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The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne
130 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jeanne

A slow story with varying morals and an errant view of God's mercy and grace.

Plot

Set in New England during the time of the Puritans, "The Scarlet Letter" tells the story of Hester Prynne, a young woman who committed adultery and is forced to wear the red letter ("A") to forever remind herself and others of her sin. Her only joy is her young daughter, Pearl. The narrative weaves a story around the four people involved in Hester's past: tortured Reverend Dimmesdale, cruel Chillingworth, wild young Pearl, and torn Hester herself.

Morality

The morality in the story swings from being good to being horrid. On the one hand, Hester often expresses sadness for her sin; however, the Puritan people of the village look down on her and scorn her, unwilling to forgive. God is portrayed as a stern, equally unforgiving, omnipotent Person in the sky ready to lob thunderbolts at the nearest offender, without mention of grace or mercy. Hester and the Reverend Dimmesdale both believe themselves unable to be forgiven for their sins.

Pearl mocks people and is reprimanded by Hester. The governor of the region considers taking Pearl away from Hester, but the action is portrayed as a hypocritical, self-righteous act.

Spiritual Content

One woman in the village is said to be a witch, and accuses Hester of communing with the Devil. Pearl speaks of the "Black Man" whom she believes lives in the forest. The people are Protestant Christians, at least in name, but many are just hypocrites. Also, the people make much of "Satan has done this" and "Satan has done that," tending to blame normal things on the Devil. There is some talk of God, Satan, sin, and other Biblical things.

Violence

There is a scaffold in the middle of the town where offenders are hanged, and stocks for lesser sinners. Some villagers speak of the Devil stealing away people's souls. Pearl has a habit of beating Hester's letter for fun, as well as occasionally flinging rocks at animals.

Drug and Alcohol Content

None.

Sexual Content

Though the tale revolves around Hester’s infidelity, there is nothing graphic and no prolonged mentions. She always wears the red letter, as much to punish herself as to remind the other villagers. Pearl wishes to wear the badge when she grows up, but she doesn’t understand what it means (though she seems to have some idea of what it is). Hester also prepares to run away with the man whom she committed adultery with before circumstances forbid it.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

None.

Conclusion

"The Scarlet Letter" is a slow story, picking up at the middle and then slowing once more to a crawl. It picks up again toward the end, but the ending itself is abrupt and somewhat confusing - the reader may have to go over it several times before making sense of it. The morals in some sections are enough to make a reader balk, and the errant view of God is sometimes offensive; Hawthorne, drawing inspiration from the legalism he saw in late Puritanism, lacked understanding of the grace and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. When Hester begins to shed her guilt I was pleased, but she sheds it to the point of falling into the sin again. Though the redeeming qualities of the story include intricate characters and an interesting (though perplexing) resolution, readers have a lot to slog through in this narrative to dig out any rare gems.

Fun Score: 2.5
Values Score: 2.5
Written for Age: adult

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