Saturday, July 23, 2005

Scarlet Letter, a Gloomy But Interesting Tale

I finally finished re-reading The Scarlet Letter, a novel penned by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I first read it more than thirty-five years ago, when I was a student in high school and wanted to look at it again.

Apart from TSL, Hawthorne's greatest claim to fame is probably that he was a friend of Franklin Pierce. They were roommates while students at Harvard. Hawthorne's campaign biography probably was a big factor in helping to get Pierce elected president.

Gloom seems to have adhered to the two friends, individually and together.

While on his way to be inauguated president, the train on which Pierce rode stopped for a break. During this stop, the President-elect's son was run over by a train car. He, his wife, and his administration were understandably under a pall from that point forward.

Several years later, Hawthorne was accompanying Pierce on a trip when he took ill and died.

TSL is considered by many to be the first great American novel and among the first to explore psychological themes, albeit in a markedly melodramatic manner. It is, as one might expect, as gloomy as its author.

In it, Hester Prynne is forced by the Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston to wear a red "A" on her breast in token of her adultery, a sin which resulted in her giving birth to a baby girl named Pearl.

Hester refuses to name her fellow sinner. Unbeknownst to the adoring and respectful townspeople, her lover had been the saintly minister, Reverend Dimmesdale. In the second-to-last chapter's penultimate scene, Dimmesdale reveals his guilt.

Such may not have happened had it not been for the evil influence of Roger Chillingworth, who, also unbeknownst to the town, is Hester's estranged husband, a man she never loved, who allows his righteous indignation to work subtle unkindnesses on the guilt-racked clergyman.

It's a strange tale, one that presents a bizarre version of Christianity that takes hold whenever believers forget that the God we meet on the pages of both the Old and New Testaments--and especially in the person of Jesus of Nazareth--is a God of grace, quick to forgive the repentant, and anxious to extend wholeness and love to us.

I had forgotten how long the book's opening essay, in which Hawthorne claims to give the basis for the story he's about to share. It's full of witty ruminations on government service and what he claims to be its ennervating effects. For all his gloominess, I bet that Hawthorne would have been a witty conversationalist.

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