“The vulgar, who, in those dreary old times, were always contributing a grotesque horror to what interested their imaginations, had a story about the scarlet letter which we might readily work up into a terrific legend. They averred that the symbol was not mere scarlet cloth, tinged in an earthly dye-pot, but was red-hot with infernal fire, and could be seen glowing all alight whenever Hester Prynne walked abroad in the night-time. And we must needs say it seared Hester’s bosom so deeply, that perhaps there was more truth in the rumour than our modern incredulity may be inclined to admit.”
I know that it seemed like it took me a long time to finish this book, but I actually had to put it down for about a month or so to take care of some other things. It was pretty much a quick read, not too long, not too wordy.
Sometimes you read a book that isn’t very good. Sometimes you a read book that is well-written but the story kinda sucks. Sometimes you read a book and you’re like, what the fuck.
Yeah, this is that kind of book.
The Scarlet Letter was written in the 1850s but set in the 1640s, during the height of the Puritans and all their strict beliefs. It is about a woman who has an adulterous affair and what happens to her and the people around her because of her affair. To be quite honest, the story was a little bit like something you’d see on Maury Povich.
The story opens and Hester Prynne (our adulteress) is standing on a scaffold in the town square. She is very obviously pregnant and it’s very obvious that her husband is not the father because it has been rumoured that he might have been lost at sea. Back in those days women did not have affairs, whether they were married or not. They did not have babies by men other than their husbands. As in all societies since the dawn of man, usually it is the women who suffer strict punishments while the men get off scot-free.
So Hester is up on this scaffold and everyone is like, “Who is the baby daddy?” She absolutely refuses to say. The reverend, the ministers and all the town elders are interrogating her, trying to figure out who the baby daddy is. She just won’t say, so they throw her in jail. She stays in jail the whole time she is pregnant. When the baby is born they drag her back out to the scaffold and demand to know who the baby’s father is. Again, she won’t say.
Enter the Scary Old Man, Roger Chillingworth. Even his name is scary: Chillingworth. He is a stranger to the town and he happens to arrive the same moment Hester is up on the scaffold with her bastard baby. He wants to know what is going on and the townspeople tell him about Hester the Hoe. Roger Chillingworth says, “You know, I’m a doctor. Why don’t you let me talk to her.” Back then they thought everything was somehow medically related.
The town elders allow Roger to talk to Hester alone. When he goes into the jail cell, Hester is surprised to see him. Lo and behold, he is her husband! But get this, he’s like, “Okay, so I’ll talk to the town elders for you and see if I can get you out of jail but don’t tell them I’m your husband.” What? Yeah, but for whatever reason Hester agrees to this. Roger is somehow able to talk to the elders and they release her.
Hester has to wear a giant letter “A” on her chest so that everybody will know that she is an adulteress. I know it’s symbolism but really, don’t you think that’s a little bit extra? They live in a small village. She has a baby. I think we all know that she is an adulteress. We don’t need her to wear a large red “A,” but apparently they think it’s necessary. Of course she is shunned by society. They make her live on the edge of town by herself. She is a very good seamstress and that’s how she makes a living. She can make everything except virgins’ wedding dresses. *eyeroll* It’s just so ridiculously unfair. She didn’t magically have the baby alone. I know she did not want to name the father, but it’s just too dumb. I know that I am using my 2011 brain and social mores against 1642 but still…
Let’s talk about the Reverend Dimmesdale and Roger Chillingworth. Now you remember that the reverend was among the people on the platform demanding to know who the father of the child was. Roger is her husband that’s also a doctor that managed to get her out of jail. Because Roger is new to town he has no where to live so he ends up staying with the Reverend Dimmesdale, a young man who appears to be neglecting his health. Reverend Dimmesdale is very well respected in the community–after all, he is the reverend. He always gives very timely sermons that seem to go well with whatever is going on in the village that moment.
Almost immediately you know that something is up with this guy. He is pretty much the only person to ever visit Hester, and he always does it secretly. At first, you’re thinking that he doesn’t want to tarnish his good name by being seen in the company of a woman of ill-repute but then you start to realise that he is the father of Hester Prynne’s daughter Pearl.
The middle of the novel started to stagnate a little. There was a lot going on about the damn scarlet letter Hester had to wear on her chest. Her daughter is growing up and constantly asks what the letter means. Pearl is described as this fae like creature because of her parentage. She is beautiful and flighty like a little bird. There is even a scene where she acts like she doesn’t know who her mother is when she takes the scarlet letter off. I think Pearl was even wise enough to know that Reverend Dimmesdale was her father, even though she was only seven years old.
Finally, towards the end of the story Dimmesdale and Hester decide they can’t live like this anymore. He is in poor health. She has been wearing that damn letter for seven years. It’s time to move on. They make plans to run away together and take Pearl with them. All this time Roger has been kind of spying on Dimmesdale and he too soon figures out that Dimmesdale is the father.
Something I could not quite understand is why Roger Chillingworth was so bitter. First of all, when he and Hester were married in Europe, he told her to go on ahead to America and he would follow behind after he concluded his affairs. She had been living in America for years. Remember that everyone thought he was dead because too much time had passed. Back in those days it wasn’t unheard of to be lost at sea. Yeah, I get that his wife had a baby by another man but he could have easily just walked away from the whole situation the minute he arrived in town and saw that she had a kid. He didn’t even have to make his presence known to her. He could have kept it moving. I guess guys always feel slighted no matter whether was real motivation or not.
Roger decides he is going to stop them going away together. He has already allowed Dimmesdale to torment himself beyond belief. It is like he wants this guy to go over the brink. Hester and Dimmesdale had plans to board a ship right after the new governor is sworn into office, but he is first expected to make a sermon. At the end of the sermon, he sees Hester and Pearl standing by the scaffold, the scene of their original torment and for whatever insane reason he just jumps onto the scaffold, dragging them with them and announces to all and sundry that he is the father. Then he rips off his shirt to reveal that he has carved a letter “A” into his chest and has been scarring it since the day Hester was first forced to wear her letter “A.”
I mean, is that melodramatic or what? To make it even more ridiculous, he dies, presumably from infection of having a fresh, open wound on his chest for seven years. Roger Chillingworth is pissed. He was to have his revenge but since Dimmesdale has died, there is nothing he can do to him. Then Hester and Pearl disappear quietly and now he really has no one to torment. Roger dies a year after Dimmesdale. Randomly, he leaves Pearl all of his money, making her the wealthiest heiress in the area.
Years later, Hester returns to her little cottage by the sea but she is without Pearl. They never really say where she went, but it’s likely she married someone in Europe. Hester becomes kind of counselor to the women in the town. They all realise how they wronged her because of her indiscretion. They all realise how they too have suffered a mistake and the price they have paid, so they come to her to seek her advice on various issues. Eventually, years on down the line, Hester dies and she is buried in a new grave next to Dimmesdale’s old grave.
Like I said before, I kept trying to put 2011 into this 1642 tale. My sensibilities were offended at the fact that she had to walk around with this “A” on her chest and that she had to live on the edge of town, everyone shunning her. I didn’t like how Dimmesdale never came forward in all that time. He would have been ridiculed too but probably they would have been forced to marry and then everyone would have forgotten about them eventually. But that is just like a man for you, never one to take responsibility. I don’t care if he “suffered in silence.” Hester suffered openly.
I thought the book was well-written even if it did kind of linger too long on stuff that seemed irrelevant. Or maybe it was pertinent and I just didn’t understand it. At any rate, it was a pretty good book. I’m sorry it took me so long to read it; I just got sidetracked on other things.
I give it a B+
Next I am going to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, since it’s on my reading list for a class.