Book Review: The Scarlet Letter


By Robert Mullins, Reporter

In The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne, Hester Prynne is a Puritan woman accused of having an amorous relationship outside of her marriage. This claim is only substantiated by the birth of her daughter, Pearl, which effectively makes any possible defense of Hester untenable. As punishment, the strict elders of the town, known for their carping ways, force her to wear a scarlet letter A sewn on her breast. As if to belabor the point, she is also forced to stand on a scaffold with her child for all the townspeople to see as recompense for her transgressions. During this time, she is ordered by the town elders to divulge the name of her lover. Hester refuses and remains intransigent despite pleas from her pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, whose entreaties ring with a certain irony given the identity of her unknown paramour. Only one familiar with the plot will recognize that, in truth, Dimmesdale is making a covert attempt to temporize.

Little does Dimmesdale know that a strange man had arrived with a group of Native Americans to witness the spectacle in the village and was gathering reconnaissance for his own bizarre mission. He later meets Hester himself, where she recognizes him as her husband, who had been gone for three years. In confronting her, he makes many invidious remarks and swears vengeance on the man who had disgraced their marriage. Hester retorts that it was she who has wronged him and that he was looking to arrogate revenge. After refusing again to name Dimmesdale, her husband takes a new name, Roger Chillingworth, and leaves her, assuring her he will learn the identity of the man. 

After these events, Hester, naturally taciturn to begin with, eschews polite society and is shunned. She makes appearances and speaks to others only when it was germane to do so, such as presenting officials with garments created by her skilled hand. For a time, she was scorned, even in displays of largesse to the destitute, with them often insulting her as they accepted her charity. As time went on, her daughter Pearl grew up into an acquisitive young girl with a seemingly insatiable appetite for mischief. She, like her mother, is also shunned by the society of the colony. Pearl, unlike her mother, does not know why. 

Pearl greatly admires her mother and states repeatedly that she wishes to emulate her in every way, which makes Hester feel a pain worse than any physical punishment the Puritans could ever dream of inflicting on her. Despite this, Hester becomes rather used to her place as a sort of pariah, with many insults of the people becoming rather banal to her.  

What continued to torture Hester, however, was Chillingworth’s torture of Dimmesdale. The young minister had been in failing health, so Chillingworth usehis knowledge of medicine as a pretense to get closer to the man he suspected. This so concerns Hester that she meets Dimmesdale in the woods, removed from the rest of the colony, and tells him everything that Roger Chillingworth has done to him, and who he truly is. This, and their devotion to each other congeal their resolve to leave the colony and start anew somewhere else. 

All of this happens on the eve of an immensely important mass that Dimmesdale was to celebrate with the people of the colony. The sermon he delivers is considered one of the most convincing, coherent, and succinct of his life. Some even speculate that it is divinely inspired. He would die that very day. Hester went on to grow old in the community, and, rather than being scorned, grows to be admired. Towards the end of her life, she and others around her viewed the Scarlet Letter as a kind of ultimate encomium, and she was revered as a wise old woman until she died. 

Over the course of the narrative, Hawthorne takes a fascinating dive into the human psyche as he explores themes such as the physical and mental effects of guilt that manifest in Dimmesdale. The reader is invited to ponder whose punishment is more severe, between Hester, whose shame is widely known and acknowledged as a first step towards her receiving forgiveness; or Dimmesdale, who trembles under the weight of a secret, crushing guilt intensified by the presence of the man he has wronged, bent on revenge. The duality explored in Hester’s character as a loving maternal figure and a scandalous harlot is another compelling theme explored throughout the novel, making The Scarlet Letter an engaging novel and fascinating tragic romance that is well worth the read.