way through the book, causing mischief and mayhem like a little imp wherever she goes. She is Hester’s foil and acts and behaves in a way that perhaps her mother would like to be able. And so this dichotomy perhaps best exemplifies the nature of the book. Good vs Evil, right vs wrong, secrets vs openness and so on all played out through the lives of the Puritans.
Hester Prynne has been much discussed over the past 150 years and quite rightly so. She is an enigma who chooses to emerge from her cloistered existence after seven years. I do like a number in a book and, in this case, the significance of the number 7 cannot be overlooked. No, I’m not thinking about the fact that it was the shirt number of David Beckham. Or the fact that there are Seven Wonders of the World, or Seven Hills of Rome or even Seven Sisters (which, if I’m very honest, thought was just an underground station on the Victoria Line but are also known as the Pleiades). No, lets get a bit more spiritual. On the seventh day God rested. Now, (S)He rests to take in the beauty and perfection of what has been created. I thought this explanation a little too…well, high and mighty for our Hester Prynne. But what about the seven virtues? I think it fair to say that in the seven years that Hester has been pilloried she is able to demonstrate her devotion through these virtues – admittedly not necessarily to God, but perhaps there’s another spiritual element to this, which I’m not sure I can offer an explanation to, but maybe it’s to do with fate and free will and humanity.
I think I quite like Nathaniel Hawthorne more for his ideas than his writing as such. From what I can understand he was more progressive than not. I found the style of The Scarlet Letter dense, not helped by the arcane language used. Was this a device to distance his novel from the Puritan ideas that had pervaded through the centuries? I will admit to skimming over a few paragraphs because it did get a little dull being stuck in Hester’s head a lot of the time. However, at about page 153 (In my Penguin copy) the tension ramped up considerably and events took a turn. The denouement was fast approaching.
There is so much to discuss about this book and I, in my half-hearted way, will hardly do it justice. However, it’s rather fascinating to read a number of American authors in quick succession dealing with very different eras and attitudes over the centuries. What would the Puritans make of Fitzgerald’s world? Unsurprisingly they’d be horrified! Would they find more in common with the characters in Wharton’s Gilded Era? Undoubtedly. The Puritans chose to export or exile themselves (probably the former) and start anew in a foreign land. Their ideas and ideals lay mostly unchallenged allowing for an incredibly rigid and inflexible society to emerge that touched all aspects of civil life, reverberations of which can still be felt today.
And that’s where I’m going to leave it, along with America – for a little while at least. I’m going to bring my reading back to British soil although undecided at the moment which direction it will take me, although I’m rather wondering if a train might be involved.