Reading Update: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

So right about now, it’s around 2 p.m. on a Monday. The townhouse is very, very quiet.  I have just returned from lunch, leaving me very content. My office is a comfortable 75 degrees, or whatever roasting temperature I like to keep it at. And the cats are sprawled out on the floor, sleeping their life away.

All signs point to a nap. And I could probably use one: I woke up at 7 a.m. this morning and immediately started working. I was up until 12:30 last night, and though the last hour of that was spent watching Robot Chicken Star Wars III (don’t judge our taste in television), I spent roughly 4-5 hours working last night alone. And then tonight I have a city commission meeting, meaning I’ll hit up the local 24-hour coffeeshop around 10 p.m., then spend the next 3-4 hours pounding out some overly complicated story on special land use permits, or something like that. Then, I’ll sack out for a few hours of shut-eye so I can get up tomorrow at 7 a.m. and start again.  Yes, a nap would be good.

But instead, I’ve decided to FINALLY review The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a book I finished weeks ago. How else better to spend some “free” time than working on my own projects—projects I’ve been sadly neglecting the past few weeks. But no matter; let’s get into this, shall we?

First, let’s just assume we all know the plot of The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne commits an indiscretion with a pseudo mystery man, a baby happens, and she is SHUNNED by her Puritan-era neighbors.  Blah blah blah, we know the rest.

Now, as I’ve said before, I re-read The Scarlet Letter in an attempt to revisit my high school reading list and see what I may have missed when I was 15 and understandably preoccupied with other, more important, things. That’s not to say I wasn’t a paperback fool even then (let’s give my 15-year-old self some credit), but that was also nine years ago.  A lot has changed.  Understandably, my opinion of The Scarlet Letter may also have changed.  Now, if I remember things correctly, I didn’t dislike the book; in fact, I may have done a project on it. However, it didn’t strike me as profound or particularly interesting; it was standard fare and I felt like I got more out of the other books we read during that trimester of American Lit—The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men (why we read two Steinbecks, I don’t know).

Unfortunately, I still feel the same way.  I can definitely see why The Scarlet Letter is a favorite among early high school curricula; it’s easy to understand, short, and so chock full of SYMBOLISM, analysis is almost too easy.  I mean, hello?  The color red.  The “A.” Pearl.  Arthur Dimmesdale. Roger Chillingworth.  If kids don’t understand literary symbolism after giving The Scarlet Letter a try, then they just might be hopeless.

OK, so it’s teachable.  And not particularly difficult, another reason why I believe I wasn’t a fan as a 15-year-old.  I mean, even then I could tell when a book challenged me.  But then, is that really the problem?  My favorite Nathaniel Hawthorne piece is “Young Goodman Brown,” a short story that juxtaposes good/evil in a fashion similar to The Scarlet Letter. Is it the fact that “Young Goodman Brown” is a short story, thus lacking all the boring “middle” part from The Scarlet Letter that even now, as a patient 24-year-old with a Literature degree, I found myself struggling to wade through?  But I’m supposed to like long novels.  What, then, is wrong with this book?

I don’t know, but I say that this experiment proves that re-reading the classics doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll realize the error of your ways and fall in love.  Sometimes, there are books you just don’t like.

Now, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t like The Scarlet Letter, I just couldn’t get into it, no matter how hard I tried. Granted I was reading during that awful first month of Patchdom—when I barely had time to sleep and eat, let alone spend quality time with a book.  My mind probably wasn’t in the right state to properly engage with an 18th century novel. However, when your mind shuts off every time you pick up the book, something’s not right.  That’s not how I approach books, even the ones I don’t like.

I will say this for The Scarlet Letter though: it’s much more than that first scene, when Hester stands on the town scaffold with the “A” emblazoned across her chest, the entire town staring at her in silent reproach.  It’s more than the shadowy figures of Arthur Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth, with their appropriately symbolic names, creeping about being ashamed or evil.  The Scarlet Letter is about a woman who prevails against all odds, an outcast who is later revered as a saint by those who once accused her.  Her endurance and nerve is a testament to woman throughout literature, and I’m surprised I don’t hear more about Ms. Prynne during discussions of literary heroines.

And so, it’s up to you whether you want to re-read The Scarlet Letter.  If you’ve never done so, then by all means, get thee to the library!  No matter how I feel about it, it’s an important part of the American literary canon and to say you haven’t read it … well, that’s sorta pathetic.  But if you’re considering whether it’s worth a re-read, that depends on on how much energy you can devote to the project.  You’ll probably need a lot, but you never know, it just might be worth it.

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2 thoughts on “Reading Update: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. Pingback: Winter Reading List, Take Two | Paperback Fool

  2. Pingback: ’10 Books I Didn’t Get Until I Was Older’ | Paperback Fool

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