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The Scarlet Letter Paperback – May 7, 2015
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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Long before the days of Jerry Springer and the shock factor that was his show, there was Hester Prynne and that whole scaffold scene that opens up The Scarlet Letter. The Puritans were pretty riled up about this whole thing.
I think The Scarlet Letter has been given a bad rap. I mean, I think collectively we tend to gravitate towards the negativity, gossip and scandal rather than looking the other way. And, Hawthorne was criticizing the masses and society of his time, in a way. We have become a society obsessed with negativity and sensationalism. Latest trends, headlines, gossip, media. It gives us the chance to voice and condemn others who have fallen (via an anonymous post through our keyboard or other device) and feel good about ourselves.
Well, Hester Prynne and her adulterous affair (gasp) was that Puritan scandal in Hawthorne’s day. Hawthorne takes a few jabs at the hypocrisies, just as we witness hypocrisies in our own actions today.
In another way, I think The Scarlet Letter eloquently examines the nature of different kinds of sin through three different lens and points of view: Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingsworth. Each of these characters has a chance to “redeem” or change the sin that plagues them, either internally or externally, and is given that freedom, whether they choose do make amends or remain stagnant. Redemption is possible, if one so chooses.
I get it, though. To call Hawthorne’s prose complicated and difficult to wade through is a gross and negligent understatement. It’s a bit of a challenge and you will have to spend some time slowing your reading down to get through some of the rather difficult prose.
Yet, when you get past the diction and writing style, there is actually a pretty good story in here. Hawthorne loved him some symbolism, too, and we can see this through the various key scenes and places, most notably the scaffold where Hester is publicly shamed.
I think that The Scarlet Letter is one of those novels where the sum is definitely bigger than its parts.
The MacMillan collectors library edition is a BEAUTIFUL book. The dust jacket design is lovely and subtle and not as dark as most I've seen. It has gilt edges and looks like an heirloom quality book!
That being said, if you're purchasing this as part of a classroom curriculum then this might not be the edition for you.
This is a pocket edition, a feature I didn't notice when purchasing. Which means the margins are narrow and the tyoe is small point. So, if you will need to make annotations and notes within the text then this is probably not the edition for you.
I got this for my son for this purpose and we don't have enough time to pick up a different copy so it will have to do, but I have a feeling it won't be easy going with this edition.
If you're purchasing just to own a copy, this is a very beautiful book and would make a lovely gift or stocking stuffer!
The connection of people with a particular patch of earth, even memorably expressed ("oyster-like tenacity") is a relatively minor theme in this work. The dominant ones are "sin," to use a word becoming increasingly obsolete, and which can designate actions and behavior outside of societal norms; guilt; and revenge. There is precious little love in this stern Puritanical society which helped establish America. There are still threads of current societal "norms" that can be traced back to these early beginnings of the United States.
The novel opens in the Custom House in the port of Salem, now well past its prime, sometime in the early 19th Century. Hawthorne for a time was a customer inspector so he was able to draw from that experience to depict the colorful characters who collected their paychecks there, mainly former Sea Captains. A book of old documents was found, and that was the entrée to the story which occurred two centuries earlier. The scene opens with Hester Prynne in prison, for a "sin" that had been committed at least 10 months earlier. She is married, but her husband was not in the Colony at the time, yet she became pregnant, and now carried the child in her arms as she is led to the pillory for public shaming. She has been sentenced to wear a large crimson "A" on her chest for the rest of her life. "It takes two to tango," but Prynne resolutely refuses to name who the father is. Hawthorne deftly handles the plot, gradually hinting and at last revealing who the father is. Meanwhile, Prynne's cuckold husband returns to the Colony, incognito, and obsessively plots revenge upon the father. Meanwhile, over the course of the next seven years, Prynne's daughter develops into a feisty and elfin child, precociously asking questions about the relationships between the key characters. And Prynne herself, even though branded as an outcast from society, through her skills as a seamstress, and her good deeds, at least wins a grudging acceptance from virtually all the citizens of the Colony.
"Feminism" can be an emotionally charged word, covering a wide range of complaints and grievances. Mary Wollstonecraft is considered an early pioneer in addressing the injustices done to women. It would be appropriate to present a man, namely Nathaniel Hawthorne, with an "honorable mention" in noting these injustices. As so often happens, even today, when the prostitutes are jailed, and the "John's" are not, society punished Hester Prynne, and the father "only" experienced his (significant) guilt as the partner in the tango. As Hawthorne expresses it through one of his characters: "It irks me, nevertheless, that the partner of her iniquity should not at least, stand on the scaffold by her side. But he will be known!" Hawthorne has Prynne ruminate on the injustice she has faced, and conclude: "Then the very nature of the opposite sex, or its long hereditary habit, which has become like nature, is to be essentially modified before woman can be allowed to assume what seems a fair and suitable position."
Hawthorne himself carried some emotional "guilt" baggage, assuming, like Original Sin, it can be inherited. His ancestor who came from England went on to become a harsh "burning" judge in the Colony - "burning" as in women, who were labeled "witches." And he was the only judge who never repented for his actions. It was one reason Hawthorne added a "w" to his name to distinguish himself from his ancestor. As Voltaire famously quipped: "It is remarkable how few witches there are nowadays since we stopped burning them." That might easily apply to "enemies" in general.
I first read this novel back at the beginning of time, as a high school reading assignment. Believe I got the answers to the test OK, but most of the rest of it was over my head. The second time around I was impressed with how well-written it is, maintaining dramatic suspense, while addressing fundamental problems of the human condition. 5-stars, plus
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great for middle grade to adult readers