The Scarlet Letter - Pt 1

On reading Hawthorne

Most Australians have never heard of The Scarlet Letter, but it’s a classic American book, maybe the classic American book, and almost everyone in North America seems to have read it. So, welcome to the ranks of the select few Australian readers of this amazing story!

Nathaniel Hawthorne is the kind of writer one has to read carefully. He’s not “difficult” to read quite the opposite. His language is so simple, his sentences sometimes so ordinary that one hardly notices what he is saying unless one pays close attention. People seem to walk away from the book with a picture of the Puritans as nothing more than a set of witch-burning, drab-coloured, dull, mean and incredibly boring kill-joys. The reality — both of the Puritans, and of what Hawthorne was saying — is quite different!

With this in mind, my aim in these posts will be to look closely at how Hawthorne says what he says — to encourage everyone to read carefully, looking for ideas as well as the story and the characters. What is Hawthorne saying in this or that passage? How does what he says here compare with what happens in the plot, or with what he says elsewhere? And — as I am a Christian reader who believes in truth — is he right?

When I say “closely” I mean really slowing down and looking long and hard at what Hawthorne is doing. This is one book where slow readers are at an advantage, because they have to pay attention — they can’t “skim”. Necessarily this approach will limit me to commenting on a handful of key passages, and you will be able to fill in the gaps in between. Each blog post has chapters for reading listed at the top. You don’t need to be too strict about this, but my comments will make more sense if you read those chapters before reading the post. If you read the blog ahead of the book, it will give away the ending, however!

In each post I will bring in information from other places — literature, theology and history. The two important contexts are Hawthorne’s nineteenth-century context, and the theology of the seventeenth century colonial Puritan community which he represents in the book. Hawthorne lived in the period before the American Civil War that was famous for “Transcendentalist” philosophy — the American version of the European Romantic movement — and he was skeptical about its optimism about human nature. He also lived at a time of rising nationalism — a growing pride in the history of English-speaking people in America and the new-ish republic — and he was skeptical about that optimism too.

Despite what was happening in his time, he chose to write a story set in the 1640s in the New England colonial town of Boston, which seems to be all about how cruel and repressive the Puritans were. It’s not always easy to see whether Hawthorne is really talking about his own time or the Puritans at any one point in the book. The story is all about the Puritans, but its meaning is not always just about them. Sometimes Hawthorne looks like he is criticising the Puritans where he is really reacting against something from his own time, and sometimes he really is criticising the Puritans, without knowing very well what they actually thought. He really does get them wrong sometimes! Sometimes perhaps he was wrestling with his own uncertainties, but as I can’t pretend to read minds — especially not minds so well-hidden as Hawthorne’s — I will leave you to speculate on what Hawthorne really thought life was all about.

The aim for this month of the book club is for us to read for enjoyment, but also to read critically and carefully — being skeptics in the best sense. I hope you will thoroughly enjoy the clarity of Hawthorne’s language, the tension and drama he weaves into his tale, and the fascination of the historical setting, and at the same time be able to see the Puritans for who they were, despite the slander perpetrated on them by this amazing author.