I get my list of books I want to read from many different places. Often it was a text that related to my course, or a suggestion I had seen online or heard from a friend. More often than not I find my reading material by walking around bookstores and just looking around in every section. And sometimes I find my next read in a teen comedy film. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic The Scarlet Letter came to me in the form of the 2010 film Easy A, a film that I really enjoy, and one that is partly inspired by one of the most famous novels in American literature.
The Scarlet Letter, set in 17th century Puritan Boston, follows the struggles of Hester Prynne, a woman shunned from society when it is revealed that she committed adultery after she gives birth to a daughter. Forced into a life of alienation and cruel rejection from society, Hester is sentenced to wear a bright scarlet letter ‘A’ on the breast of her plain coloured Puritan garments to mark her out as one steeped in sin. As time passes, she becomes in a way a symbol of rebirth in the eyes of her Puritan neighbours. She is a woman who goes from being one they scorn, to one they observe with quiet awe.
The novel is heavy with the themes of repentance and guilt. As the years pass, Hester struggles with these feelings in her relationship with her daughter, her own husband, and Pearl’s father. She also develops a fear of Pearl, her own daughter, in some way. It isn’t that she doesn’t love her child. On the contrary, she goes to great lengths to protect her and keep her; but she seems to see in Pearl the wildness that led her herself so deeply into sin, and it unnerves her, and the other townsfolk, to watch how comfortable her daughter is being so impish.
The emotion of forgiveness builds and builds throughout The Scarlet Letter. It’s a crucial theme throughout the novel, more important than the shame of Hester’s guilt, or the desperation of her lover to repent. It outweighs the determination of her husband to exact revenge on the man who wronged him. Forgiveness has to happen on so many different levels in this story, and the act of forgiveness has a profound effect on everyone involved throughout the story.
I love reading classic literature, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel is a firm favourite of mine. There’s a great story at the heart of it, and an admirable and intriguing heroine. Hester Prynne is a realistic heroine, a woman who falls low in society and manages to pull herself up out of the darkness year by year. She receives little to no help from those around her, making her journey all the more admirable. She is fiercely protective of her child, and wears her letter ‘A’ with a mix of shame and prideful acceptance. She understands that this is her lot now, but seems to hold no real regret for it. Does she feel guilty for what she did? Yes. Shame is an emotion that is almost palpable at times in The Scarlet Letter, but it is obvious from the beginning of the novel that Hester Prynne does not regret her daughter. And through her strong reluctance to name the man who fathered Pearl, you discover a woman who perhaps really loved him.
I know The Scarlet Letter will not be everyone’s cup of tea; it’s one of the more old-fashioned classics, and has dialogue style that harks back to more Shakespearean times. But if you can get past that, it’s definitely a novel worth trying out some time.