Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I started out bored by this book, grew to like it, and got annoyed by the ending. In terms of books I’ve read for English classes, it was actually pretty good, even if suffered from sloppy storytelling.

3/5 stars

cover the scarlet letter

Goodreads Description

Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne’s concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true heroine of American fiction. Arthur Dimmesdale, trapped by the rules of society, stands as a classic study of a self divided.

My Review

I cannot make up my mind on this book. Parts of it I enjoyed, parts of it I hated. I guess it all averages out to three stars.

Hawthorne’s writing is beautiful but tiring. His use of metaphor and imagery is amazing; he understood how to make a point with rhetoric. (His habit of shoving any analysis that existed in his reade’s face was a tad bit annoying, but I’ll live.) His love of winding sentences and superfluous punctuation, on the other hand, can be exhausting to read. TSL is extremely quotable, but those quotes will end up being pretty long. (As I learned when I used two quotes for my Weekend Words meme.)

Looking back on the text, I come down in favor of his writing style–because, let’s be honest, it’s incredible to read, and as a long-winded comma-lover myself, I appreciated his dedication. (We won’t comment on how I would have answered this question while I was doing my reading homework at ten at night.) I’m glad that I’ve read this book…I’m just not sure that it couldn’t have been a novella.

The plot of The Scarlet Letter is…interesting. Hester Prynne was sent over to a Purtian colony in the 1600s ahead of her husband; her husband didn’t show up for two years, but Hester was pregnant. Accused of adultery, Hester was forced to wear a scarlet letter on her chest for the rest of her life–a punishment that ostracized her from the rest of the sin-fearing society. The plot focuses on discovering who she adultered with and how raising the child of her adultery (Pearl) affected Hester’s personality. Her husband also eventually shows up, hiding his identity from all but Hester, and becoming a symbol of revenge.

The plot had it’s dramatic and touching moments, but for the most part, is was slow-paced and on the cusp of being boring. Hawthorne has a habit of saying the same thing over and over again, which resulted in chapters being longer than they really needed to be for the amount of forward progress the plot underwent.

I was impressed by the characters in this book. Hester, our adulteress, is a fascinating mixture of characteristics: she is submissive and demure at times, but she has a bold, rebellious streak that she passes on to her daughter. Pearl, the aforementioned daughter, was hands-down my favorite character: she’s elfish and creepy, almost un-human, with both precocious and childlike mannerisms–she brought life to the story. I would not want her as my daughter, but I loved reading about her, and I would read a spin-off book about her life after TSL, no question. The two male characters–her husband and her adulterer–(unnamed purposefully) were realistic and strangely un-likable. The side characters were one-dimensional but added to the message and tone of the story in their own ways.

What frustrates me most about this book is its identity crisis. Since I read this book for English class, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to find a focus of the plot, but Hawthorne kept contradicting himself. He hates the Puritan society, but ends up endorsing their morality (at least partially). As a transcenentalist, he’s supposed to champion nature, but nature is shown as a corrupting force (in some scenes). While this makes the book more complex, as a student, it was frustrating.

I would recommend this book to fans of classics, people who can derive pleasure and not headaches from Old-Timey sentences. TSL would appeal to fans of subtle plots and vivid characters. People who long for dialogue or rapidly paced plots will probably be disappointed, but everyone can relate to or be affected by some part of the books’s numerous themes.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  1. You have to keep in mind the time in which Hawthorne is writing. He couldn’t completely expose the hypocrisy of his society and trumpet the tenets of his philosophy for fear of being labelled a pornographer/blasphemer/anarchist, etc. and never being allowed to publish again. He, like many of his contemporaries, had to cleverly disguise his themes so they wouldn’t get him in too much trouble. This is the great strength of fiction: that it can show an audience, instead of telling them outright, the problems with strict adherence to society’s mores. People respond much better to metaphor and illustration than didactic essays.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hadn’t thought of it like that; it’s an interesting point. Still, even the below the surface message of TSL seems conflicted. I like the implication that Hawthorne was conflicted himself about the Puritan religion, though as a student it can be frustrating.


  2. I had to read this book in 11th grade. I always thought it was interesting how in the book people shunned Hester but then as time went on, she became a bit of a fixture in their society. Hester-with-the-scarlet-letter became someone people couldn’t imagine not being around. Of course, Hester was a part of society without being a part of society. Hawthorne really showcases how hypocritical people can be and despite the Puritans wanting everything to be black and white, that’s just not the case. I wish I could say more but I haven’t read the book in a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was one of my favorite parts of the book; I hadn’t seen it coming and it did an excellent job of highlighting Puritan hypocrisy. The fact that the A came to stand for Able instead of Adulterer was a great plot detail.


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