Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~ Book Review {A Bit on Ethan Frome, as well...}

I've been raving to my friends lately about how much I love Nathaniel Hawthorne. Well, his works anyway...although one friend and I agree he was pretty much a babe in his younger years. I've gone on about him so much that I put myself in the mood to reread The Scarlet Letter, a book I hadn't read in about six years, and before that, not since 7th grade. Each time I read this, I find I get so much more out of it and I sympathize with different characters' points of view.

Most people are familiar with the story, but here's a little bit---just in case:

Book Description: "Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a dark tale of love, crime, and revenge set in colonial New England. It revolves around a single, forbidden act of passion that forever alters the lives of three members of a small Puritan community: Hester Prynne, an ardent, fierce, and ultimately ostracized woman who bears the symbol of her sin--the letter A stitched into the breast of her gown--in humble silence; the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, a respected public figure who is inwardly tormented by long-hidden guilt; and the malevolent Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband--a man who seethes with an Ahab-like lust for vengeance."

In my opinion, one must really be able to relate to Hester's point of view, in order to really get all there is to get out of The Scarlet Letter. Yeah, you can be the scorned and bitter type and get Chillingworth, you can be the self-hating man with a martyr complex and get Dimmesdale, but to get Hester, you've got to understand redemption. You've got to "get" grace. Not everyone who reads Hester sympathizes with Hester. You sort of have to have been Hester to get it---and I think that's kind of the direction he ultimately goes with this story. As time goes by, the townspeople start to see that sin doesn't have to define, disable, or destroy the sinner. How we come out of the mess and move on determines our character. The townspeople went from loathing her to lauding her---all because she took what was coming to her like a lady and didn't let it get the best of her.

Before I share my favorite bits from the story, here's a few thoughts on Nathaniel Hawthorne. I'm seriously approaching annoying fan girl status when it comes to him. I love everything I've ever read of his---but I can't really pin it down to one thing. I think one big thing is that he writes about a part of history that's starting to become almost mythical---Colonial America. I love reading about the Salem Witch Trials and the Colonists' struggle to stay true to their understanding of the Bible in the face of so much opposition and hardship. I also really like how Hawthorne writes about the hypocrisy of self-righteous leaders and always seems to have a soft spot for the one who finds himself or herself not measuring up to the law---whether God's or man's. Hawthorne's ancestors were prominent colonial leaders who played a part in the condemning of early settlers, both during the Witch Trials and after. I've always thought his writings might be a form of penance for their mistakes and he confirms this in the intro to this book.

The story of how he was inspired to write The Scarlet Letter is an interesting one. There's a lot of back story as he explains it all in his introduction---it can get rather boring. The reader can probably just skip ahead to the part where he begins, They were documents, in short, (page 27 in my book) to get the general idea of what's going on, but basically, he worked in a customs house at one point in life and came across a fancily embroidered capital letter A. That's just so interesting to me and I'm dying to know what the real significance of it was. We'll probably never know.

Overall, I think the thing I enjoyed the most about the book this time around is that I understood the language. For instance, a major foreshadowing happens at the end of the fourth chapter that I'd never picked up on before. Also, at the end of the tenth chapter, everything turns around between Dimmesdale and Chillingworth---but I've never understood what was going on there until now. Both of these instances are integral to the heart of this story. It's interesting to me how much I've grown since I've changed my reading habits to include more well-written and classic literature.

My favorite line from the book is something I think we should all memorize for times when we're feeling attacked: "Ha, tempter! Methinks thou art too late!" answered the minister, encountering his eye, fearfully, but firmly. "Thy power is not what it was! With God's help, I shall escape thee now!"

I'd love to hear your thoughts on The Scarlet Letter or any others of Hawthorne's excellent works.

This week I also read Ethan Frome. So. Ethan Frome. I remember the first time I started this book. It was about nine years ago and I had a pink bathtub. I tried---I really did. But I just couldn't get into it. Last month, I figured I'd pick it up again since I'm just so much more intelligent and mature now. I got it this time---but it was a Frodoian feat to finish it. Like The Great Gatsby, it's sort of a "meh" for me. In my opinion, it was depressing from beginning to end, not super developed, and ended flatly.

The Scarlet Letter fulfills the Full House challenge for Outstanding Heroine.
Ethan Frome fulfills the Full House challenge for Book Set in the Northern Hemisphere and the New To You challenge for New Author.

Read more about my Reading Challenges!