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Book Review: The Scarlet Letter - #8 In My Modern Library Classics Challenge


The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“Hawthorne is the most consummate literary artist in American literature, and The Scarlet Letter is the greatest book ever written in the Western Hemisphere. It is not relatively, but absolutely great; it holds its place among the fifteen best nevels of the world”

- William Lyon Phelps, professor of English Literature at Yale and Methodist preacher, from the 1926 introduction to The Scarlet Letter.

The Book Review

I can’t bring myself to offer praise as effusive as William Lyon Phelps does in the above quote. I find the book's overt moral judgement and tendency to “tell rather than show” to be detractions from its reputation for greatness. 

And, I suspect that even as the learned professor wrote his 1926 introduction, The Scarlet Letter was already firmly established as the bane of Literature classes. Its dense sentences and 17th century Puritan setting can work to make it remote and unwelcoming to readers. Yet it continues to be an established American classic, ranking high on many modern lists of great American novels, just as it is still taught in high schools and colleges even now.

The story is a familiar one. In the Puritan settlement of Boston in the 1640s Hester Prynne is publicly shamed for her sin - conceiving and bearing a child outside of marriage. Hester refuses to identify the child’s father. For her sin and her obstinance she is publicly shamed and forced to forevermore wear a prominent mark to signify her shame - the  scarlet letter A. 

In attendance at her shaming as the full story starts are the other three main characters. In her arms is her “sin born” daughter Pearl. Helping to preside over her sentence is the Puritan preacher Dimmesdale - Pearl’s father whose reputation Hester is shielding - who makes his own choice not to reveal himself. Lastly, there is a new arrival to town, recently escaped from bondage to the Indians, who is later revealed to be Hester’s husband Roger Chillingworth.

As the book progresses we see the impact of the repressive Puritan culture on Dimmesdale, Hester and Pearl, and the scheming designs of Chillingworth. 

Dimmesdale is riven with guilt and anguish at his sin. The Puritans were Calvinists, and believed that only the “Select” will get to Heaven. Those who sin here on earth give evidence that they are not among the Select. Dimmesdale's sins, he is sure, have made him unworthy of his role as preacher, and marked him as bound for hell. 

Chillingworth, who no one knows is Hester’s husband, exacts his revenge by inveigling his way into Dimmesdale’s life, preying on his guilt. 

Pearl looks fated to grow up unhappily among a colony of people who will think the worst of her no matter what she may do, while Hester will surely die of shame.

But instead Dimmesdale and Chillingsworth wither away and pay the ultimate price for their sins. Pearl escapes the clutches of the colony with her mother and returns to Europe where she will be well wed. Hester, after seeing to Pearl’s future, returns to Boston to voluntarily take back up the wearing of the scarlet letter. Only now she wears it without the shame its sentence was meant to give. 

Hawthorne is considered a Romantic, and an anti-Puritan. His own family were early settlers in Salem and some of his anti-Puritanism was no doubt personal and familial. It’s no coincidence then, that the object of Puritan shaming should gain the strength to stand up for herself and her daughter. But the other sinners who were not ill treated by the Puritans do not escape the consequences of their sins - Dimmesdale for his lack of purity and Chillingsworth for his acts of revenge. 

Hawthorne was also given to writing stories with strong moral metaphors, and that is certainly true with The Scarlet Letter. The metaphors basically hit you over the head in this novel.

It has long been popular. On its publication in 1850 The Scarlet Letter became an instant hit. It was one of the first mass produced books in the US, and its initial print run of 2500 copies sold out in ten days. It has scarcely had a day out of print since.

Classics Challenge

This is the eighth book in my 2022 Modern Library Classics Challenge. I’m challenging myself to read at least one of my Modern Library classics each month this year. It’s part of my overall goal to read 100 books for the year. 

I own over 40 Modern Library editions that I collected in my first years out of college. At the time I was buying them, I admired them more as “art” than as books. I just liked the idea of pocket sized hardcovers, which is interesting since at the time most of the books I was buying to read were trade-sized paperbacks. Treated as art on my shelf, I haven’t ever read my Modern Library editions. So, it’s about time to do so now that I’m retired.

Book 1: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Book 2: A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce

Book 3: The Rise of Silas Lapham by William Dean Howells

Book 4: Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Book 5: The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze by William Saroyan

Book 6: The African Queen by C.S. Forester

Book 7: Disraeli: A Picture of the Victorian Age by André Maurois

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Title: The Scarlet Letter

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne

Publisher: Vintage (PenguinRandomHouse)*

Publish Date: August 26,2014*

ISBN-13: 9780804171571

Publisher’s List Price: $8.00 (Paperback as of 08/2022)

The Scarlet Letter was originally published in Boston in 1850 by Ticknor, Reed & Fields. 

My Modern Library edition was printed sometime between 1951 and 1970. This estimate is based on the research on

Modern Library is now an imprint of Penguin Random House (PRH). The Vintage edition I have referenced above is published by PRH, and comes closest in layout, typeface and content to my Modern Library edition, even though it lacks the 1926 introduction. 

As of April 2020, PRH is a subsidiary of the privately held German conglomerate Bertelsmann.