Read of the Week: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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A classic Read as recommended by Practice Mentor Clare this week, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

‘The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

The rust on the ponderous iron-work of the prison’s oaken door looked more antique than anything else in the New World. 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 he 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.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

It is from this prison door that we first meet Hester Prynne, as she comes forth carrying her new born babe, forced to stand on the scaffold and face her punishment.

Her crime?

That she has committed adultery and refuses to name her lover.

Her punishment?

That she be branded a social outcast for the rest of her life.

From this point on, Hester has to work out how she and her child, the formidable little Pearl, are to live in a community that refuses to acknowledge their equal status as fellow human beings. However, this is also a story of survival, and our two female protagonists seem bent on rebellion. Doomed to wear the letter A for adulteress, for example, Hester is quick to transform a bland piece of cloth into a beautifully elaborate scarlet letter. It is a spirit of rebellion that will become even more evident in her greatest ally and fiercest supporter, her daughter little, but courageous, Pearl.

The Scarlet Letter is not only a novel about how to survive social prejudice, but also explores the potentials and limitations of love when having to work within the world, as well as the ravages of jealousy and revenge. For Hester has both a husband, the obsessive Roger Chillingworth who is determined to find out about his estranged wife’s secret lover, and of course there is the lover himself – the father of little Pearl – who, much to the sadness of both mother and daughter, bears a very different attitude to society’s verdict: one of tremendous crippling guilt and subjection rather than rebellious pride and outward defiance.

Although the rigid moral world of 17th century Boston might at first feel far away from the accepted norms of contemporary society, there is much to reflect upon in the novel for ourselves as well as for Hester and her peers. Having read the book in two Shared Reading groups now, you soon begin to think about the different ways in which a person might feel themselves branded as an outcast in today’s world and how you might deal with such treatment.

The child Pearl often becomes a role model for readers, a beaming light showing what might be possible for those of us who are brave enough to follow our hearts rather than the 9780199537808expectations of others. Once people get into this complex web of human relations, they soon get used to Hawthorne’s long sentences and dense prose.

However I would advise to miss the introductory chapter on the Custom House and go straight to the start of the novel at The Prison Door, where both yourself and your readers can dive straight into the moral conundrum’s of this wonderful novel and hopefully discover where the seeds of kindness might come from in our lives to enable us to be brave enough to cope with those more rigid ones of judgement.

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