THE SCARLET LETTER by Nathaniel Hawthorne

One of my favorite lines in literature was written by Arthur Miller for Death of a Salesman and spoken by Linda Loman in order to get her sons to recognize their father Willy’s emotional stability is fragile at best.

Attention must be paid.

Four words layered with meaning; a sentence that forces us to reexamine all that has occurred prior to this moment, and alerts us to the upcoming wreckage we have sensed but cannot see.

Hester Prynne is not Linda Loman. But both women understand any hope for transformation only comes from facing the truth, and for Hester that means living out her punishment on a daily basis.

Hester Prynne, therefore, did not flee.

These six words define her as a woman of strength. Her willingness to face the humiliation of her sin without dwelling in self-hatred or playing the victim opens our hearts to her. But Hester’s true strength lies not in her ability to endure the repetitive judgment that is laid upon her each day, but in how she avoids growing callous as a result.

…she felt or fancied, then, that the scarlet letter had endowed her with a new sense. She shuddered to believe, yet could not help believing, that it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sins in others hearts.

Hawthorne’s greatest gift as a writer might be his ability to construct complex characters. He accomplishes this by never shying away from the inner or the outer struggle of each character. He conveys both elements through poetic imagery that seems to circle round until it lands dead in the center of what he is targeting. The rhythm of his prose feels like a lost art and is a joy to bathe in.

…his look became keen an penetrative. A writhing horror twisted itself across his features, like a snake gliding swiftly over them, and making one little pause, with all its wreathed intervolutions in open sight. His face darkened with some powerful emotion, which, nevertheless, he so instantaneously controlled by an effort of his will, that save a single moment, its expression might have passed for calmness.

No matter how hard the characters try, they cannot hide their inner torment and as it seeps out of their grasp other characters sop it up.

The young minister, on ceasing to speak, had, withdrawn a few steps from the group, and stood with his face partially concealed in the heavy folds of the window-curtain; while the shadow of his figure, which the sunlight cast upon the floor, was tremulous with the vehemence of his appeal. Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him and taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself,—“Is that my Pearl?” 

The deep interconnectedness of these characters is another element to appreciate in Hawthorne’s prose. He wastes no time in connecting the dots between Hester Prynne, Reverend Mr. Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. The incident that fuses these three together has already passed. By placing the incident out of our reach, he forces us to tap into the tension that ricochets between the characters. This sphere of tension is what ignites our need to wonder as Shakespeare might say, “How will this fadge?” The situation is a disaster and we cannot look away. Why is that?

No matter how beautiful the prose, The Scarlet Letter is a bleak novel. Why do we stay tuned in? Why do we choose to wade through the fleshy sentences and paragraphs that seem only to underscore the dismalness of these characters’ lives? I believe the answer is found within Chapter One: The Prison-Door.

But on one side of the portal, and rooted almost at the threshold, was a wild rose-bush, covered, in this month of June, with its delicate gems, which might be imagined to offer their fragrance and fragile beauty to the prisoner as she went in, and to the condemned criminal as he came forth to his doom, in token that the deep heart of Nature could pity and be kind to him. 

This rose bush does more than establish the color red without mentioning it. Roses also combine the delicate beauty of their petals with the pain of thorns. So before we meet any of the characters we accept the idea of pain, but are reminded of beauty and the potential for hope that rises from it. Hawthorne feeds our desire for hope with the presence of Pearl.

But the brook, in the course of its little lifetime among the forest trees, had gone through so solemn an experience that it could not help talking about it, and seemed to have nothing else to say. Pearl resembled the brook, in as much as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed as heavily with gloom. But unlike the little stream, she danced and sparkled, and prattled airily along her course. 

Pearl is the reader’s salvation against the unhappiness and self-torment Hester Prynne, Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth are determined to carry. Her tenderness, as sporadic as it is, and her effervescence, encourages readers to be mindful in their life choices to avoid what her elders have experienced.

When I first finished The Scarlet Letter my heart was heavy. Weeks later, I recognized that although Hawthorne’s novel could never be considered a light read, at its core it is filled with love, and the story examines how well or poorly we make use of this natural element of life.

Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a deathlike slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world.

If this seems unbelievable, read The House of Hawthorne by Erika Robuck and discover the passion of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Then come back to The Scarlet Letter and bathe in the beauty of another era of life and the written word.