52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
on May 22, 2006
There are so many things I could say about this book, but should I reach the heights of elegance achieved only by Shakespeare, Hawthorne himself, or Faulkner, I could not overcome the horrible, terrible misconceptions most people have formed after having this beautiful novel foisted upon them in high school. Instead, I'll share a few observations and some tips for reading.
First, this is a complicated story. It's not about evil Puritans and hero Hester, although you will read this point of view in the cheat note summaries on the internet. It's not about feminism, really, nor is it about religion in any technical sense. The only comparison that really fits is that of love story, or love triangle, or maybe love square. (I told you it is complicated.) In all of literature, there are very few writers who have penned characters so incredibly real and well-rounded. When you finish the novel, you KNOW these people. Certainly there is some minor societal commentary, but the real story here is about these people.
Now, I'm assuming that many people looking at this page have been told they must read this book for high school English. As a former teacher of said subject, I have some pointers.
(1) Make sure you read the book for yourself. Chances are (in our current educational system) your teacher is going to have a flat interpretation of this book, likely gleaned from some ready-made teaching packet. (If you have another kind of teacher, consider yourself lucky.) You can have some very interesting class discussions if you actually read the material and challenge some of the majority opinions about the novel. Be a rebel. Have some fun in English.
(2) Read *The Custom House* introduction, but wait until after you've finished the book. It's only good in that it explains Hawthorne's view of his own book (difficult and painful) and reveals his struggle to write it. The writing style, however, is decidedly un-Hawthorne and more difficult to read than the rest of the book. If you read it first, you will be unfairly biased against the novel.
(3)Read it SLOWLY, if at all possible. The storyline is complex and should be read with care. I would also recommend underlining and taking notes, if your copy of the book allows it. You will develop a truly deep appreciation of the work.
(4) Finally, avoid the Demi Moore 1995 adaptation AT ALL COSTS. Words cannot describe how awful it is. And if your hope is to find something to help you on the test, the only real similarities are the character's names and the red patch on Hester's dress. If you must see a film version, find the PBS miniseries with John Heard and Meg Foster (made in the 1970s). It does the best job that a film possibly could with this material.
160 of 187 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2009
I have long wanted to read this book by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It was one of the first books I downloaded when I got my kindle 2. The character portrayals are superb. It analyses the thoughts, motivations, strengths and weaknesses of the four major characters in the story - Hester Prynn, the vengeful doctor, the hapless minister and Hester's vivacious and elf-like daughter Pearl. The description of the little girl and how she copes with being ostracized with her mother by a rigid puritanical society, is especially moving. While there are some descriptions of nature that are quite vivid, most of the text goes into developing these four characters and is a fascinating psychological study, though at times it's little slow.
Overall, a well-crafted story and a good read.
The book though is hard to navigate on the kindle because it has no active table of contents. I therefore would not purchase this version at regular price. Luckily, it's free!
206 of 249 people found the following review helpful
on September 6, 2000
Like many reviewers here, I was "forced" to read this book for my English Composition class. However, unlike many reviewers here, I have a much different view of the story. As some people have said before, Hawthorne's book takes a good deal of concentration, effort, and strength to understand. Not only to understand, but to finish. The story can drag sometimes, it is true, and Hawthorne's style of writing occasionally leaves something to be desired (I don't think I've ever seen that many commas, 15 letter words, or page long paragraphs before), but we simply must look past these minor issues. Overall, the plot is highly creative and intense, despite the writing.\
Ok, ok, I agree that the first chapter, "The Custom-House", was pretty bad. In fact, it was so bad and boring that I drifted off to sleep several times while reading it! The first chapter has little relevancy with the story, so, unless you have to, I would suggest skipping that part of the text. The rest is exceptionally good, and the quality of the plot cannot be overlooked. My advice is to just lay off the first chapter; that way you'll be able to enjoy the rest of the book without difficulty.
The story itself deals with sin and adultery, a subject that isn't very popular right now. Hawthorne does an excellent job of telling us about this, but he leaves the reader with many questions floating around in his mind at the conclusion. At the end of the story you're not 100% sure if Hawthorne was condemning the Puritan society, or if he was commending it. He leaves that for the reader to figure out, which is a thing authors seldom do. That's a major reason I believe this work is so unique and timeless.
The story involves a women named Hester Prynne, living in the New World in the late 17th century. She has committed adultery with someone unknown, and, since the Puritan society considered the Bible to be their ultimate source of law, the punishment was quite severe for such an act. Hester is forced to wear a scarlet "A" (for adultery) on her attire at all times, as a sign to everyone that she has sinned deeply. And so she must carry out the rest of her life this way. That's the major gist of the plot, although there's much more. I won't give it anyway, though, you'll have to read the book to find out.
Let's face it: at some time or another we all are going to probably have to read this book, voluntarily or involuntarily. Shouldn't we try to make the best of it? Read it for its enjoyment, anything else would be missing the point.
110 of 135 people found the following review helpful
on December 14, 2008
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, takes place in the 1600s in Boston, which was a Puritan community at that time. The Puritans had extremely strict moral codes, and adultery, a subject matter in this novel, was deemed by the Puritans in the same way that felonies today are regarded. The novel's plot is directed by the Puritans' reactions to such behavior.
Nearly all classic novels get praised for character "development." However, the Scarlet Letter is the only novel I have read so far that, in my opinion, truly demonstrates development of characters. All other novels I have read have "exploration" of characters, but not actual development. Development of characters involves portraying the changes in a person's personality as a result of conflict.
In my opinion, the most impressive aspect of the Scarlet Letter is the ingenious connection between the novel's message and character development. In the Scarlet Letter, a single incident of adultery has unforeseen consequences that affect four people. How each character responds to the situation determines his or her physical and mental outcome in the story. The core message of the novel is that hiding one's sins causes more anguish than revealing one's sins.
The character development is superb, but the novel does not seem to use the developed characters to influence the plot. The subject of adultery was a creative element to develop characters, but I wish that the author had introduced a different conflict toward the end of the novel to show how the 3D characters would have reacted to the change in subject matter. I personally think that varying the subject matter and conflict would have made the message even more convincing; however, the novel is written with a confident call to action, which is the MOST important aspect of any work of fiction.
We live in a world in which immorality is everywhere, so a novel in which nothing inappropriate happens would be a pointless novel. Novels must address societies' immorality without sacrificing decency. Therefore, I commend The Scarlet Letter for referencing sexually immoral subject matter, without being a "sexual" book. This represents brilliance and should be observed by all writers of fiction.
Many readers have complained that The Scarlet Letter is irrelevant to today's society. To some extent, I agree. However, the greatest novels written today will be irrelevant to society two hundred years into the future. Therefore, there is no justification for criticizing writers simply because their masterpieces will someday seem irrelevant. As time progresses, scenery changes, climates change, countries split up or join together, governments change, laws change, etiquette changes, etc. However, the elements of human personalities do not change with time. It is for this reason that I constantly emphasize the importance of characters. The Scarlet Letter's characters' personalities are thoroughly developed and distinctive, so they exist throughout today's world, as well as tomorrow's world.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2000
I enjoyed reading The Scarlet Letter. I was not forced into by a Literature teacher; I picked it up on my own because I heard it was a great American classic; and, indeed, I have to agree. It is truly timeless. It has been almost five years since I have read this book and I can remember the scenes and words so vividly. Hawthorne's dizzying imagery provides an adventure into the life of a Puritan woman, Hester Prynne, that one does not soon forget.
Hester, practically abandoned by her husband is left to take care of herself in a lonely new world. She is flesh and bone with desires and passions like any other human being. Hester commits adultery and is found out by a cruel, judging community. She must wear a Scarlet A on the front of her dress; A for Adultery. Hester refuses to give the name of her lover Dimmesdale so he goes free and untouched by the damning society, but must face the tortures of his own conscience.
Hester is humiliated and must suffer the consequences for her actions but she is not a broken woman. She stands, brave.
Dimmesdale comes through in the end and admits his role in the dangerous game. Hawthorne takes the readers on a spinning ride to get to this point. Read it and know the exact ending for yourself. I recommend it; highly.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 1999
This book is the first of two grand contributions that Nathaniel Hawthorne made to American literature (the second being the inspiration that he provided to Herman Melville during the composition of Moby Dick.) Like all great books, this novel deals with issues which are timeless and central to the human condition. Can (or should) the state legislate morality? If so, to what degree? Which is the greater sin, a momentary weakness or a sustained and conscious deception? Which is the greater punishment, public humiliation or private guilt? And, perhaps most importantly, what is the proper response to each? The novel provides clear and compelling examples of tragic consequences which can be avoided by the simple, but sometimes difficult, act of telling the truth. The permeating sadness of the story results from the failure of each character to do so.
Despite comments here to the contrary, this book is not difficult to read or understand, and it is not dull if you can grasp its themes. The ideas expressed are intricate and symbolism is pervasive throughout the story. However, any reader who really wants to understand and enjoy the book should not have great difficulty in doing so. To those readers who feel challenged to appreciate this book, Hawthorne himself offers you a thought (on page 18 of my edition) which you should seriously consider --
"It contributes greatly towards a man's moral and intellectual health to be brought into habits of companionship with individuals unlike himself, who care little for his pursuits, and whose sphere and abilities he must go out of himself to appreciate."
27 of 32 people found the following review helpful
"All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," might well be Nathaniel Hawthorne's theme in The Scarlet Letter. Certainly, by all community standards Hester Prynne's adultery is a sin. Worse yet Arthur Dimmesdale has triply sinned since he has had carnal knowledge of a member of his flock, and through a deep and abiding cowardice has failed to acknowledge his sin; and what is even worse yet, he allows Hester to bear the weight of public condemnation alone.
However the worse sin of all belongs to Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband who is not dead at all, but returned in disguise as a physician who has learned the efficacy of various medicinal concoctions from the Indians during his captivity. He pretends to befriend Dimmesdale in order to extract his long and torturous revenge. But it is Chillingworth's character itself more than anything that marks him as the worse of the sinners. He lives only for revenge and to give pain and suffering. He cares nothing for his wife and her child. He cares nothing for anyone, not even himself. He lives only to avenge.
Dimmesdale's sin is that of a weak character. In a sense Dimmesdale is Everyman, the non-heroic. We see the contrast between the proud bravery of Hester and the all too human weakness of Dimmesdale who cannot bring himself to confess his sin, but looks to her strength to do it for him. We see this in the first scaffold scene as he pleads along with Chillingworth for Hester to reveal the father's identity. "Reveal it yourself!" we want to say.
While some have seen Chillingworth as the devil incarnate--and indeed I suspect that was Hawthorne's intent--it might be closer to the truth to see him as the vengeful God of the Old Testament with his lust to mysterious power and his desire to see the sinful suffer. At any rate, Hawthorne's masterpiece--and it is a masterpiece, one of the pillars of American literature, to be ranked with such great works as Melville's Moby-Dick and Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn--is about sin and the effect of sin; and this is only right since the central tenet of Christianity itself is sin and the forgiveness of sin.
By employing and investigating deeply three types of sin--Hester's from love and even something close to innocence; Dimmesdale's from lust, pride, neglect and cowardice; and Chillingworth's from hate--Hawthorne came up with a most felicitous device for examining the human soul.
The Scarlet Letter is regularly taught at the high school level, but surely this is a mistake. The novel is difficult and challenging even for honors students. The architectured sentences, with their points and counterpoints, their parallel construction, their old school rhetorical cadences are strange and even wondrous to the modern eye. It is a good practice for the teacher and for the student to read aloud Hawthorne's prose so as to grow accustomed to his words the way one must for Shakespeare. If this is done and the edifice of Christianity and especially the fatalism of the Puritan mind brought to bear, then with leisurely pace and a steady concentration, the terrible beauty of Hawthorne's novel might be made immediate.
Although the story itself is compelling, and the prose rich and poetic, the real strength of this great novel is in its characters. How true to life are all of them including even little Pearl who is defiant and willful in her beauty and her promise, so like a heroine-to-be of a modern novel. And how despicable and loathsome is this bent old man who embodies the very soul of the despised! And how attractive on a superficial level is this pretty young pastor whose actions are not the equal of his looks. And how strong and faithful and heroic is Hester who invites both envy and admiration, something like a flawed goddess of yore.
What stuck me when I first read this, and remains with me today, is that it is those who presume to punish sin who are the real sinners. Chillingworth's life is one devoid of human feeling, devoid of any real joy as he lies in the stone cold bed of hatred and revenge. And to a lesser extent so it is with Dimmesdale who cannot forgive himself, who secretly flagellates himself so that his life becomes a hell on earth. On the other hand there is Hester who finds forgiveness and love with good works and in the joy of her beautiful and precious Pearl and in her unstinting love for Dimmesdale and her hope and faith that a better life will come.
This is a deeply Christian novel although it is usually seen as a criticism of Christianity in the sense that the Christian community condemns the least of the sinners while the hypocrisy of its clergy is made manifest. Looking deeper we see that it is forgiveness of sin and the redemption that comes from good works that is exemplified. Hester knows the joy of life because she is a loving and giving person; and on another level she is forgiven because we the reader forgive her. How could we not? And most of the Puritan flock also forgave her since it came to be said that the scarlet "A" she wore upon her person stood not for "Adultery" but for "Able."
It is also good to realize that when Hawthorne published the novel in 1850 the scene of the story was nearly two hundred years removed. Thus Hawthorne looked back at Puritan America from the standpoint of a more secular society greatly influenced by Jeffersonian deism and the transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau. In some respects, Hawthorne's brilliant treatment of the ageless theme of sin, guilt and redemption was a serendipitous, even unconscious, artifact of his literary skill. No artist composes a masterpiece without some deep talent at work independent of his conscious efforts.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2013
I tend to get scared when reading classic literature. I fear I will not understand the language, what makes the characters, and the subtle undertones that make these books so immortal.
The Dover Thrift Study Edition makes everything so easy to understand while still giving the reader a chance to find their own way through the text.
The book itself is in the front, but the back holds character descriptions as they come in, chapter (or chapters) summaries and then an analysis of what has happened and what it means in the bigger picture.
Whenever I must read a classic my go to is to see if they have it in a Dover Thrift Study Edition. It makes my life so much easier and I also get so much more out of the book than if I had just read it alone.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on September 30, 2013
In case you're put off by old-fashioned, elegant writing, and this aversion has kept you from approaching the classics, let's look at The Scarlet Letter from a more modern viewpoint.
Hester and Arthur had a little roll in the hay at some point. In the 1600's in Boston this was a grave sin, since she had thrown her lot in with an old coot back in England years before. Her mistake, as we would see it today, was marrying the wrong guy in the first place. But the biggie in the eye of society of the day is that she has a baby in her arms and no husband in sight.
We meet Hester in the height of her infamy, as she stands on the scaffold in the center of the town square in her somber dress emblazoned with a glittering red "A" emblazoned on the breast, for all to gaze at and judge. A is for Adultery, as Sue Grafton might say, but Nathaniel Hawthorne, in centuries past, titled his masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. This is where our book begins, and from the minute we meet her we sympathize with Hester, even without the turn of centuries--we want her down from that platform and, if possible, in the arms of the right man.
Required to wear that "A" in her daily life from then on, Hester does her best to support the youngster, who is extraordinary by any standards. She names her Pearl, as the lass was acquired at great price, and Pearl glistens through this tale, all-seeing and perhaps all-knowing. Hester adores the child but is perplexed at being a single parent of a magical sprite. The coot-husband enters the picture, bent on revenge against his perceived rival, and, assuming a new name and identity, works his way into Arthur's confidence with a plot to destroy him. He is as ugly as the devil, and he may well be the devil, but what happens as the quartet of symbols and flesh and blood interact with surprising developments and some unforgettable examples of the art and craft of writing. I came upon the chapter in the dark wood, having waded through brambles of long words, "thees," "thou wasts" and "I cansts," having sent myself to the dictionary more than once--all to the good--only to find one of the most compelling, one of the sexiest, most exciting chapters I have read in all of literature.
The Scarlet Letter is rewarding, thought-provoking, and worth the trip back in time, and the examination of unfamiliar words and sentence structure. I was advised by a former professor of American Literature at a major college to skip Chapter One, and I recommend you do the same. Don't expect to waltz through this one--take your time, study as you read. Hawthorne deserves his place in the firmament of great writers, not just American writers, but this uniquely American tale illuminates him for the universe. Its foreshadowing of more enlightened days gives us pause to wonder--have we made it, or will we ever?
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2000
One of the American classics, THE SCARLET LETTER tells of a woman named Hester Prynne in late 17th century who committed the then-unforgivable sin of adultery. She had been living in Boston for two years and had been found guilty of bearing a child (Pearl) by an unknown father. As punishment for her sin, Hester was forced to wear a scarlet A (adultery) on the bodice of her dress and to stand on a public scaffold before Boston's townspeople.
The opening chapter "Custom House" seemed irrelevant to the rest of the novel the first time I read the book. It was not until a couple of years later I found it not true when I re-read the novel. I do have to admit that Hawthrone's writing style can drag at times, the once-seemed boring opening chapter significantly set the mood for the rest of the novel.
"Custom House" does not seem to be an integral part of the story; yet the passage in which Hawthrone tells of having discovered, in the Salem Custom House, the faded scarlet A and the parchment foolscap sheets containing the facts which he says he used as the basis for this novel. The two landmarks mentioned at the beginning: prison and cemetry, point to the central themes of punishment and death, which will be combined in the climax of the novel. Prison might symbolize how Hester Prynne, who wore that scarlet A on the bodice, was forever locked in by her sin.
This entire tale is filled with symbolisms. The prison is described as "the black flower of the civilized society". The tombstone at the end of the book implies that crime and punishment may well bring about the death of such civilized life. The most popular and conspicuous symbol that is well sustained throughtout the book is the scalet A that is worn by Hester Prynne. Initially it is a red cloth letter which is a literal symbol of the sin of adultery. But the author makes the symbol A much more richly symbolic throughout the rest of the tale. The scaffold is not only a symbol of the stern Puritan code, but also a symbol for the open acknowledgment of personal sin. Night and day are symbols for concealment and openness. The sun symbolizes happiness and freedom of guilt. The list goes on and on....
Arthur Dimmensdale, Roger Chillingworth, Hester Prynne, and Pearl themselves, are symbols as well. They reflect certain view of sins and effects on humans and society. The book might take strength and effort to read; but it's not quite a bad read.