Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

October 10, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Posted in Books and Movies | Leave a comment

I recently read an article which tired to demonstrate that those who read exclusively digital material have weaker thinking processes than those who read books.  (I read it on line of course!  Though I couldn’t tell you now where it was!)  The article mentioned that older books were especially good to read, because they required more thought.  I remembered a seminary professor saying that Nineteenth-Century authors seemed to be paid by the pound, because they were so wordy.  My library would seem to support that theory with books like Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah and A.B. Bruce’s The Training of the Twelve.  The article inspired me to pick up another Nineteenth-Century volume that I’d thought for some time I should read.  It was Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The edition I read through was an Oxford Classics edition which included a lengthy introduction by English Professor Brian Harding.  Though the introduction was interesting and helpful, I found myself sorely disappointed that Harding revealed the unknown partner in Hester Prynne’s adultery, which served to take away some of the surprise in the novel itself.

The book was a good, albeit difficult, read.   One difficulty was the antiquated terminology used in places, but the footnotes added by the editor were very helpful in this regard.  However, the seemingly endless descriptions of things that had little or nothing to do with the storyline itself were the greatest negatives of the book.  For instance, in the introductory chapter called “The Custom-House,” Hawthorne takes forty-three pages to tell the supposed history of how he came into the story of the Scarlet Letter.  Though the chapter was interesting, over twelve of those pages were dedicated to describing the men Hawthorne worked with at the Custom House, and, as far as I can tell, those descriptions had absolutely nothing to do with anything else in the book – just Nineteenth-Century wordiness.  Another example is the entire chapter called “The Procession.”  This was eleven pages of irrelevant details that Hawthorne wrote, presumably, to build the tension for the revelation that was to follow.  It too seemed like wasted words.

On the positive side, the book is a great picture of actual guilt, feelings of guilt, shame (both public and private), and the impact those have on our lives.  The parties actually guilty of adultery, the woman known to the community and the man hidden from them, had completely different responses to the sin, the first from shame and the latter from deep hidden guilty feelings.  In this regard, it’s worth wading through the entire book just for the descriptions in “The Interior of a Heart.”  Here’s one description of the guilty man’s troubled thoughts:

He kept vigils, night after night, sometimes in utter darkness; sometimes with a glimmering lamp; and sometimes, viewing his own face in a looking glass, by the most powerful light which he could throw upon it.  He thus typified the constant introspection wherewith he tortured, but could not purify, himself.

How many of us have been there at some point in our lives!  Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

This novel is also remarkable for its presentation of Puritan New England – its attitudes, strengths and hypocrisies.  Though I’m not sure Hawthorne’s interpretation of the Puritans and what they believed is entirely accurate, it seemed overly negative to me, it was a fascinating aspect of the book.

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