The Scarlet Letter

When it comes to reading literature, nothing can beat these classic novels. The Scarlet Letter (1850) is a universal classic and masterpiece of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) which beautifully does a masterful exploration of humanity’s unending struggle with legalism, sin, guilt and pride. It is believed to be a foundational work of American literature.

The novel takes place during the summer season in the seventeenth century Boston, Massachusetts in a Puritan village of America. Since the story of the novel is set in an early New England Colony, it portrays the terrible impact which a single, passionate act has on the lives of three members of the then community; the defiant Hester Prynne; the fiery, tortured Reverend Dimmesdale; and the obsessed, vengeful Chillingworth.

Hester Prynne is the central character of the novel. She, with her illegitimate baby- Pearl, clutched in her arms, is forced to wear the letter “A”- the mark of an adulteress- embroidered in scarlet thread on her bosom as a punishment for her unpardonable sin. The Scarlet Letter “A” which represents a badge of her shame is meant to be seen by all. She discovers strength in the face of ostracism and finally, emerges victoriously as a heroine who is much ahead of her time. This work can be called a feminist writing to some extent as it has a woman as its central character but seeing to the time when it was written, it’s difficult to interpret the true intention of the writer.

Despite of her public shaming at the beginning of the plot, Hester refuses to disclose the name of her lover. She chooses to live her life very much on her own without anybody’s help, support or guidance. She uses her unusual and exceptionally extraordinary talent to embroider clothes marvelously as a mean to earn her livelihood and to bring-up her daughter- Pearl. Pearl, though beautiful, is believed to have the charm of devil working constantly upon her. Hester, who is an unusually courageous woman, faces all the obstacles that come her way in leading her life on her own which made her appear to be a blatant woman to the people of the then Puritan American society. The story ends on a very satisfactory note and its conclusion does justice to all the characters of the novel.

Although, at the beginning of the novel, the story is told as an incident of the past but quickly it gains the unity of time, place and action as soon as it gains momentum and starts discussing the story. Symbolism is also an essential characteristic of this novel as it is the symbols which make the reader understand and interpret the deeper meaning of those incidents which could not be clearly written about in it. Mystery also plays its role very dramatically in the novel. The reader feels extremely thrilled at the very idea of discovering the mystery behind the agony of Dimmesdale and what was seen or felt by Chillingworth on Dimmesdale’s chest.

This work of Hawthorne is considered as his “magnum opus” and his most famous work too. Hester’s powerful, admirable and extraordinary bittersweet story is an American classic which still continues to touch the hearts of modern readers. This novel has an indefinable purity and lightness of conception. One can often return to it as it supports familiarity and has a certain inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art.

Aditi Swami

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