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 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.
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?