Book Review: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne


The relevance of a book written over 150 years ago about the nature of female sexuality and shame is still very much alive…and that says terrible things about how little we have advanced as a society.

We make a point of eating together as a family at meal times.  Like a good galley slave, I cook.  It gives me uncommon pleasure to serve my family in this way.

We engage our children in conversation, to hear what they think and to help them shape their ideas and arguments.

Every summer, we give them reading, books that we feel are age appropriate, but also which deal with issues that are relevant to their development.  We ask them to discuss what they are reading.

These past few days we have discussed the Taliban, terrorism, and the essence of a Christian God.  One child had a very church-driven view of God as male, a Him, and I disagreed and said, “God is most definitely non-binary,” which of course simply means neither male nor female.  To my surprise, my SO agreed immediately.  [I previously posted on this topic].

The book of the last few days has been The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, a book which is as relevant today as it was when written in 1850.  I had asked one of my sons to read it, as he seems to be landing on what I would call a troubling side of the male-female discussion, and is seemingly unsympathetic to women’s issues.  He is an extremely bright boy, very sensitive, and at times I wonder whether he senses my non-binary nature (though never yet discussed) and in part seeks to rebel against that.  Very normal for a teen.

Precis

The Scarlet Letter is set in New England in the mid-1600’s.  Hester Pryne has had a child after being in Boston for over a year, but her husband has not yet arrived from England.  They were meant to come together.  She suspects he is dead.  He was already much older, and many perished along the way, and having heard nothing from him, has assumed the worst.

She falls in love with a man in Boston, and becomes pregnant.  Because the townsfolk judge her, and the timing is such, she is interrogated about the true identity of the father of her daughter, Pearl.  She refuses to identify him.  She is jailed and sentenced.  As she stands on the scaffolding, she sees her true husband in the crowd.  They converse, she is released, but he has asked to not be identified and assumes the identity of a doctor.

She becomes a seamstress but is forced to wear a large red letter “A” on her chest, to indicate that she is an adulteress.  Her husband guesses the true identity of the father of her child, Reverend Dimmersdale and inveigles his way into the reverend’s life to torture him.

Hester and the Reverend seek to leave the colonies and return to Europe, where they can live with their daughter and start a new life.  Sadly, her husband finds out and books a passage on the same boat, desiring to continue torturing them.  Dimmersdale dies from anguish.

Eventually, through a life of good works, Hester is accepted by the community, but never stops wearing the mark of the adulteress.

Relevance

Although the setup is such that even a reader in the 1850’s might find Hester’s treatment unjust, it is remarkable how little has changed.

Even today, a woman who sleeps around is thought of as a whore, while a man who does, a hero.  Woman’s virtue is a male concept that is used to bludgeon women with.

Men are afraid of the power of female sexuality.  Men are afraid that a free woman, an economically and sexually empowered woman, doesn’t have to put up with anything, and has the freedom to choose a partner at will, and has the freedom to leave a man who does not treat her right.  

We still see the kind of shaming that took place in this novel taking place today.  In all walks of life.

When a book speaks across centuries about themes that withstand the test of time, we call them Great Books.  All hail the prescience of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  But all shame on us for this to be an issue that is still very much alive today.

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