A Comfort's Food for Thought

Re-reading an American Classic


SLEvery other year I set myself the task of re-reading The Scarlet Letter. Why do I choose to read again this “tale of human frailty and sorrow”? This 150-page novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne is part of the American literature curriculum that I am teaching, but I could easily substitute another equally important book. Instead, I continue to teach The Scarlet Letter because I admire Hawthorne’s genius in producing this great American novel and I appreciate his insights into the souls of his fellow men.

The story concerns Hester Prynne, a young Puritan woman in 17th century Boston, who commits adultery and gives birth to a child. The authorities, acting as both church and state, punish her by ordering her to wear a scarlet letter A. For the rest of her life she is isolated from the community because people no longer see her as a person, but as a symbol of her disgraceful sin.

Hester’s offense, however, is not the only wrongdoing Hawthorne explores. Her partner in sin, the Reverend Dimmesdale, agonizes over his guilt, but is unable to admit to his congregation that he is the father of baby Pearl. His sin of hypocrisy torments him both physically and emotionally, and eventually leads to his premature death.

Perhaps the worst sin, at least in Hawthorne’s eyes, is committed by Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, who vows to discover Hester’s partner in sin and get vengeance. When he is quite certain that Dimmesdale is the man, he finds diabolical ways to torment him, using his knowledge of alchemy. After Dimmesdale dies, Chillingworth shrivels up “like an uprooted weed that lies wilting in the sun” because there is “no more devil’s work on earth for him to do.”

The Scarlet Letter is not primarily a book about adultery; instead, it is a timeless story about sin, guilt, hypocrisy, and vengeance. Hawthorne accurately depicts the universal condition of fallen man, but without the redemption offered by God in Jesus Christ.

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I am a Christian, a mother and grandmother, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, a widow, a friend. . .  My life is first of all defined by relationships–to God, to my family, to my students, to my friends. Of course, I am many other things: a reader, an e-mail writer, a piano player, and a somewhat reluctant traveler, for example.  And now I am a blogger.  I’m not sure why, except it seems to be a logical next step for someone addicted to e-mail.