The Scarlet Letter – Review


Rating: 2 Stars

A throng of bearded men, in sad-coloured garments and grey steeple-crowned hats, inter-mixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak and studded with iron spikes.

The Plot

Hester Prynne has been convicted as an adulterer and is forced to stand on the scaffold with her newborn daughter, Pearl. She has to wear a scarlet A on her breast for the rest of her life, so all may know what she did. What she will not tell the public, however, is who the father of the child is. Her husband, recently returned under a different name, swears to find out the truth and make him pay for what they did.

The Good

The best thing about this book was Pearl, Hester Prynne’s illegitimate daughter. She is described as an enigmatic child, more elf than human girl, wild and uncontrollable. That was exactly what made her sympathetic. Compared to all the other characters in the book, Pearl actually did things and had the semblance of being a real, nuanced human.

But Pearl, who was a dauntless child, after frowning, stamping her foot, and shaking her little hand with a variety of threatening gestures, suddenly made a rush at the knot of her enemies and put them all to flight.

Pearl seemed, at times, less naive than the grown-up characters, despite noone telling her anything about the scarlet letter and its significance. She is not afraid to call Dimmesdale out.

“But wilt thou promise,” asked Pearl, “to take my hand, and mother’s hand, to-morrow noontide?”

“Not then, Pearl,”said the minister; “but another time.”

“And what other time?”, persisted the child.

The Bad

This book is unbelievably melodramatic. There is so much exaggerated woe in this book, it seems to drip from the page.

The language also doesn’t help. It’s not the worst I ever read and it sort of fits with the time it was written. Nevertheless, the narration is too melodramatic for my taste. The sentences are convoluted and the narrative is full of purple prose.

Finding it so directly on the threshold of our narrative, which is now about to issue from that inauspicious portal, we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its flowers, and present it to the reader.

Some of the descriptions reminded me more of a fairy tale than a novel. The wickedness of the evil characters can be seen in their ugliness and the good characters are described as beautiful. It’s too schematic for me. For a tale about human error and the necessity of forgiveness, that is way too black and white.

True, he looked doubtfully, fearfully – even, at times, with horror and the bitterness of hatred – at the deformed figure of the old physician.

Then there’s Hester. Hester Prynne is such a martyr. The book acknowledges that she could just leave the town and start fresh somewhere else, where noone knows about her past and she could throw away the scarlet letter. Instead, she chooses to stay. And suffer. And then suffer some more. We are reminded of her suffering on every page. Woe is her, the poor woman. And it’s terribly annoying to read about someone who seems to relish martyrdom.

She never battled with the public, but submitted uncomplainingly to its worst usage; she made no claim upon it in requital for what she suffered; she did not weigh upon its sympathies.

I had the feeling that the narrator constantly tried to make the reader feel sorry for Hester and Dimmesdale. It didn’t work. Dimmesdale is the worst of all the characters. He suffers terribly and annoyingly. He is literally dying of guilt. I did not like him at all. He wallows in his guilt. Yes, it consumes him, but he also seemed to like the martyrdom and suffering. After all, he could confess his guilt any time. But he is too much of a coward and I had zero sympathy for him.

“It were far worse than death!” replied the minister. “But how to avoid it? What choice remains to me? Shall I lie down again on these withered leaves, where I cast myself when thou didst tell me what he was? Must I sink down there, and die at once?

“Alas! what ruin has befallen thee!” said Hester, with the tears gushing into her eyes. “Wilt thou die for very weakness? There is no other cause!”

The Conclusion

A classic, but for my taste way too melodramatic. Characters wallowing in their guilt and being annoying little martyrs. Too much melodrama. I felt no connection with the characters and the story did not draw me in at all.


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