Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is an inevitable read for most high school English classes. Besides being a good book to cite on the SAT writing section, the book has some pretty socially responsible themes.

What it's about

The Scarlet Letter follows Hester Prynne, a woman living in 1600's Boston. The Puritans are...well, all about being pure, so the citizens expel her from the colony after they figure out that she has had an affair outside of her marriage. How do they know? She recently had a baby named Pearl even though her husband has been over in Europe for years.

Sadly, Hester is left to fend for her daughter and herself in a cottage on the outskirts of town. Nobody knows which man she had a romance with (since men don't have babies and therefore provide no physical evidence).

Readers soon realize that the baby-daddy is this hypocritical Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale (easy way to remember - he stays "dim" or out of the limelight of being the town adulterer). This guy is all afflicted internally, but gets none of the external shame that Hester has to deal with.

There's also Hester's legal husband, Roger Chillingworth (he's "chilling" because he's evil). He secretly comes to America during this whole scandal. Chillingworth is all about torturing Dimmesdale and chastising Hester.

Amidst this crazy love triangle, Hester manages to do good in the society. While she is judged and expelled for her sin, she helps others through her seamstress work and over the next seven years people think of Hester affectionately.

Your favorite part will be...

Hester's creepy daughter Pearl. She's like one of those four year old award-winning pianist prodigies - she's super intelligent for her age and she asks eerie questions.

We also kind of liked to see Dimmsdale psychologically suffer since he's a hypocrite for punishing Hester Prynne for adultery.

The cause-y angles

Women's rights

  • Because women have children, Hester has to wear a scarlet-colored "A" on her chest. The consequences of her affair were inevitable, unlike for a man. Kinda like how guys can refuse to step up to the plate after a girl gets pregnant while a girl has to deal with it. We're just sayin....
  • Hester is strong. She wears the "A" and makes it her own. It becomes a symbol of her free thinking, not merely her adultery. That's why she refuses to take it off when the townspeople finally approve of its removal.
  • Also, Hester is not some damsel in distress from an old movie. She is just as intelligent and forward thinking as the men in her society, not to mention self-sufficient (she raises a kid in an isolated cottage ALONE while also having a job!).

Bullying

  • This theme is pretty clear - at the beginning of the book, townspeople make her stand on a platform so that they can humiliate and shout at her.
  • The red "A" is demeaning. It's a form of branding her like an animal. These citizens were intent on shaming her.