Hey everyone! I’m back with my book review for April on The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I will just put a disclaimer up front here though — this book was packed full of symbolism and allegorical meanings. I tried to cover most of them in my Spiritual content overview, but it would mean a lot more if one reads the book themselves to see what I mean, as I probably missed some. There will also be major spoilers in this review, so read at your own risk.
That being said, let’s get onto the review!
The Synopsis (Taken from Goodreads)
Hailed by Henry James as “the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter reaches to our nation’s historical and moral roots for the material of great tragedy. Set in an early New England colony, the novel shows the terrible impact a single, passionate act has on the lives of three members of the community: the defiant Hester Prynne; the fiery, tortured Reverend Dimmesdale; and the obsessed, vengeful Chillingworth.
With The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne became the first American novelist to forge from our Puritan heritage a universal classic, a masterful exploration of humanity’s unending struggle with sin, guilt and pride.
Positive Messages: Many of the positive messages in this book intertwine with the spiritual content, so many of them will be below. However there are some which aren’t spiritual in and of themselves which are here.
A younger minister is under the authority and obeys another older, wiser minister. He pleads with Hester, the main character and adulterer, to name her guilty partner. In turn, Hester refuses to tell who her partner is, wanting to cover his sin. When Hester’s husband meets her, he tells her all he wanted was a happy marriage and he wanted to make her happy. Hester tells him she has wronged him by her adultery.
Hester does not complain about her punishment, nor about being ostracized from society. Instead she accepts it as her punishment and works hard to provide for herself and her baby. Through this, she develops into a person who appears warm and tender, visiting the sick and dying, comforting the sad, sympathizing with sinners, and gives to the poor, even as the very people she helps insult her. Because of this, she eventually gains the name “Sister of Mercy”. Hester especially loves her daughter, spoiling her with pretty clothes and good things that she doesn’t spend on herself.
The Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester’s partner in sin, for much of the book hides his sin. However, he does not hide it because of pride, as he constantly tells his congregation he is such a horrible person. Instead he hides it because he has such a strong desire to serve God. He longs to confess his sin, but fears if he tells everyone his sin, they won’t listen to him and he won’t be able to serve God anymore.
At first, the townspeople are very cruel to Hester and Pearl, her daughter. However as time passes, they begin to soften towards them and treat them kinder. Some even refer to the scarlet A on her chest as meaning “Able” due to her helpfulness, rather than its true meaning of “Adulterer”.
Hester remains pure all the years after her affair, and tries to be a good example for her daughter, so her daughter won’t make the same mistakes she did. She also sees her husband, under the name Roger Chillingworth, tormenting Arthur to enact his revenge and wants to help Arthur. However, since she promised Roger not to tell anyone he was her husband, she can’t tell Arthur anything. Instead of just breaking her promise, she gets permission from Roger to break it first. When she does tell Arthur this, he refuses to forgive her for a moment, but then relents and forgives her.
Towards the end of the book, Arthur and Hester arrange to run away together with Pearl to escape their shame and Roger. However Arthur still wants to stay until he fulfills all his prior commitments he made.
Spiritual Content: There was a LOT more spiritual content in this book than I expected. For starters, when Hester refuses to tell people who her adulterous partner is, they know that even thought they remain ignorant of his identity, God sees him.
Hester wonders if the devil will haunt her for her sin. The devil does tempt her a few times to imagine herself with her lover, but she casts the thoughts down. Though she could leave the village to escape her shame, she stays to remind herself of it and to make herself more godly. As the people treat her wrongly, she forgives them, but struggles to pray for them since she fears if she does, she’ll curse them in her prayers rather than bless. She has pity for the people who have sinned and hide their sin within them but who deserve a scarlet letter just as much as she did.
Hester tries to raise her daughter, Pearl, in a Christian way. She prays for her and tells her God made her and is her Heavenly Father, though Pearl says she has no father. A minister examines Pearl to see if she’s learning Christian values. When they attempt to take her from her mother, another minister defends Hester, saying God gave Pearl to her and made her to work upon Hester’s heart so they can help each other not fall into sin again.
Arthur’s health fails because of his attempts to hide his sin and guilt. He tells everyone he’s not worthy to serve God, but everyone thinks he’s holy because he remains so pious and seems outwardly so pure.
People believe God sent Roger, who is also a physician, to help Arthur. Arthur, though, says if it’s God’s will for him to die, than he’d rather die than take his medicine. Eventually he gives in and does, though overtime some people begin to wonder if Roger is satan’s emissary to haunt Arthur (which is kind of symbolic since Roger seems to be the embodiment of Arthur’s guilty conscience).
Roger himself actually has one of the most powerful (in my opinion) speeches in the entire book. He tells Arthur it’s better to confess sin and serve God with a clear conscience rather than to hide it, serve God as a hypocrite, and attempt to make things right with self-abasement. He also says physical ailments can have spiritual roots.
Arthur replies by saying he’ll allow the Lord to take care of his soulish/spiritual ailment, and God can heal or kill him. He also attempts to purify his conscience by harming himself, fasting excessively, and staying awake all night. (But only God can purify one’s conscience through the confession of sin.) He also says if he was an atheist, he could have lived in peace since he would not have a conscience. But then he corrects himself saying eventually someday he would lose that semblance of peace anyway. He says he’ll pray for Roger to thank him for his services as his doctor.
When Hester sees Roger is driving Arthur to insanity, she begs him to forgive him and leave his fate to God, not for Arthur’s sake, but for Roger’s, since he rightfully is the only one who could live in peace if he forgave them since he was just a victim of their affair and had done nothing wrong.
While Hester’s hardships have outwardly made her look like a better person, the author also notes she learned some things that were “amiss”, and look like romanticism and secular humanism. She wants to leave everything behind, all the responsibility and morals and let her emotions rule. She wants to run away with her illicit lover and make it seem like the past never happened.
Arthur, while weak-willed, is swayed by her emotion and strength and asks God to pardon him before agreeing to run away with her. His emotions make him feel “free” in an unreligious way (but he still feels the need to glorify God in it). Since he’s finally planning to give up his moral code and everything he’s stood for, he feels like doing wild and wicked things. The devil tempts him to say blasphemy, to cause a young girl to sin, to teach some boys some bad words, and to join in with others making crude and coarse jokes. He discovers he cannot remember any scripture verses. After all these temptations (which he does avoid falling into), he wonders why he is being so tempted, and realizes that he “made an agreement with the devil” by deliberately choosing to do that which he knows is sin, and it is corrupting him.
Finally, Arthur sees his only chance at freedom is to confess his sin, not hide it. Despite Roger’s attempts to get him to remain in his suffering and torment, Arthur says with God’s help he will escape Roger. This shows Arthur finally finding his strength and freedom — in God — to overcome his fear, the devil, and his guilty conscience (which Roger seems to embody). This is further proven by Arthur explaining his flesh does not want to do it, but God granted him strength to do it, and he won’t allow satan to keep him from it.
Roger says the scaffold (the place where Arthur (and years earlier, Hester) makes his admission of guilt) is the one place Arthur could escape from him at, and Arthur thanks God for giving him the grace to do it. Arthur asks Hester if it’s not better for him to confess his sin and get true freedom for them all than what they planned to do (run away) before. Hester says she doesn’t know (revealing her secular humanistic lean). Finally, among all the townspeople, he confesses everything, including his hypocrisy.
Arthur admits he violated God when he agreed to run away with Hester, and he says God is merciful even in his afflictions. He says if it hadn’t been for Roger’s torments and his impending death, he may have fallen away from God and never confessed his sin. He also asks God to forgive Roger. He praises God before dying.
Arthur’s confession of his sin not only frees himself, but it also frees Hester of wearing the scarlet letter, Roger of his quest for vengeance, and Pearl of her need to battle the world.
Arthur, who is looked at as a saint by the people, is said to have chosen to die in Hester’s arms to show how everyone has sinned and to discern the mercy of Christ.
A pastor is sad about one of his congregants’ sin. Divine Maternity (Mother Mary) is mentioned. People mention the Puritans left England to escape relics of Catholics. A man prays at the bed of a dying man. Arthur preaches a sermon which wins many to Christ. A widow finds her joy in the Scriptures. People say the devil was Pearl’s father.
Scriptural upbringing of children is mentioned along with Proverbs 13:24. Other scriptural references given are John the Baptist’s death and Enoch’s holiness in Genesis 5:21-22 and Hebrews 11:5. Acts 1-11 is mentioned as preachers are mentioned lacking the baptism in the Holy Spirit.
Romantic Content: The major conflict of the book surrounds the adultery of Hester Prynne with Arthur Dimmesdale, which takes place before the events of chapter one. It is suggested throughout the book due to the guilt the characters feel, Pearl’s existence, and the scarlet letter. However, it is never explicitly talked about, described, or told to the readers.
Despite the passage of time since the adultery, Hester and Arthur both admit they still love each other and plan to run away. They hold hands in private, and Hester hugs him.
Violent Content: There isn’t too much violent content in this book. As a toddler, Pearl throws stones at other children who stare at her and her mother. She also nearly gets into a fight with kids who throw mud at them, but scares them off by charging and yelling at them.
The most violent content, which could be a trigger for some readers, is the knowledge that, in an attempt to make penance for his sin and ease his guilty conscience, Arthur self-harms himself in a variety of ways. A bloody scourge is mentioned once, and at the end of the book, “witnesses” claim to have seen a scarlet letter imprinted into his flesh, perhaps from one of his self-tortures. None of his actual attempts at self harm are described in detail, however.
Language: There are no curse words in this book! However, some people do call Hester cruel names, and also call Pearl a “demon child”.
Other Negative Content: Many Puritan women harshly judge Hester, including one who wants her to get the death penalty. All the supposedly “Christian” Puritans treat Hester like an outcast, rejecting her and her innocent baby, gossip about her, and treat her very un-Christian like.
People want to take Pearl from Hester because they believe Pearl is a demon child, and that Hester is raising her to be a heathen. Pearl undoubtedly is a wild child and seems very defiant, not listening to her mother and hardly showing any affection and honor. It’s later revealed this is a consequence because of her parents’ guilt and the social isolation she receives which makes her feel like she must fight against the world.
Superstitions float around about ‘the Black Man’ (the devil) and people making covenants with him. Someone tells a child this story, though admittedly the person believed the child was asleep when she spoke of it. A woman who everyone believes is a witch (this book takes place close to the Salem Witch Trials) also talks of this story and people say the devil is her master.
Hester married a man when she did not love him and tells him outright she never loved him. In turn, her husband understands and forgives her for what she did since he feels he coerced her into marriage, but says he will seek to get revenge against her illicit lover. He also makes her keep their marriage a secret, which ends up injuring Arthur. She later says she hates him, despite it being a sin, and says he did more wrong than she did by coercing her into a marriage.
For much of the story, Arthur is too cowardly and weak to confess his sin. The result destroys his mental and physical health. He relies on others to help him decide what to do, even asking Hester for advice. Her advice: run away and start anew. Unfortunately, no matter how far someone runs, someone’s conscience goes with them. This is further proved when Roger discovers their scheme and plans to go with them to further his torments.
Roger befriends Arthur and keeps him alive with his medicine, but knows Arthur is hiding something. He becomes obsessed with discovering his secret, and eventually discovers he was Hester’s illicit lover. From then on out, he keeps him alive for the sole purpose of tormenting him to insanity and to drive him from God. His whole countenance becomes twisted and distorted in this quest for vengeance, and he blames it also on Arthur, not taking responsibility for his own actions.
People believe someone who is restless or wicked has satan dwelling in them, and they need to drive him out with whips. A man says he studied alchemy (witchcraft, basically).
Total Content Rating: 4.33/5 Stars
Honestly the synopsis says it all. I was actually amazed at all the symbolism Hawthorne put into this book, such as the character of Roger Chillingsworth basically being Arthur Dimmesdale’s guilty conscience embodied (you can never escape your conscience no matter where you go and how far you run unless you confess your sin) and the talk about making a deal with the “Black Man” (the devil) when a character sins.
It was also a much easier unabridged classic to read than some I’ve read before. While it’s written in old English, there’s not too many pages where there’s just a block of text describing one single thing (though there are a few) which makes the story go quicker and it kept me engaged and reading until the end.
Finally I really, really, enjoyed the ending. I’ve heard some people say Hester is the heroine of the story, and while I’ll admit she is the protagonist, I actually believe Arthur Dimmesdale is the hero. With all Hester’s strong will and ideas to escape their guilt and Roger, it was ultimately Arthur, with God’s strength, who actually freed himself, Hester, Pearl, and Roger, not by running away like Hester wanted, but by confessing his guilt and turning to God, not running from Him.
Personal Rating: 5/5 Stars
Thank you for reading my review! Do you want to read this book? Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below! God bless! ~ Kay Adelin