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This is not the book you hated in high school . . .
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.