KP Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

[Spoiler Warning: Since this book is a classic and a couple centuries old, the ending will be discussed in this review.]

After two long years, Hester Prynne’s husband returns to America to find his wife charged with adultery for having a child while he was absent, publicly rebuked for her sin, and forced to wear a scarlet letter A on the front of her clothing for the rest of her life. Swearing vengeance on the man who slept with his wife, Hester’s husband sets out on a quest to identify the adulterer.the_scarlet_letter

The Scarlet Letter has long been a staple on high school literature lists. Often it is used as an example of what was wrong with the Puritans, and Christianity in general. However, although the intolerance and cruelty of the Puritans may be the most prominent facet of Christianity in this book, if you dig a little deeper, the story exhibits a strong Christian message.

In Leland Ryken’s excellent reader’s guide to The Scarlet Letter, he explains how Hester and Dimmesdale, the man she committed adultery with, each represent opposing worldviews. Hester represents mildly-deistic Romanticism, and Dimmesdale represents Christianity—albeit a flawed depiction. Ryken’s entire guide to The Scarlet Letter is well worth reading as he draws this theme out through both characters. The results of the worldviews are evident by the story’s end: Dimmesdale yields to the Spirit’s work, publicly repents of his sin, and is henceforth taken up into heaven, while Hester’s sympathetic but ultimately Christ-less Romanticism leads her to an ambiguous end. In a brilliant display of divine grace, the adulterer is saved by his faith while the husband is cast off because of his unbelief.

The Scarlet Letter may seem anti-Christian on the surface, but it in fact demonstrates a perfect way for Christian writers to do literature. When Jesus told his parables, he purposefully shrouded them so that those with ears to hear would understand, but those who did not would not. The Scarlet Letter solidly stands in this tradition. While the Christian themes may not be detectable at first glance, they’re blatantly obvious the deeper you delve into the work. Explicitly Christian works are certainly beneficial, but so are works like this. Symbolism and metaphor are powerful tools that writers have at their disposal, and Hawthorne uses both of them brilliantly as he crafts his Christian message.

Discussion Questions:

Examine Hester’s daughter Pearl as a character. Does she feel like a realistic child? Why or why not? What purpose does she have in the story? What is she a symbol of?

Where does Chillingworth err in his plans? Do you feel any sympathy for him? What should he have done in this kind of situation?

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Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here as he works toward achieving these goals.
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Comments

  1. Oooh, this is one of my favorite classics. The thematic quality of it is positively exquisite.

    However, I’m very skeptical of the idea that the author presents a Christian worldview. It may just be that my memory is bad, but I’m fairly confident that the author was a transcendentalist and I believe he confessed to writing the book under demonic influence. (I’ll try to look this up this week to verify). There were a couple things with the story too that I thought expressed a subtle distortion of the gospel.

    Regardless of the author’s intent though, Christians could learn a lot from it and the writing quality is great.

    • I’ll confess that I don’t know much about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s personal views so I can’t comment on that. =P It does seem to me that the story itself though, does have a Christian message in it, although I suppose it’s possible that Hawthorne didn’t mean to communicate that kind of message.

      • Ok, I’m back. So I didn’t do a ton of research, but it seemed like he might have been a transcendentalist, just with significant differences from the other transcendentalists of his time. I couldn’t tell for sure though if he was a transcendentalist. He did, however, marry a transcendentalist and he was chummy with Emerson, Alcott, and the others. Regardless, it seems clear to me that he was not a Christian. As for writing the book under demonic influence, apparently he didn’t outright say that that happened, but he said he wrote the book as if under compulsion and he apparently had a lifelong interest in the demonic, so it seems likely. I agree with you that the message does seem very Christian in many ways, but there seemed to be one major thing off in the message. Now, I haven’t read this book in a couple years, but I seem to remember that Dimmesdale suffered great guilt over his sin, but never remorse. In other words, he realized the severity of his sin but did not embrace the wrongness of it. I sensed that his final confession was done out of a romanesque sense that he could cover over his offense with self-affliction — a reinforcement of the idea that he was struggling with the guilt of his sin, not the sin itself.

        • Hmm… See the difficulty I have with him as a transcendentalist is that his view of the world is so radically different from the average transcendentalist. =P Most transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau had rather rosy views of human nature, and Hawthorne decisively lacks that sort of optimism in his writings, as pretty much everything he wrote that I’ve read so far is about how everyone is secretly struggling with demons and such, which is closer to a Christian view of our sin nature. His regular references to Christianity throughout all of his writings also suggest to me that he had a strong leaning toward Christianity as well. Of course, just because he had a great knowledge of the Bible doesn’t mean he was saved. But I see the state of his soul in more of an ambiguous state.

          Dimmesdale certainly suffers guilt w/o remorse for most of the book, which is why he’s never able to free himself from his sin for most of the book. My impression about the book’s end, though, was actually the opposite. Before, he certainly had those romanesque confessions with the floggings and such. But his final confession seems to be given from a very different frame of mind, as his whole emphasis is on the fact that he was never able to hide his sin from God. The way I understood it, his epiphany is him realizing that the guilt he feels comes from God, not from himself, so his confession is a way of finally turning away from himself to God.
          I’m taking it that the two of us came away from that ending with two very different opinions of Dimmesdale’s sincerity, though. 😉

          • Yeah, I guess that’s the one danger with subtlety. You can sometimes be so subtle there’s two different ways to look at it.

            And it may be he wasn’t a transcendentalist. I’d have to do more research.

  2. Joy Mastron says:

    I agree to an extent with this review, however, one of the most profound aspects of The Scarlet Letter is its ambiguity. Hawthorne leaves an incredible amount of interpretation to the reader, so the outcome of the novel doesn’t have a strong degree of certainty.
    Dimmesdale’s character, in my opinion, deals mostly with the struggle of penance versus penitence, while Hester Prynne predominantly focuses on the popular hot topic of the time: transcendentalism versus anti-transcendentalism.

    There really is a lot of material which is debate and discussion worthy in the novel. But in summary, I guess you could say,” It’s pretty okay.”

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Joy! I agree that there is some amount of ambiguity in The Scarlet Letter. Hester’s character in particular ends in a very ambiguous place in my opinion, and I’m not sure to what degree she repents by the end of the book or to what agree she has remained resolute in her sins. We may disagree though about how ambiguous the other parts of the story are! That being said, I definitely do agree with you that those are some of the major issues that both Dimmesdale and Hester struggle through.

  3. Okay, I really, really need to read this. Great review! 🙂

  4. I read this about a year ago for school, it an interesting story. Great choice of book to review.

  5. Another book I really should read. Y’all have got to stop reviewing such good books. I’m never going to get to the end of my list. T_T

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