The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter

Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne's concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true her...

Title:The Scarlet Letter
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Edition Language:English

The Scarlet Letter Reviews

  • Johntaylor1973

    I found my old high school review of this book. Here's a little bit of my assessment. Apologiese in advance:

    If there is a hell, Hawthorne is the devil's sidekick, and the first thing you're given (after the stark realization that you're in hell, on fire, and this is going to last forever) is this book. And you have to do a 10 page paper praising the wondrous virtues of this massive waste of time. And after you've finished writing (in your own blood, mind you) your stupid paper, you are given an

    I found my old high school review of this book. Here's a little bit of my assessment. Apologiese in advance:

    If there is a hell, Hawthorne is the devil's sidekick, and the first thing you're given (after the stark realization that you're in hell, on fire, and this is going to last forever) is this book. And you have to do a 10 page paper praising the wondrous virtues of this massive waste of time. And after you've finished writing (in your own blood, mind you) your stupid paper, you are given another essay topic dealing with this same insipid book. Congratulations, this is what you'll be doing for eternity.

    Haha, I really DID NOT LIKE this book in HS, and it's part of the reason why I have always been apprehensive about US literature--especially the classics.

    Now I'm a TEACHER and I'm going to revisit this monolith of high school trauma and I'll go into it with as much of an open mind as possible. I did the same thing with Old Man and the Sea (I remember loathing that book when I read it my freshmen year) and the second time around I LIKED IT!

    I did not like either book because my teachers did not do a good job of selling it to me. There was little to no background, no setup, no explanation as to why we should read this--other than "ED Hirsch said you have to, so go read it."

    Teaching 101: never have your students read a book that you yourself do not enjoy. I think my teachers disliked both books, and it rubbed off on their students.

  • Melissa Rudder

    This was my third time reading

    . The first time was during my junior year of high school. I actually enjoyed it, though literature of the nineteenth century was such a mystery to me then that I shied away from the creaky long words and felt proud of myself for succeeding in merely following the plot. When I first read it to teach it last year, I was enraptured. This year was the same. Hawthorne has such an impressive command over language. The eloquence of his language carries

    This was my third time reading

    . The first time was during my junior year of high school. I actually enjoyed it, though literature of the nineteenth century was such a mystery to me then that I shied away from the creaky long words and felt proud of myself for succeeding in merely following the plot. When I first read it to teach it last year, I was enraptured. This year was the same. Hawthorne has such an impressive command over language. The eloquence of his language carries such depth that it's like reading poetry. I find myself underlining multiple sections on every page, wishing I had months to spend teaching the book, just so I could spend hours with my classes exploring the complex meaning and patterns unfolding in his language. (My students probably wouldn't find it as fun as I would, I betcha.)

    Reading the soap-opera-like plot is a guilty pleasure. Possibly because I'm accustomed to the quiet romance of nineteenth century novels, I find the love scene(s?) between Hester and her secret lover touching and sweet (I think I cried this time through when they were in the woods), where most people apparently find them stale and unrealistic. Even though the plot hinges on scandals and secrets, the novel is very much an exploration of human interior and motives, and I think Hawthorne creates very interesting characters. I love that, though Hester conforms to the austerity of her penance on the outside, Hawthorne occasionally affords the reader insights into her wild, turbulent, and rebellious interior. And I love Pearl. Oh, that silly little imp of evil.

    I really enjoy Hawthorne's use of symbolism throughout the novel--the letter, Pearl, the rosebush, weeds, leeches, light, darkness, the scaffold, Hester's hair, etc. I don't know if all the symbolism is super obvious or if it now seems super obvious because I shove it down my students' throats, but it is admittedly gratifying catching patterns and reaching conclusions that Hawthorne repeatedly supports throughout the book. It just makes my ego feel good.

    Next time I read

    , I want to focus on the use of bird imagery to describe Pearl and on how Hawthorne's Romantic view of Nature and nineteenth century perception of women informs his interpretation/critique of Puritanism, a less "developed" American landscape, and Hester.

    I really like

    . It may be on my top ten. But I think if I ever sat down to write my top ten, it would have about forty books in it. Nevertheless, based on my interest in

    , I'm seriously considering rereading

    , which, after being forced to read it before my freshman year of high school, is my most hated book ever. I have a feeling I might like it more now than when I was 12.

    (This review was from 2007. I've now read it several more times. It never gets old.)

  • Werner

    Actually, I've read this book twice, the first time when I was in high school. Reading it again after some thirty years, I was amazed at the amount of meaning I'd missed the first time!

    Most modern readers don't realize (and certainly aren't taught in school) that Hawthorne --as his fiction, essays and journals make clear-- was a strong Christian, though he steadfastly refused to join a denomination; and here his central subject is the central subject of the Christian gospel: sin's guilt and forg

    Actually, I've read this book twice, the first time when I was in high school. Reading it again after some thirty years, I was amazed at the amount of meaning I'd missed the first time!

    Most modern readers don't realize (and certainly aren't taught in school) that Hawthorne --as his fiction, essays and journals make clear-- was a strong Christian, though he steadfastly refused to join a denomination; and here his central subject is the central subject of the Christian gospel: sin's guilt and forgiveness. (Unlike many moderns, Hawthorne doesn't regard Hester's adultery as perfectly okay and excusable --though he also doesn't regard it as an unforgivable sin.) But his faith was of a firmly Arminian sort; and as he makes abundantly clear, it's very hard for sinners mired in the opposite, Calvinist tradition to lay hold of repentance and redemption when their religious beliefs tell them they may not be among the pre-chosen "elect." (It's no accident that his setting is 17th-century New England --the heartland of an unadulterated, unquestioned Calvinism whose hold on people's minds was far more iron-clad than it had become in his day.) If you aren't put off by 19th-century diction, this book is a wonderful read, with its marvelous symbolism and masterful evocation of the atmosphere of the setting (the occasional hints of the possibly supernatural add flavor to the whole like salt in a stew). Highly recommended!

  • Heather Lei

    The story, not bad. The style, unreadable.

    Here is who I would recommend this book to - people who like sentences with 4 or 5 thoughts, and that are paragraph length - so that they are nearly impossible to understand - because by the time the end, of the sentence, has been reached the beginning, and whatever meaning it contained, has been forgotten and the point is lost.

  • Sarah

    Hester walked across the room. She stepped upon her left foot, her right foot, and then her left foot again. One wonders, why doth she, in this instance of walking across the room, begin her journey upon the left foot and not the right? Could it be her terrible sin, that the devil informeth the left foot just as he informeth the left hand and those bewitched, left-handed persons amongst us? Why, forsooth, doth the left foot of sin draggeth the innocent right foot along its wretched journey from

    Hester walked across the room. She stepped upon her left foot, her right foot, and then her left foot again. One wonders, why doth she, in this instance of walking across the room, begin her journey upon the left foot and not the right? Could it be her terrible sin, that the devil informeth the left foot just as he informeth the left hand and those bewitched, left-handed persons amongst us? Why, forsooth, doth the left foot of sin draggeth the innocent right foot along its wretched journey from one side of the room to the other? She walked across the room, I tell you! Guilty feet hath got no rhythm...

  • Eddie Watkins

    THIS BOOK IS ABOUT A PREECHERS SPERM IT HAS UPTIGHT PEOPLE IN IT

  • Kat Kennedy

    Modern society and a number of people seem somewhat confused about our ancestors. On one hand, they're dumbass peasants who attached BYOW (Bring Your Own Witch) to their barbeque invitations. On the other hand, they sometimes imbue them with super mystical intelligence, class and abilities whilst bemoaning how stupid and uncouth we have become in comparison.

    The Scarlet Letter allows us to judge that the reality was somewhere in between but mostly sitting on the side of pathological stupidity.

    Modern society and a number of people seem somewhat confused about our ancestors. On one hand, they're dumbass peasants who attached BYOW (Bring Your Own Witch) to their barbeque invitations. On the other hand, they sometimes imbue them with super mystical intelligence, class and abilities whilst bemoaning how stupid and uncouth we have become in comparison.

    The Scarlet Letter allows us to judge that the reality was somewhere in between but mostly sitting on the side of pathological stupidity.

    The Scarlet Letter is one of those books they force children in American schools to read at gunpoint in an effort to "educate" them and to force otherwise useful knowledge out of those young brains.

    In fact, reading this book reminded me of why I'm so passionately vocal about education reform!

    This book is pretty much everything wrong with our education system today. It is out of date, it's read pretty much consistently across the board whether it's applicable or not, and its lessons aren't entirely fundamental to today's society and what little value is to be learnt in this book, is better learned by other means.

    The fact is that people are getting smarter. All the time. It may not look that way when Jersey Shore starts up on your television set, but it's true. And we're really too smart for a book whose object lessons are so comically out of date in today's society. This book deals mostly with issues that are no longer issues, and any moral lessons that might apply to life today are so badly translated that one must argue why this book is still circulating in the education system. This is why most high school graduates don't like reading, and mostly, don't like reading the classics. They think it'll just be more of the same as The Scarlet Letter.

    So, please, if you are in school and your psycho bitch of an English teacher (remember: men can be bitches too!) is asking you to read this book, tell them their antiquated ideas of education are suppressing your self-actualized desire to learn in a mode that is both natural and effectual to one day becoming a valued member of society.

    Remind them that reading old books a bunch translates to being educated about as much as placing said books on your head and hoping you absorb the knowledge through a form of psychic-osmosis.

    If they argue, please feel free to tell them that I give you full permission to go read something that isn't a complete waste of your time.

  • Peter Derk

    It's great to finally get back to the classics. It's been far too long since I read a book with careful intensity, noting throwaway lines that are likely to show up on a multiple choice or short answer test that misses the main themes of a book entirely while managing to ask lots of questions like, "In the fourth chapter, what kind of shoes was [character you don't even remember] wearing?"

    I was thinking maybe it would be nice to read a book like this without worrying about that stuff, just absor

    It's great to finally get back to the classics. It's been far too long since I read a book with careful intensity, noting throwaway lines that are likely to show up on a multiple choice or short answer test that misses the main themes of a book entirely while managing to ask lots of questions like, "In the fourth chapter, what kind of shoes was [character you don't even remember] wearing?"

    I was thinking maybe it would be nice to read a book like this without worrying about that stuff, just absorbing it for what it was and then moving on through my life drunk.

    Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    It's hard to know where to start with this thing.

    The prose itself is almost unreadable. Let me give you an example of what a sentence in this book is like:

    A man- who was born in a small town, which bore no resemblance to the town his parents imagined for him when they settled in the area over 40 years ago with every intention of starting a small business selling gift baskets online that sort of petered out after bigger companies like FTD caught onto the whole thing and ran the little guys out with predatory pricing- decided to go for a walk one day.

    I shit you not. Whenever I saw a dash I'd skip down to find the second dash, and usually managed to cruise through half a page to find the relevant piece where the prose picked up again.

    Word on the street is that Hawthorne, who published the book in 1850, actually wrote it to seem EVEN MORE old-timey than it was, which is pretty goddamn old-timey at this point. As far as I can tell, writing old-timey means:

    1. Describing furniture and clothing in such exhaustive detail that royal wedding coverage appears shabby and underdeveloped.

    2. Using commas wherever the fuck you feel like it.

    3. Structuring the plot in such a way that you already know everything that's going to happen way before it does.

    Let's talk plot while we're on the topic.

    The plot is like Dynasty with all the juicy parts pulled out. I'm serious. All events could be summed up by video of a guy sitting in front of a sign that says, "Banging people isn't so bad" and winking from time to time. One of the characters is damned, and as she walks through the forest the bits of light that dot the trail through the canopy of trees literally vanish before she can walk into them. Now this would be fine in a book where the damned character was in the woods, say, leading an army of orcs. But in a book where the sexual and social mores of Puritan society are called into question, it kind of overdoes everything and kills the mood.

    So it all begs the question: What the fuck is going on with these classics?

    The Scarlet Letter, according to a recent study, is the sixth-most taught book in American high schools. It's very popular, and you can hardly enter a Barnes and Noble without seeing a new version with such awesome cover art that it almost tricks you into buying it.

    I have a frequent argument with my brother regarding what makes things (movies, books, whatever) great. To him, for example, a movie might be great because it's the first movie to usher in a new era in filmmaking, really redefining an era while paying a loving homage to the past. Context is important to him, and reading the stuff on the IMDB page is part of the movie experience in his world.

    For me, I don't really give a shit about context. Knowing that Hawthorne had certain feelings about Puritanism based on his ancestry doesn't really matter much to me. Finding out that the main character was based loosely on the author's wife doesn't really do a whole lot for me. In other words, I demand to be entertained on at least some level, and if the level of entertainment doesn't spur me on to dig deeper, I think that's a failure of the art and not an example of my own laziness contributing to my dislike of the art in question.

    Furthermore, when the prose is TOO challenging I am constantly thinking, "This is a book I am reading and here is the next line of this book." I am not at all swept up in the narrative and therefore don't enjoy it nearly as much.

    I like to think of books as being like magicians. Take a David Copperfield...the magician, not the book. His schtick is to do amazing tricks that appear effortless on his part, which is why they are, well, magical. David Blaine, on the other hand, performs feats that do not appear effortless whatsoever, and therefore far less magical. It takes a great writer to write a great book. It takes an even better writer to write a great book that appears nearly effortless.

    One might accuse me of rarely reading challenging books, and maybe it's true. I find myself drawn to books that compel me to finish them as opposed to those that I feel I have to slog through while other books are sitting in growing piles around my apartment, calling out to me with their promises of genuine laughs, heartbreak that is relevant to me, and prose that doesn't challenge me to the point that it's more of a barrier to the story than anything.

    Perhaps most telling, at the book club meeting we were discussing this last night, and an older lady asked a pretty decent question: "Why is this considered a classic?"

    There are two answers, one that is what the Everyman Library will tell you and one that I would tell you.

    Everyman would say that the book is a classic because it is an excellent snapshot of a historical period. It has a narrative set within a framework that allows us to better understand our roots as Americans. The issues of people's perceptions of women and rights of women are still very alive today. Overall, it gives us a chance to examine our own society through the lens of fiction, therefore re-framing the conversation to make it less personal and easier to examine without bias. Blah, blah, blah.

    I would say it's a classic because it was one of the more palatable books that came out during the period when "classics" were made. I would also point out that the canonized classics are never revised. We never go back and say which books maybe have less to say about our lives than they used to, or which might still be relevant but have been usurped by something that is closer to the lives we live today. I would also say that it continues to be taught in schools because the kind of people who end up teaching high school English are most often people who have a deep and abiding respect for these types of books and identified with these types of books at around that time in their lives. I think there are a lot of people out there who never liked these books, and rather than making their voices heard about what they think people should read they just drop out of the world of books altogether.

    My point is, I think this is a bad book. It's got low readability, even for adults. The plot is melodramatic. The characters are single-dimensional crap, the women being constant victims of the time and the men being weak examples of humanity. Also, a very serious story is halted in places where we are expected to believe that magic letter A's pop up in the sky like you might see in an episode of Sesame Street.

    It must have been a very exciting book in its time, without a doubt based on its sales. And if this kind of book is your thing, good for you. I don't begrudge you your joy. It's just not a book that I would ever dream of foisting on someone else, nor would I recommend reading it unless you are absolutely required.

  • Bookdragon Sean

    Let’s talk a little bit about self-fulfilling prophecy. If an entire community, and religious sect, brand a girl’s mother as a sinner, whether justly or unjustly, then surely the girl will take some of this to heart? If the only world she has ever known is one when he only parent is considered ungodly, blasphemous and full of sin, then surely

    Let’s talk a little bit about self-fulfilling prophecy. If an entire community, and religious sect, brand a girl’s mother as a sinner, whether justly or unjustly, then surely the girl will take some of this to heart? If the only world she has ever known is one when he only parent is considered ungodly, blasphemous and full of sin, then surely she will begin to reflect some of these ideals? When the Puritans branded Hester with the Scarlet Letter, they also branded her daughter (metaphorically speaking, of course.)

    This novel is a political message directly pointed at the Puritans of early America. In their blind devoutness they almost cause the very thing they are actually preaching against. Ultimately, Hawthorne portrays the religious sect as hypocrites who are completely self-defeating in their actions. What’s the point in preaching a religion if you don’t fully adhere to its doctrine? There’s none. Actions have consequences, so does unjustified damnation. Indeed, in this the author establishes how some extreme piety can almost cause impiety. Religion can be taken too far. Christianity is built upon the principals of forgiveness, and repentance, not punishment and the shaming of the guilty. Well, what the Puritans perceive as guilty. Then there is the entire separate issue of the fact that those men of the cloth can be guilty too. Nobody is completely pure despite what they think.

    Hester’s biggest sin is getting pregnant outside of marriage. In their persecution of her they don’t consider how she could be the victim in all this. I’m not saying that she is, in this regard, but to the best of their knowledge she could well be. She could have been raped. They’re also unforgivingly sexist; they, again, consider Hester to be the guilty party without recognising that it takes two to do the deed. Their ignorance knows no bounds to the realities of life; they shield themselves with their religious virtue and do not consider that there is a harsh world out there. Men like this are dangerous, and in this Hawthorne establishes his message.

    This is a very accomplished novel; it provides an interesting perspective on a crucial part of American history. It was an enlightening read, but toward the middle it’s focus did begin to dwindle. I felt like there were a few passages of convoluted and unnecessary narration. I mean this was short, though it could have been a little shorter. The middle was drawn out with some irrelevant events thrown in. I’m not entirely sure of their point. The language combination was also a little odd at times; it felt like the author had lifted certain expressions straight from Shakespeare’s vocabulary and infused it with his own. The result was a very disjointed and hard to read combination.

    The overall message of this piece of literature is what makes it a worthy read even if its delivery was a little pedantic at times. Overall, though, I do attest that this is a rather undervalued novel. The socio-historical context it provides is tremendous. This is a classic I’m very glad I read. The overall message of this piece of literature is what makes it a worthy read even if its delivery was a little pedantic at times.

  • James

    4 of 5 stars to

    , a classic romantic period tale written in 1850, by

    . Students are often required to read excerpts from this book, if not the whole book, during school. I was one of those students, but then I read it again in college as part of my American Romanticism course during freshmen year. But I also read it a third time prior to a movie being released, as I liked the actors in the movie, but wanted to be able to compare the literary wo

    4 of 5 stars to

    , a classic romantic period tale written in 1850, by

    . Students are often required to read excerpts from this book, if not the whole book, during school. I was one of those students, but then I read it again in college as part of my American Romanticism course during freshmen year. But I also read it a third time prior to a movie being released, as I liked the actors in the movie, but wanted to be able to compare the literary work against it... and it had been a while since I'd read the story.

    It's a tough work to get into, given the language and style. But once you do, it flourishes. Apart from being one of the most influential works of Puritan belief systems, it also broke ground by truly focusing on a woman who has done something sacrilegious above and beyond any normal broken sins. To lay with a man when you are not married... ugh, let's throw some stones at that vixen! Phew... not that I got that out of my system...

    I love the story. It was necessary at that time to push the envelope. People needed to break away from Puritan traditions of the former century. Minds were starting to open up about what it meant to be in love, to have a child and to be on your own. I may not agree with some of the lessons in the story, nor with the beliefs of all the Puritanical books, but there's something to be said when this story can transcend time -- and become a much copied work of literature. So many modern stories and books reference The Scarlet Letter... show the "A" on a woman's chest... even down to something like Pretty Little Liars which has nothing to do with this book, but the villain simply goes by "A" in the first few books. Some may think I'm pushing it by connecting those dots, but it all got its start from this book, in my opinion.

    Love it. But can't give it a 5 as the language is difficult, tho I understand it was fine for the times.

    For those new to me or my reviews... here's the scoop: I read A LOT. I write A LOT. And now I blog A LOT. First the book review goes on Goodreads, and then I send it on over to my WordPress blog at

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