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The Scarlet letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1850. French title: La lettre écarlate.

book_club_2The Scarlet Letter is the last book our reading year at my book club, Les Copines d’Abord. It started with a long prologue about an old Custom House, the feeling of belonging to a place and rambling about being a civil servant. It takes 15% of the book and it has nothing to do with the actual story of The Scarlet Letter, except for the old device of the author discovering old papers in the Custom House and relating the story. While it is beautifully written at times, it can be pompous at others and difficult to read. At some point I left the sluggish snail’s pace of reading in English and put on my Frog’s legs and leapt to the end of it via the French translation. Hawthorne almost wore me out with this prologue. But I persisted.

Then The Scarlet Letter. At last, I thought. I didn’t know much about it, only that the theme was adultery. Given the title, I actually imagined that the letter referred to shocking correspondence on shocking stationery. Ahem… Now, the story.

Hawthorner_Scarlet_LetterHester Prynne is on the pillory because she had a child out of wedlock. She didn’t help her case when she refused to reveal the name of her little Pearl’s father. The pillory is very real, not metaphorical at all. I must say we’re in New England in the 17thC, in a Puritan settlement so what she did is highly reprehensible and all the good people of the city think they will save her soul by humiliating her in the market place. Hester was sent to prison for a while and now she’s being released in this very public fashion; she’s condemned to wear an embroidered scarlet letter A sown on her bosom. The novella is about her life after this event.

Follows a novella à la mode gothique. Nothing is missing. Sin. Tortured women and priests. Impossible love. Revenge. Witches. Epiphanies in woods. Implausible coincidences. An elfish daughter who seems otherworldly. I was under the impression that the Victor Hugo of Notre Dame de Paris had an illegitimate child with Marie Shelley or Emily Brontë. Not my cup of tea at all.

I switched to the French translation again towards the end because the English was really difficult. The dialogues, when there were some, were full of archaisms. I know what thou / thee mean but dialogues full of sentences like this He sent even me, thy mother. Then, much more thee! Or, if not, thou strange and elfish child, whence didst thou come?” remain challenging. However, it’s totally lost in translation and I wouldn’t have been aware of it if I had stuck to the French translation only. Honestly, I don’t know how a translator could have reproduced this in French. Changing the “ai” terminations of verbs at the imparfait tense in “oi” like in the 17thC?

The text is full of long sentences without breathing space, the kind that leaves you breathless. Sometimes his syntax is complicated: And then what a happiness would it have been could Hester Prynne have heard her clear, bird-like voice mingling with the uproar of other childish voices. I need several readings to undertand it. He can although hint at a wry sense of humour:

At all events, the health of the good town of Boston, so far as medicine had aught to do with it, had hitherto lain in the guardianship of an aged deacon and apothecary, whose piety and godly deportment were stronger testimonials in his favour than any that he could have produced in the shape of a diploma. The only surgeon was one who combined the occasional exercise of that noble art with the daily and habitual flourish of a razor. To such a professional body Roger Chillingworth was a brilliant acquisition.

mafalda_reflechitI know he writes well, that his style is special and that it’s great literature but it didn’t speak to me. While I was reading I kept wondering what Flaubert would have done with such a pitch. Or Fontane. Hester’s story is a compelling one, true material for a great novel. The gothic paraphernalia disappointed me and put me off. If you have read it, I’m interested in discussing this strange novel with you. What’s the purpose of that prologue? (It reminded me of the one in Frankenstein) Why did he choose this literary tradition to tell this story?

  1. July 17, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    “The long Customs House prologue introduces the first of many meanings of “character.” Conversationally, a “character” is an eccentric, an oddball, known by sight throughout a community, and the prologue takes the form of a “gallery of Custom-House portraits” (21), a description of the odd people with whom Hawthorne works, among them the man who has lost his entire family but thinks of nothing but cheerful gourmandizing. These are indeed “characters” in the colloquial sense. And this first meaning of character matters because the narrator initially imagines Hester Prynne as a character of this type.”

    I found this online if it helps.

    I read this (required reading) a long time ago. It took me a while to get into it, but I liked it, and while I’ve tried other works by this author, The S. L is the best, IMO.

    There’s a lot of moralizing and it is a gloomy read. 19th C American literature is a strange beast, and what is peculiar is that some of the best stuff–due to its political content or undertones–is largely forgotten.


    • July 18, 2013 at 9:20 pm

      Even if there were funny descriptions, I thought this prologue was too long.

      Were the other Hawthornes you’ve read written in the same style?

      I hope this is not mandatory in American high schools. It’s the kind of books that put off non readers from literature. Difficult vocabulary, long sentences, long paragraphs of descriptions.


  2. July 17, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    Guy, name names! Which of the best stuff is forgotten? The best stuff is just what I want to read!


  3. July 18, 2013 at 12:02 am

    Frank Norris: Mcteague
    Upton Sinclair: Oil, The Jungle
    Sinclair Lewis: Elmer Gantry, Babbitt, Main Street, Arrowsmith, Dodsworth
    Dreiser seems to be remembered for Sister Carrie, but then there’s also American Tragedy & Jennie Gerhardt (which has echoes of The Scarlet Letter).
    I have a huge soft spot for William Dean Howells: The Rise of Silas Lapham, A Hazard of New Fortunes, Indian Summer.

    Perhaps we could organize a revival month or something. Anyone?


  4. July 18, 2013 at 12:48 am

    I see. I took “largely forgotten” to mean something different. Also “19th C”.


  5. July 18, 2013 at 2:50 am

    No you’re right, I got carried away and started ‘best stuff’ & adding names of books I think are underappreciated. William Dean Howells is hardly read anymore. I think I’ll have to dig out my copies and think about a reread


  6. July 18, 2013 at 5:14 am

    Three comments on Hawthorne.

    1. That long prologue is actually the second time Hawthorne did that. His first short story collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, begins with a prologue – mostly a house tour – that approaches the length of the one in SL (27 pages vs 37 pages).

    Not many people like the SL prologue much. Does you edition have Hawthorne’s other preface, where he says it “might, perhaps, have been wholly omitted, without loss to the public, or detriment to the book” but then refuses to change a word. Maybe the whole thing is a joke. Imagine the thousands, millions, of poor American high school students who have pretended to read that prologue.

    2. Rather than the Gothic tradition, it might be useful to place Hawthorne in the German Romantic tradition, which I believe is a closer source. Pearl’s trip to fairyland, or the playful treatment of the witch, are more like something from E. T. A. Hoffmann and his contemporaries than from Anne Radcliffe. Emily Brontë is also pretty German.

    3. Imagine what Flaubert would do with this – but which Flaubert? Remember, the author of Madame Bovary is also the author of The Temptation of Saint Anthony and Salammbô. He might have thought Hawthorne’s treatment was not crazy enough.

    Hawthorne’s imagination was not that of a domestic novelist. Perhaps a better question than “Why did Hawthorne choose this style for this story” is “Why did he choose this story for this style?” The style comes first. And then the answer to the question is that Hawthorne is not as interested in Puritans or adultery as he is in symbolism. The Scarlet Letter is about the meaning of symbolism – not what the comet or whatever symbolizes to the reader, but what it means to the characters themselves as they create their own symbols.


    • July 18, 2013 at 9:42 pm

      Thanks for this interesting comment, Tom.

      1-My edition doesn’t have that introduction. Inflicting The Scarlet Letter to high school students is a crime against literature. No way a teacher is going to convince non-readers that reading is a great pleasure with this kind of books. Isn’t it what’s most important to learn in class for the future?

      2- Crap, I got the literature box wrong again. I did check in my textbook of English literature before. I’m hopeless at this. I’ve only read Mlle de Scudery by ETA Hoffman, I wasn’t thrilled by it. I just need to avoid that particular literary current.

      3- The Flaubert of Madame Bovary or of Trois Contes. I haven’t read La tentation de Saint-Antoine. Books about religious feelings don’t appeal to me.

      I get the part about the symbol of the scarlet letter, how it changes Hester’s personality and impacts the people around her. She doesn’t have a right to forgiveness, she can’t move on.
      I enjoyed the content of the book but the style doesn’t agree with me. I can see it’s good, special but not for my taste.


      • July 18, 2013 at 11:13 pm

        While The Scarlet Letter might conceivably take first prize as the novel most American high schools students hated having to read, I beg to differ that it can’t be taught well to high school students. A secondary school teacher friend used to do wonders with this book – not with honors students – but with lower-tracked students, for whom it was a great introduction to the whole idea of symbolism, and for a lot of whom the ostracism in the novel resonated strongly. They were able to find in it meaning, quite apart from whatever pleasure they might or might not have taken from it. As a class project, one of them even created a board game called “Scarlet Letter Land.” A roll of the dice and Hester & Pearl advance, Dimmesdale loses a turn, stuff like that. I’ve never forgotten it.


        • July 18, 2013 at 11:33 pm

          I’m sure that Daniel Pennac could make a class love The Scarlet Letter. Exceptional teachers as him or your friend can achieve anything with a class.

          Unfortunately, most of us have average teachers. Mine felt like they loved reading, had a degree in literature and ended up teaching as they didn’t know what else they could do with their diploma. Teaching wasn’t necessarily a chosen career path. They killed Corneille and Racine for me, Maupassant until recently and Balzac for years. Reading The Scarlet Letter in class with them would have been hell.


      • July 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm

        Not the wrong box. There is more than one box for this book. Many boxes.


  7. Brian Joseph
    July 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

    I read this but it is so dim in my memory that I feel that I can barley have a meaningful discussion about it. I am finishing up a book soon….You have whetted my appetite, maybe I will give this a reread and came back to discuss.


    • July 18, 2013 at 9:43 pm

      I’m interested in reading your review. I hope you decide to read it.


  8. July 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    I read The Scarlet Letter ages ago when I was much into the classics of the nineteenth century (simply because I found several such books in English on sale at the time – I reckon that a bookshop was closing or something). It actually appeared less lenghty to me than other works of the period. I must admit that I remember little of the plot, but I know that I was quite impressed by the story and the way Hawthorne dealt with human nature, especially the hipocrisy of society and the dynamics of exlusion (shunning). It really seemed very modern to me in that aspect – reasons may have changed over time, and yet we constantly label people and marginalize them, don’t we?


    • July 18, 2013 at 9:53 pm

      You’re right about the hypocrisy, especially when nobody would socialize with Hester but vanity in the great men overcomes their principles. They’d rather forget about why they condemned her than give up the opportunity to show off in clothes embroidered by the skilled Hester.
      The story and what it says about human nature is interesting. I liked the beginning of the novel and I started to dislike it when witches were mentioned and descriptions of Pearl included references to another world. That’s not my thing.


      • July 19, 2013 at 9:54 am

        Luckily, I’m very apt at reading over passages about witches and other worlds which in general don’t interest me, either! I really don’t recall them in The Scarlet Letter. Probably, witches and Pearl’s other world are only a symbol for her being different from the rest of the lot? Exclusion uses to be about differences, lack of understanding and fear resulting from it, don’t you think?

        Besides, people in the mid-1800s seem to have been fascinated by witches. Nathaniel Hawthorne brought out The Scarlet Letter in 1850. Elizabeth Gaskell published Lois the Witch (about the Salem witch hunting) in 1861. Well, thinking about it again times haven’t really changed that much in this respect…


        • July 19, 2013 at 8:54 pm

          There’s a woman (one of the officials’ sister, ironically) who is considered as a witch and she acknowledges it too. There are references to meetings in the woods, and being disciples of the Black Man.
          I can understand that it appeals to other readers but it just doesn’t work for me. I wouldn’t read a book about the Salem witches,although I perfectly get that it is interesting for other people.


  9. July 19, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    I have this as well. Sometimes I make a bet whether you will like your book club choice or not. I was right in this case. It was just a hunch. If it’s anything like Notre Dame de Paris I would hate it. See…. I would love to read it for the witches only.
    I always thought that Hawthorne is the American Hardy. Meaning dark and pessimistic. <my opinion is based on the films versions. I found the movie Jude the Obscure as dark as The Scarlet Letter.


    • July 19, 2013 at 9:01 pm

      If you knew more than me about the style of the book, then you made a safe bet.
      I thought about Notre Dame de Paris because the descriptions of Pearl moving, speaking and playing reminded me of Esmeralda and because the priest and the physician reminded me of Frollo.

      Hawthorne is nothing like Hardy, at least not in this book. I don’t know about his other works,though.


  10. July 19, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather was one of the brutal judges at the Salem witch trials, which may have influenced how he thought about witchcraft. Personally, I’ve met some very nice witches — both hereditary practitioners and Wiccans — and am happy to encounter them in fiction as well.

    I’ve always found Hawthorne easier to take in his short stories; his style can be a bit tiresome…


    • July 19, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      Thanks for the info about Hawthorne’s ancestor. His family was as old as it is possible in America, then. They came early. It explains the prologue, in a way. It refers to the roots someone can have to a place after several generations have lived there.

      I had to research Wiccans, I’ve never heard of that spiritual movement. From what I’ve read, they are mostly present in Anglo-Saxon countries, it might explain it.


  11. July 28, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Well, I loved Notre Dame de Paris, but I had to read that lengthy quote twice since the first time I just bounced off it. I can’t imagine how it would be for a non-native reader of English.

    Also, 27 pages of only somewhat relevant prologue? It sounds historically important and very worthy in terms of its message, but I’ll be leaving it to American high school kids and their teachers I think and passing on it myself.


    • July 28, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      Hawthorne’s prose is special and not always in the good sense of special. It was difficult to read and the good thing with free versions of classics is that I can switch from one language to the other. (Mayber I should stop doing this, the other day I realised just before sending it that I had started an email in French and switched to English in the middle of it for no apparent reason. My brain gets confused.)

      You know what I think about Notre Dame de Paris. Not Hugo at his best, in my opinion. The style is heavy and the characters lack nuances.

      That prologue must be unsufferable for teenagers.


  12. August 4, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Hello Emma,

    Although I love this novel sufficiently to have read it more than once, the significance of The Custom House chapter has eluded me on each reading. Given its length, I can only assume that it has a strong bearing on the narrative that follows. Since the entire novel is a highly intricate interplay of symbols, I did the obvious, and tried to see the custom house as a symbol of something or other: but no – it did not resonate as a symbol either. The only connection that i can see with the rest of the novel is that he claimed to have found the manuscript containing the story in “an upper story”. Was there something symbolic in this perhaps? – I asked myself, grasping at straws. Did this “upper story” a symbolic representation of Hawthorne’s head (i.e. his imagination)? And the Custom House, perhaps, therefore Hawthorne himself? no, that didn’t make much sense either. I’m afraid i have no idea at all what the purpose is of the Custom House chapter.

    But what follows is, I think, quite wonderful. I actually do like Hawthorne’s prose, which is like no other, and is, I think, wonderfully expressive.But that introductory chapter – n matter how I try to look at it, it defeats me!


    • August 5, 2013 at 7:41 am

      This Custom House chapter is good on itself but it shouldn’t be in this book. Or it’s too long compared to the size of the novel. That said it is similar to the beginning of Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein, no? Someone outside of the story telling how they came to hear about it.
      I liked The Scarlet Letter until he started to describe Pearl as an out-of-this-world creature. He lost me there, that’s not my scene. I was disappointed by this turn of narrative, the plot was promising.


      • August 7, 2013 at 1:02 am

        The framing device in “Wuthering Heights” sets the scene (which the custom house chapter in “The Scarlet Letter” doesn’t); and Mr Lockwood, an unintelligent fop from the city seemingly having wandered in from a Jane Austen novel, provides a marvellous contrast! I’m afraid the introductory chapter of “The Scarlet letter” still leaves me scratching my head…


        • August 8, 2013 at 11:41 am

          That’s the best explanation I can come with. Perhaps it’s a short story he didn’t know where to put. 🙂


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