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The Scarlet Letter

By: Nathaniel Hawthorne

A beautiful woman who is punished for the mortal sin of loving a man other than her husband, a cowardly lover, a vengeful husband, a rebellious illegitimate child and the oppressive and patriarchal morality of 17th century Puritanism in Boston. Together these form an unforgettable and thought-provoking glimpse of how much social attitudes have changed over the centuries. Nathaniel Hawthorne was the creator of such beloved works as Twice-Told Tales, A Wonder Book for Boys and Girls, The House of the Seven Gables and spine-chilling tales like Roger Malvin's Burial. Scion of an old Puritan family from Salem, Massachusetts, Hawthorne was familiar with the old traditions of the area. He began writing in college and worked as a customs surveyor to earn his livelihood while pursuing his passion for creative writing. His friendship with Ralph Waldo Emerson broadened his horizons considerably and he experimented with movements like Transcendentalism. The Scarlet Letter is a deeply disturbing novel about gender discrimination, women's oppression, male dominated society and authoritarian religions. Set in 17th century Boston, its lovely heroine Hester Prynne, is accused of adultery and giving birth to an illegitimate child in the absence of her husband. The punishment mandated for this crime is to be paraded and vilified in public with a scarlet letter A affixed to her chest, signifying “adulteress.” She refuses to name her partner in crime. The missing husband arrives fortuitously at that very moment, but does not reveal himself to Hester or the public. Intent on revenge, he devises an elaborate plot to destroy his wife and her nameless lover.

In Puritan Boston, Massachusetts, a crowd gathers to witness the punishment of Hester Prynne, a young woman who has given birth to a baby of unknown parentage. Her sentence required her to stand on the scaffold for three hours, exposed to public humiliation, and to wear the scarlet "A" for the rest of her life. As Hester approaches the scaffold, many of the women in the crowd are angered by her beauty and quiet dignity. When demanded and cajoled to name the father of her child, Hester refuses.

 

As Hester looks out over the crowd, she notices a small, misshapen man and recognizes him as her long-lost husband, who has been presumed lost at sea. When the husband sees Hester's shame, he asks a man in the crowd about her and is told the story of his wife's adultery. He angrily exclaims that the child's father, the partner in the adulterous act, should also be punished and vows to find the man. He chooses a new name, Roger Chillingworth, to aid him in his plan.

 

The Reverend John Wilson and the minister of Hester's church, Arthur Dimmesdale, question her, but she refuses to name her lover. After she returns to her prison cell, the jailer brings in Chillingworth, now a physician, to calm Hester and her child with his roots and herbs. He and Hester have an open conversation regarding their marriage and the fact that they were both in the wrong. Her lover, however, is another matter and he demands to know who it is; Hester refuses to divulge such information. He accepts this, stating that he will find out anyway, and forces her to conceal that he is her husband. If she ever reveals him, he warns her, he will destroy the child's father. Hester agrees to Chillingworth's terms although she suspects she will regret it.

 

Following her release from prison, Hester settles in a cottage at the edge of town and earns a meager living with her needlework, which is of extraordinary quality. She lives a quiet, somber life with her daughter, Pearl, and performs acts of charity for the poor. She is troubled by her daughter's unusual fascination with the scarlet "A". The shunning of Hester also extends to Pearl, who has no playmates or friends except her mother. As she grows older, Pearl becomes capricious and unruly. Her conduct starts rumors, and, not surprisingly, the church members suggest Pearl be taken away from Hester.

Book Details

Language

English

Original Language

English

Published In

1850

Author

Nathaniel Hawthorne

United States

Hawthorne's works belong to romanticism or, more specifically, dark romanticism, cautionary tales that suggest that guilt, sin, and evil are the most inherent natural qualities of humanity.Many of his...

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