Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


The Scarlet Letter is an 1850 work of fiction written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Set in 17th century Puritan society, it follows the story of Hester Prynne; an ‘adulterous’ woman who, after sleeping with another man and having his child, is trying to make a life for herself in a very restricting, resilient and intolerant society.

It’s important to note that this novel heavily explores the idea of Puritanism and if this does not appeal to you – which it really doesn’t to me – then this is perhaps not the best read for you.

Now the title of the book is what intrigued me most. Before I was told that I had to read it, instead of it being an optional read as part of wider reading for my course, I was already fairly interested in it. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ kept playing on my mind and I found myself incessantly wondering what this letter could be about, not what it was. You see, my immediate assumption was that this all important scarlet letter was not actually an alphabetical letter but a written letter of some sort. I was interested to discover what kind of letter it was, to whom it was addressed and why it had been written in the first place. Additionally, what was so captivating about this letter that it compelled a whole novel to be written about it?

Now quite frankly I have to admit that I think this would have told a much more interesting and far less dull story than one about an alphabetical letter. But I was unfortunate enough to discover fairly quickly that my assumption was incorrect; and that the scarlet letter is actually an alphabetical one.

I’m just going to be honest here:

It was boring. 

Like literally, it was the most agonising read. It did not captivate me and the whole thing was just completely boring. I already knew that Dimmesdale was the real father – it was so predictable because he always tried to defend Hester subtly when nobody else would. The only interesting part of the story was probably the first chapter and that’s only because it revealed to me that my assumption about the letter was incorrect.

I also find the whole Puritan history and Puritanism itself wildly uninteresting, but for the point of this review, I will pretend that I was somewhat captured by the idea of it. The Puritans had very strong beliefs about all aspects of life and it was very clear that in this book, Hawthorne depicted them as regulators of femininity. By this, I mean specifically, that in shunning Hester for sleeping with another man when she was married and having his child, they were repressing female freedom. And just freedom in general. Of course it’s wrong to cheat, especially when you have entered in to a legal and religious union with somebody else. But does it really warrant a punishment, so extreme as the one we are given in the novel?

  • Having to be branded with the letter A (which supposedly stands for adultery in the text) as a constant mark of shame to yourself and others
  • Having stones thrown at you by other Puritans when you’re in the street
  • Having those Puritans telling their children that they need to stay away from your daughter because she is essentially the product of your atrocious sin?

That is extreme and to me it is unwarranted. I understand that Hester completely diverged from her Puritan beliefs, but when you look at the context of why she did so, it actually doesn’t even seem that bad. She married a man that she did not love. He was too old for her and she always made it clear that she did not love him. She found a man that she did love (Dimmesdale) and even after committing the crimes and being so terribly punished for them, she still loved him! The child is hardly to blame for any of this and its completely ridiculous to call her a devil child and all the other insults that were whispered around her, just because her mother had a secret sexual relationship with another man.

Eliminating religion from the equation now, my massive problem with the so called issue is that it should not have been such a big deal! As I’ve said, it is wrong to cheat and I do not agree with cheating in any cirumstance. But it is, primarily, and it should be, solely, a private matter. So the fact that the whole of the Puritan community decided to assert themselves in to poor Hester’s private controversy was just completely absurd to me. Like, hello? Don’t you have better things to be doing with your time? Evidently not.

But as I said, this is a book about the Puritans and if that was how they would have reacted back then, then of course, Hawthorne was only depicting a time in history where this would have been the case. And for that, I can’t really fault him.

Nevertheless, I did not like this book and I wouldn’t really recommend it. It is quite a prominent work amidst the field of American Literature and that might make it appeal more to you. But I definitely do think that it’s an acquired taste, so if it sounds like something that would appeal to you, then I hope you do read it and enjoy it too.

If not, then my best advice is just to steer clear. Even if curiosity is eating away at you, steer clear.

Despite me not liking it, the book was well written. Hawthorne is a decent writer and although he draws things out a bit, there was nothing poor about the quality of writing. Although the direction it was heading in fell slightly short in my estimations, the plot had a good sense of movement.

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