Thursday, July 21, 2011

"The Scarlet Letter" Review

This review is dedicated to my best friend, "Bubblesandsoda." She is a fellow teenage lit lover, though a little less obsessed than I am. Bubbles and I both came into our honors English class and became friends almost instantaneously. We found that we had one binding similar interest, and that interest was reading. However, upon digging deeper I think we both found that "reading" in general was one of the only things we had in common. When it came to what we chose to read, we had completely differing tastes.

My favorite piece of literature was (of course) Jane Eyre. Bubbles' was The Scarlet Letter. What struck us as ironic was the fact that as learned as we were when it came to literature, neither of us had read the other's favorite novel. Jordan had read Wuthering Heights, but for some mysterious reason hadn't stumbled onto Jane Eyre yet. I had always meant to read The Scarlet Letter, but never saw the urgency to buy it when it was right in front of me in the bookstore. With this being discovered, we both decided to take a chance and read the favorite of the other, driven by curiosity, the passion for reading, and (admittedly) to make the other happy.

The Scarlet Letter is probably one of the most renowned novels in the world, right up there with the likes of (yes) Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice. Only this one is set apart from the others. To speak truthfully, the novel perplexes me because it isn't easily categorized. It combines the language from what seems like the Shakespearian era, the dramatic irony of an Austen novel, and the subliminal gothic elements of a Bronte tale all into one story. The one thing I can say this novel boasts that the others don't is a big emphasis on lust and an unresolved conflict. We also see a lot more of the desolation of social exile.

The novel is set in the Puritan society of colonial Boston, dating around the mid-1600s (which would explain the shakespearian-ness of the language). I think most of us should know the story. Hester Prynne is released from prison with her child in her arms, wearing the infamous "scarlet letter" on the breast of her dress for all to see. The letter is an intricately designed "A", used to symbolize Hester's act of adultery and thus distinguishing her from the other commonplace sinners of her society. Now we come to the details of how Hester landed herself in this predicament.

Apparently Hester was sent ahead by her husband to the Americas. However, he didn't show up behind her so it was assumed that he was lost at sea. During that time, Hester committed adultery (with a presently unidentified man) and gave birth to the child she now holds in her arms. Her sin is only made worse by her refusal to reveal the name of the man with whom she had the affair. The plot knots itself into a tangle as Hester's husband returns, seeking revenge against the man who impregnated his wife while also concealing his own identity.

The mysterious adulterer, meanwhile, is caught between a rock and a hard place (a very hard place). He is the highly admired and well-respected town clergyman, who is supposedly destined for "great things." To the world he appears all that is pure and "God-like", but in the shadows he is just a regular sinner eaten by the guilt he feels for making such a hideous mistake and hanging his lover out to dry. In the end the stories of these three characters all wind around each other. Whether the connection will lead to their victory or doom is for me to know and for you to read.

With a seemingly thrilling plot like that, you'd think that I'd be intoxicated by the book in the same way Bubbles was. But for some reason, upon closing the novel I looked up with crinkled eyebrows and a confused frown. With the combination of Bronte, Austen, and Shakespeare, why wouldn't a lit lover like me be tantalized?

I guess the truth is that though that combination seems like a heaven-sent miracle, I'm not sure that those three completely different styles are capable of coexisting well in one novel. In fact, something about The Scarlet Letter irked me in a similar way to Wuthering Heights. The characters angered me to no end!

You've got an extremely strict and hypocritical society working as the main antagonist, exiling a fellow child of God for a sin that was obviously justifiable. If your husband is lost at sea (which basically renders the assumption that he's dead!), why wouldn't you be allowed to move on and feel free to love who you choose? Grant it, you might want to soften matters by marrying the man before you got to bed with him. Still, it angered me to pain that this so called "Puritan" society allowed a woman to think that she would never see her husband again and then turned around and chastised her for choosing to move on with her life.

Secondly, the man at the center of all this was weak and strikingly hypocritical as well. In novels like Wuthering Heights and (arguably) Jane Eyre, the absence of conscience in the male "hero" is what makes him the villain. In The Scarlet Letter, our leading man allows his conscience to eat at him from the inside, but makes absolutely no effort to confess his sin and stand by the woman he loves (which, in my opinion, is almost as bad as not having a conscience at all). Even then, I'm not sure if it's conscience or just self pity? How can a man torture himself for his transgressions when no one is looking, and yet stand up and preach to a faithful congregation every Sunday?

I could go on forever, but I'll start to close here. Despite all the obvious drawbacks that I found in The Scarlet Letter, I must admit that it was a very good book. However, it's not good for the usual reason. It's good simply because it is one of those immortal works. It's a masterpiece. Symbolism, juxtaposition, and irony are served on a platter to satisfy a lit lover's greatest dream. The discussions and debates that a person could have over this novel are endless. The religious and social motifs present are breathtaking. The problem is that I only appreciated these things after I finished because for most of my reading experience I was too annoyed by everything!

After reading through our "assigned" books, Bubbles and I came to the obvious conclusion that we have two completely different reading styles. She thought Jane Eyre was good, but laughable. I liked The Scarlet Letter, but found it frustrating. I'm sure that neither of us would choose to give the books a second read and I've come to terms with the fact that neither of us will ever fully understand the other's passion for their favorite. But that's the good thing about reading. It never hurts to read something new. The worst that could happen is that you absolutely detest the material. What's great is that it doesn't matter what you're reading; you're guaranteed to close the back cover with a bit more knowledge than you had before opening to the title page.


  1. Well, I already know this, but I'm glad to hear you inform your fellow readers about your feelings for this novel. I for one, found this riveting, suspenseful, and a tad romantic as well. It's a great gothic novel that harkens back to one of my favorite time periods. I guess I love to hate unfairness. Yes, her adultery was able to be justified, but that just made me adore it even more.

  2. You probably think I hate it because of my first reaction to you, but I actually really did like it. I'm glad I read it because it was just a really artistic book and it'll come in handy one day. And I understand what you're saying about the "love to hate" thing. Go to my post "Lit on a Friday Afternoon" and this book called "Tess of the D'urbervilles" is in my top ten favorite books, and it has a REALLY similar kind of story to "The Scarlet Letter" I hated it so much that I loved it. You should read it.