All you need to know about the books you meant to read: This week: THE SCARLET LETTER (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Plot: This brief and morally strenuous novel is set in the Puritan community of 17th century Boston. In a leisurely introduction, Hawthorne establishes his identity of "narrator". The novel opens with Hester Prynne standing on an anachronistic public scaffold in front of a large, indignant crowd. She is charged with adultery but she won't name her lover: As a punishment she must be exposed to public abuse and is condemned to wear the letter "A" woven onto her clothes. In her arms she carries her illegitimate child, Pearl.

Hester's husband is an English scholar who had sent her to Boston. He was to follow her but never turned up because he had been captured by Indians. He escaped and now stands among the spectators in disguise. Assuming the name of Roger Chillingworth he vows to uncover Hester's secret. He is a bit mad.

In fact, Pearl's father is the young minister, Arthur Dimmesdale. Arthur buries his guilt but, over the course of the book, it gnaws its way to the surface. Meanwhile, Hester's kindness to the community seems to change the meaning of the letter that she wears.

Chillingworth catches Arthur talking to Hester in the woods. Leaping to the correct conclusion, he begins to haunt Arthur and makes some rather suggestive remarks. Arthur loses control: after delivering a punchy Election Day sermon he finally stands with Hester and Pearl on the scaffold. He admits his guilt and that the letter "A" now means Arthur. With this semantic shift, he dies. Chillingworth's life is now void of meaning, and he realises it.

Pearl goes to Europe but Hester chooses to remain in the community and continue a life of contrition.

Theme: Hawthorne is one of the first American writers to note how the original settlers allowed the opportunity of the new continent to slip away. The first buildings in any community were always the church and the prison.

The romance (as Hawthorne called the book) illustrates the dangers and similarities of guilt and pride. Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are consumed by secrets and fail to live useful lives.

Hester's honesty becomes a blazon and her secret is protective rather than selfish. The letter "A" transforms her into a sort of female knight errant, rescuing the distressed.

Style: The narrative voice seems straightforward, but this is a deliberate illusion. The narrator is often ambiguous and enjoys withholding important "facts". Judgements are partial and conclusions left open.

Chief strengths: No facile answers are provided here. Hester is, after all, guilty; Pearl the "Elfin" child, has devilish traits; the Puritans are given their due. Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are villains because of their hypocrisy but remain sympathetic because they are both self-destructive.

The reader is tempted to oversimplify and Hawthorne shows how such simplifications lead to tragedy.

Chief weaknesses: "The symbolism is overdone at times and becomes mechanical; it ceases to be impressive and grazes triviality." (Henry James)

Pearl's cute knowingness has some of the same sugary stickiness as Dickens's dwarfish cuddlies, although Pearl is allowed to grow up and isn't assigned to a lachrymose death-bed.

What they thought of it then: One or two early critics felt that Hawthorne was condoning adultery but it gently insinuated itself into classic status. Henry James, in 1879, affirmed his belief that it was the first genuine example of "literature" that America had managed to produce.

What we think of it now: D.H. Lawrence considered it "one of the greatest allegories in all literature" and his enthusiasm carried F.R. Leavis in its wake; Leavis places it in his nefarious "Great Tradition".

Postmodern critics love the idea of a character who is a letter and a letter whose meaning changes, at that. This opens up infinite possibilities of frenzied interpretation.

Responsible for: Henry James and his love of symbols: sacred founts, golden bowls, figures in carpets etc. Also the recent film with Demi Moore.

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