The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Other authorsSculley Bradley (Editor), Richmond Croom Beatty (Editor), E. Hudson Long (Editor), Seymour Gross (Editor)
Paperback, 1978

Call number

FIC HAW

Collection

Publication

W. W. Norton & Company (1978), Edition: 3rd, 443 pages

Description

Classic Literature. Fiction. HTML: In the puritanical Boston of the 17th Century, a woman gives birth after committing adultery. That woman, Hester Prynne, choses to create a new life for herself in the face of adversity rather than succumb to what is expected of her. She will not name the father. Her decision opens up the tension between religious life and the true grace of God, and between personal guilt, religious sin and legal guilt. The novel is prefaced by a "real" account of the author finding notes on a case similar to Hestor's in a Custom House, from which he fashioned the story. The preface is to be read as fictional..

User reviews

LibraryThing member aethercowboy
The scarlet letter, as it is used in today's speech refers to a mark of shame, not necessarily adultery, but something that would put you out of the favor of society. It is one of those phrases that derives from a book title (like "catch-22") that is altogether overused with people that I talk
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to.

It's not that the people that I talk to are highly literate (though a few are). It's that they probably had English teachers who used a lot of vocabulary words derived from literature, and as such, after writing each word 25 times, and using it in a sentence, it magically became part of their vocabulary.

This novel is part of the "you were forced to read it in high school, so naturally, you hate it" series. And if you hate it, I don't blame you. Many of my English teachers had a knack for sucking all things interesting out of a book.

But, hey, read it again, please. You'll find a bizarre love triangle, and betrayal of more than one sort. You'll find parts to smile about, and parts to shed a tear about. And in the end, you'll probably be thinking: "Man, that was a pretty good book," unless you're not a "read-y" person, then you'll probably say "Man, why couldn't I have just watched the movie?!" (and then you're left with the choice of which one to see, but since you're not all that read-y, you'll probably pick the 1995 adaptation with Gary Oldman and Demi Moore.)

The story, if you've been living under a rock since 1850, is about adultery. Hester Prynne is caught, pregnant, and shamed in front of her neighbors in Boston. She is forced to wear a scarlet letter in the shape of an A, for, of course, adultery.

It's essentially a retelling of the "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone" part of the Bible, only set in New England, and raising questions of purity, even among the clergy.

This is definitely one of those books you should read before you die (in fact, I think it's on that one list). I think that if you like classic literature, you'll definitely enjoy this book. Otherwise, you'll probably be "meh" about it. The smallest minority of people will hate this book, but they're just high school students with particularly dull teachers.
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LibraryThing member realistTheorist
Hawthorne takes us to puritanical New England, where a woman is outcast and forced to wear a letter "A" to mark her crime of adultery.

However, the story is not primarily about evil social norms. Rather, it is an exploration of openness and guilt. The woman refuses to name her lover. She allows him
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to escape social stigma -- or much worse. On the face of things, it seems he did better of the two, but Hawthorne explores the notion that a life of constant pretense can wear a person down. How much more carefree is the woman who has nothing more to hide.

Self-esteem is tied to openness about oneself. A man with much to hide, who keeps pretending to be something he isn't, constantly chips away at his sense of self. The woman's lover is tormented by this lack of visibility to other people. "Thou little knowest what a relief it is", he confides to her, "after the torment of a seven years' cheat, to look into an eye that recognises me for what I am! Had I one friend--or were it my worst enemy!--to whom, when sickened with the praises of all other men, I could daily betake myself, and be known as the vilest of all sinners, methinks my soul might keep itself alive thereby."

Hawthorne makes his message explicit: "Be true!... Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred." Surely, interesting advice to ponder: honesty about your worst, sets you free from pandering to the expectations of others. In short: be yourself.

It's a short, novel with a narrow theme, but well plotted, well written and well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member susanbevans
What do you say about a classic like The Scarlet Letter? I'm going to skip the synopsis this time - trusting to pop culture to give you an adequate summary - but I will give you my thoughts on the novel.

Modern readers will no doubt find that The Scarlet Letter drags in places, but if you can get
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past the ba-jillion commas, 15-letter words, and page long paragraphs, the quality of the plot is exceptionally good. The language is archaic, but the novel is in no way boring. Hawthorne uses intense symbolism and dizzying imagery to transport us back in time to Puritan New England, and gives us an insight into the life of Hester Prynne that we are not likely to forget.

The Scarlet Letter is a brilliant, gripping, thoroughly human novel that's characters and themes continue to reverberate in our collective consciousness more than 150 years after its initial publication. The story is thoroughly compelling, the prose rich and poetic, and characters complex. The book moves rather slowly, but it does give the reader time to think about the timeless issues of love, betrayal, and deception.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
One of the most moving books I've read. Hester is carrying a child. Hester is not married and won't reveal the name of the father. In a time ruled by severe church authorities, this is not to be tolerated. The courage of Hester, her dignity, make her heroic to me. The father of the child is
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despicably weak, unable to own up to his sin and willing that she should be the one to suffer. A good example to show that if Christ is not ruling the heart it does no good for a person to have the appearance of godliness.
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LibraryThing member jackkane
Hawthorne has the amazing talent of expanding two sentences into two pages. Whereas Hemingway uses repetition as a literary device, Hawthorne just repeats. Had Hawthorne stuck only to dialogue, 'The Scarlet Letter' could have been a decent short story. Instead we have a hysterical melodrama
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sprawling over 200 smoldering pages. The characters are flat and meant to be flat - because they are archetypes rather than real human beings. The heavy-handedness of Hawthorne's symbolism hints at why the book is so ubiquitous in America's high schools.

The novel's best feature is its tone - Hawthorne's writing flows soothingly and pleasantly.

The plot is hard to take seriously, but then, clearly the plot isn't the point. Hawthorne's wanted to write a porn novel and that's what he wrote.

Unpleasant reminders of the barbarity of the 19th century confront the reader at every page. In 'The Scarlet Letter' women ought to know their place, the clerics who preach obeisance possess infinite wisdom, and the Indians are savages. But then, perhaps these themes are another explanation for the school boards' obsession with Hawthorne's novel.

One wonders why 'romance' novels from the 19th century are considered real literature, but authors like Chandler and Pratchett are consigned to the 'genre' shelves.

My condolences if you have to read 'The Scarlet Letter' for school. This novel is strictly for lovers of melodrama, and insomniacs.
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LibraryThing member doko
In this era of denigrating, dismissing, marginalizing and categorizing our opponents and "enemies", this story remains relevant and reminds us our unchanging human nature. Read a version with notes or annotations to get the full impact. There should be a contest to point out all of the scarlet
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letters in use today.
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LibraryThing member speedy74
I honestly feel cheated that I was never required to read this novel in either high school or college. While I found the first chapter about how the author came upon the story of Hester Prynne while working at the custom's house terribly dull, I absolutely loved the novel that followed.

The Scarlet
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Letter is a beautiful pairing of contrasts. While Hester is marked as an adulterer--a sinner, she gives freely of her time and talents to her community. While she is forced to wear the drab attire of the Puritans, her A for adulterer is beautifully crafted. While she is well known for her sin, she seems to hold the sins of others in a secret place in her heart. While she married for stability, she feel victim to her passions. All of these elements work to make a beautifully complex character the reader cannot help but empathize with.

One of the themes of the novel I most identified with is the hypocrisy of the townspeople. While many of them have committed a similar sin they are happy to point their fingers at Hester and judge her. The only exception to this rule is the young woman who waits with others outside the jailhouse door as Hester appears before the public. She symbolizes the minority thought in the beginning and in the end of the novel. Her willingness to look at the world from a different perspective provides a window into Hawthorne's analysis of society.

There are so many layers to this novel, that I wish I had taken more notes, but I was too swept up in the narrative to catalog all the depth that The Scarlet Letter provides. Definitely worth more than one read!
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LibraryThing member pennma05
Well, where do I start... I just finished it moments ago and am still a little baffled as to why I wanted to read this book. Granted it is on my Gilmore Girls Book Challenge and Boxall's 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list but.... I just don't know. I have to say I was mostly bored by this
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book. I'm normally pretty interested in Puritanical life in the New World but this just didn't catch my fancy. Finally towards the end when the Reverend was finally stepping up I thought it would get good but nooooooooooo. I won't say any more, spoilers and all that, but man oh man am I glad that book is over.
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
It's possible that I don't know as much about literature as I thought I did. Everyone else seems to think that this is a classic of world literature, whereas I just think it's very old, and pretty dull.

Hester Prynn is marked by a scarlet letter emblazoned on her chest - though not burnt onto her
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skin, as I had expected. That would only happen in a Musketeers novel, I suppose. She has committed adultery, and the token she has to wear weighs heavily on her soul. Afterall, this is Puritan America, and adultery is a sin that could have cost her her life.

I won't spoil the surprise by telling you who she had had an affair with, but reading the story, I couldn't shake the feeling that the plot was a little weak, that, given the actual circumstances that arise in the course of the novel, something better could have been worked out.

However, Hester's daughter, Pearl, is a revelation. Had there been more of this impish little girl, I would have read the book more quickly, and enjoyed it more. Still, it's a classic, and it's another addition to my list of the classics that I've read.
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LibraryThing member cranmergirl
Sad to say, I did not particularly enjoy this well-known classic. The story and symbolism were interesting but actually trudging through the book was oh so tedious! One thing I did like was the old English spoken by the characters. All in all, I would have preferred a much condensed version of this
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book.
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LibraryThing member wang.1142
The Scarlet Letter is a great novel whose strength, I feel, lies in its development of the ambivalent characters, or characters who are considered neither "good" nor "evil." Hester Prynne, though viewed as a shameful adulteress at first, eventually elicits sympathy and understanding from the
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Puritan townspeople and readers as well. Once readers find out that she was almost forced into her marriage with Roger Prynne (Chillingsworth) because of her family financial circumstances, they begin to almost "root" for her to run away and live a normal life with the Arther Dimmesdale, a minister. Arther Dimmesdale is also an "ambivalent" character in that he is a coward for not stepping up and admitting to the townspeople that he was the father of Hester's child, but he also tries to repent through self mutilation and torture. This book is definitely worth to read because Hawthorne's allegory is by far better than the Demi Moore, Hollywood alteration of the original.
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LibraryThing member Nikkles
I have never understood why this is what we force high school students to read . . . if we want them to like literature. I cannot relate to or sympathize with any of the characters, which makes the book almost unreadable right off the bat. The prose is obtuse and the imagery laborious at best.
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There is an entire chapter on the rose bush. Sometimes being old does not make you a classic, it just makes you old. (I have it tagged under classics I know, but in somethings I bend to tradition)
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LibraryThing member lit13
An extremely well-written book about the tensions that rock a small puritan town. Though it may not be to everyone's taste, it is a definite must-read for any fan of the classics.
LibraryThing member Enamoredsoul
Nathaniel Hawthorne, in writing The Scarlet Letter, took that which was considered so very taboo in the society and placed it in the household. He took a simple woman trying to escape her past, and a lonely man, who was also a preacher, and made them the models for the "it could happen to anyone"
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story.

Many may say that Hawthorne's writing is full of glitches, is slow, and perhaps too ornate and verbose at times - but I disagree. In my opinion, he was an author who employed almost every literary technique, and used it well. The first chapter is probably the most difficult to get through, since it seems so detached from the rest of the book, but for those who are looking closely, it is full of foreshadowing elements and in reproducing the structure of the society in which the story is about to take place - Hawthorne is forewarning us of the limitations of said society, of how these rituals will come to be bane of Hester Prynne's existence, as the story unfolds.

The story begins with Hester's public shaming,and her being made to wear a 'Scarlet letter' upon her bosom as a sign of her adulterous ways. Amongst the crowd, watching, is her husband Dr. Prynne, who now goes by the name of Roger Chillingworth. The plot is simple, Hester Prynne comes to live in a village near Boston, and there, she finds herself inexplicably for the town preacher. The town preacher, Reverend Dimmesdale, also falls in love with Hester. The husband, who was to follow Hester, a cruel and conniving man, is captured and considered dead which further fuels the level of intimacy between the Reverend and Hester. The result is an illegitimate child - although, Hester continually refuses to name the father of the child, for fear of the persecution that will result from this confession of her lover, the Reverend. While Hester remains ostracized from the society, her daughter and her both treated like the Plague, the Reverend wastes away with the guilt that he allowed Hester to take the entirety of the blame. He pines away for his love, and for his child, and becomes weak and disturbed. This only serves to add to the suspicions of Dr.Chillingworth, who is seeking to exact revenge on the man who had left his wife astray, and when he confirms his suspicions serves to fuel the Reverends self-hatred. The relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale is ever tender, but the relationship between Dimmesdale and his daughter Pearl is, although seemingly calm, tense and tortuous.

Hawthorne paints his characters with such intensity, Hester's love and her patience, Pearl's innocence, Dimmesdale's self-loathing and guilt, and Chillingworth's jealousy and anger - and above all, the townsfolk's constant judgments. The novel is a classic, written in the way of a classic, full of eloquent prose, rich commentary and extremely descriptive. It is a slow and meticulous read, but also a very satisfying one. If you can get past the slow pace, and the alliterations and allegory, you will find yourself reading of a beautiful tale about love, passion, guilt, redemption...and above all, faith.
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LibraryThing member ReneH
Although the book is dated of course, I found it quite impressive. It certainly is worth reading, to get to know a world of which one hardly can believe it ever existed.
LibraryThing member schmal06
This is one of the most beautifully and intelligently written works I have ever come across. It's just brilliant.
LibraryThing member buckeyeaholic
One of my favorite classics.

Colonial times. Woman whose husband is not with her a the time. Ooooops! Now she's pregnant! How did that happen?

If you missed this must read in high school, you have to pick it up now. BTW...do not pick up the audio! It's horrible. I didn't like this guys voice before
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he started acting the parts of the characters. I couldn't even get past the first couple of 'pages' once he started using different voices. Some men just shouldn't try to do womens voices.
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LibraryThing member bzedan
So, like everybody, I had to read this in high school. I remember being not that impressed. But on a re-read, totally diggin' it. And it did not end half as sad and horrible and vengeful as I thought. I had it in my head that what's-his-creepo, the doctor, like, stalked Pearl and shit when she was
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a teen and tried to do her or something. Interestingly, folks I work with also remembered (different) negative endings as well—not the real ending, which isn't sunshine and rainbows, but is kind of a complete and serene one.
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LibraryThing member jshillingford
I was always skeptical when teachers used the term "classic" when referring to a book. It always seemed to me to be a term to describe books I had to read that were going to suck. The Scarlet Letter was a happy exception.

I really enjoy historical fiction. Hawthorne easily puts a reader into the
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time period by laying out the facts of puritan life and laws, the dress of the time, as well as with the old-fashioned dialog. Hestor's husband is "away" at sea and she has become pregnant. Normally, adultery would carry a very severe punishment, but the town can't prove her husband is alive. So, she is forced to wear a scarlet "A" (for adultery) on her chest whenever she's in public. This stigma will pass on to her daughter, despite her innocence in the matter. Hestor's stoic perseverence in the face of this humiliation is even more poignant when you learn who the father of her baby really is. This tale of a town forcing its morality on a person is still valid today. Women aren't forced to wear a scarlet A (at least in the US), but we still label people who are different or don't conform to our values.

Unfortunately, at the time this was written, authors were paid by the number of pages in their books. Readers can easily guess this caused unnecessary bloating in stories and this book suffers the same. There is a lot of description and fluff that I found myself skimming over, but the heart of the story is still excellent. This tale is powerful and meaningful. Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member Sandyflippers
The beginning of most books start with the beginning of the story being told. Many books will take a reader from a time before any conflict existed for the characters, into what led to the problems, and then through to the very end of the character’s uncertainties and misconceptions, until the
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reader has a very thorough understanding of the issues at hand and, therefore, the meaning of the book. However, this is not so with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. While Hawthorne does give depth to his characters and plot, and meaning that derives from the central conflict, he does not tell a story from beginning to end. His story begins in the middle of the conflict, after a poignant, climactic act of passion between two of the main characters, Hester and Dimmesdale, has already taken place. In doing so, Hawthorne awakens his readers to understand how the act of sin itself is less important than the creation of guilt and desire it triggers within the human psyche.

Furthermore, Hawthorne constantly leaves interpretation up to the readers so that they can decide exactly what happened for themselves. Hawthorne often gives many examples of what could happen in the story and then writes “the reader may choose among these theories” (Hawthorne 193). Hawthorne does this because he realizes that what actually happened is inconsequential to the story, and there can be many interpretations of what happened. Regardless, these symbols hold the same meaning regardless of the tangible events occurring. Fate plays a part here that no character can control. Therefore, the symbolism is more influential than the real events.

Nevertheless, many characters throughout the book wrestle with the temptation of sin. Just as Pearl, the daughter of Hester and Dimmsedale, is a tangible representation of the passion these characters have, their act of sin is a tangible symbol of the first wrong choice that lead to many others. The first sin is the most important because it makes it less difficult to sin again afterwards. That initial transgression makes it so that "the human soul, in this mortal state, is never repaired...There is [always] the ruined wall, and, near it, the stealthy tread of the foe that would win over again his unforgotten triumph" (176). This sin can never be erased from one’s soul, and a sinner can never be pure again. The sly foe mentioned steals into Hester and Dimmesdale’s souls again and again to lead them astray. By showing the symbolism and importance behind the sin without the event itself, Hawthorne can focus the reader on the abstract meaning of the primary sin committed by Dimmesdale and Hester.

Similarly, the principal sin triggers a puzzling paradox between the characters' crushing guilt and their unquenchable desire to sin again. This, just like the manifestation of their tainted souls, holds a greater place than the act of sin that created it. One can easily see that Dimmesdale and Hester live miserable lives. Hester "[rejects] all joy...as sin" and Dimmesdale finds himself "broken down by long and exquisite suffering...his mind was darkened and confused by the very remorse which harrowed it..."(63, 176). This guilt consumes both characters, and their guilt is one of the most overpowering characteristics that they possess. However, coupled with this guilt is a fiery passion. Once the first wrongdoing is committed, it becomes easier to sin. Hester has a very heated conversation with Chillingworth, her ex husband, exclaiming, “‘be it sin or no...I hate the man!'" (131). Hester becomes conscious of the sin, and simultaneously decides to go through with it regardless of that fact. Dimmesdale also finds himself in compromising positions, for instance wishing to "drop into [a virgin's] tender bosom a germ of evil that would be sure to blossom darkly soon, and bear black fruit betimes" (165). While Dimmesdale realizes that the right thing to do would be to reveal himself as Pearl’s father, he decides not to do so, and continues sinning, not only hurting himself but wishing to undermine others as well. The snowball effect of sins created from one seemingly miniscule crime proves that the “foe…[won] over again his unforgotten triumph” (176).

In essence, Hawthorne created a very specific lens for his readers to look through while reading The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne knew exactly what he wanted to focus on, and by excluding a scene where Dimmesdale and Hester engage in their first sin, he creates a more mysterious story that is open to interpretation. There are many different things that could have happened between Hester and Dimmesdale, but that is not essential to the story. We understand Hester and Dimmesdale’s passion, and that is the crucial part of their affair. Hawthorne was also able to create a specific focus for his readers by guiding them towards the more abstract and symbolic reasons behind Hester and Dimmesdale's affair. Hawthorne incorporated into his piece one of the most natural instincts of humans; to plunge unknowingly into a forbidden desire, and then find it easier to keep going back for more, even with a conscience weighing in the balance.
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LibraryThing member schasteen
I rated The Scarlet Letter 5 stars because it is a classic novel. This story is one that numerous people know and can retell. Several people that I know had to read this as required reading because this book is a staple in literature. Classroom applications could be used with this book by having a
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"red a day" where every student has to wear a red a on their chest to see what Hester felt like when she had to wear the A. Students can also have a class discussion on their feelings on the topics and the time period of the novel.
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LibraryThing member DeusXMachina
No fan of this classic. I get why it's considered a masterpiece, but it also seems to me as if the biggest fans judge from a position where the moral of a story is more important than the story itself.

Over the course of this novel, we sadly get to know nothing of the inner workings and conditions
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of the characters, nothing but what the few, very reduced and stilted lines of dialogue reveal of which each additionally gets commented on by the narrator. This narrator is so far detached from the events and the persons who were involved that the whole thing reads like a historical report, with the additional effect that the characters have no nuances or real personalities. Everyone, men and women alike (though apart from Hester, women don't play any important part anyway) are Puritans and nothing else - only concerned with their soul's salvation, their morals and most of all the morals of others, with nothing distinguishing them from each other or giving them individuality. Hester herself is obviously different, but even with her we get to know nothing about her motivations and development, the reasons why she acts like she acts. The only character who breaks the mould is Pearl, and only because she's consistently described as different and weird.

These shortcomings are actually a real pity, because I really liked the story itself, as a thought experiment and insight into a society that is . The theme of shame, stigma and the way how a society is held together by common morals give the frame for a tale that is, with the view of a modern reader, unbelievably full of bigotry, mercilessness, sexism, self-pity and factitiousness. Unfortunately, the way Hawthorne handles it, it's more like a sermon to be preached from a pulpit than a story to be told at a campfire. Cautionary and lecturing instead of entertaining, and no effort was made to combine both.

On the topic of style, I guess Hawthorne really loved to hear himself talk. The introductory "Custom House" sketch took 1,5 hours in the audio version and nearly caused a dnf tag. There was no substance, nothing with any tangible insight, just rambling and digressing and going off on tangents that ultimately went nowhere, preferrably in run-on sentences that put half a dozen ideas into a single paragraph.

Yes, I know, it's the style of the time and I can't expect modern efficiency in storytelling in a novel from 1850. Actually, I don't even want to. And still, it's so far over the top that it becomes tedious very fast. Pride and Prejudice is from 1813, and stylistically it's so much more varied and interesting, with real dialogue where not every line gets a comment and real characters the reader can understand and relate to.
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LibraryThing member rsubber
I put my hands on the beating hearts of Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne, they came close to escaping their time. Characters trump plot, but here the story line is viciously inescapable.
LibraryThing member JalenV
It's been decades since I read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, but I thought it would be interesting to listen to it while I cross stitch Christmas gifts. I had mercifully forgotten that Mr. Hawthorne had blathered on about his job and colleagues at the Custom House before he even started
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the story of Hester Prynne, Although the sketch of the Custom House and its employees isn't bad, I grew impatient to get to the real story. I'm not saying one should skip the entire first CD -- it does reach the point where our author finds the papers of Jonathan Pine and the old scarlet letter near the end. I just want to prepare you.

The discussions about sin, guilt, remorse, and penance along the way are interesting, but the attitude of Salem townspeople toward Hester is infuriating, as is Pearl's father's cowardice and Hester's husband allowing the lust for vengeance to poison his soul.

Hester was too self-sacrificing where Pearl's father was concerned. He wasn't worthy of her love. I don't care how guilty he felt because the town thought him a godly man when he was the sinner whose identity they tried to get from Hester. He still let her bear all the public infamy that belonged to both of them.

Hester's husband was just as bad for placing all the blame for his behavior on her partner in adultery. He refused to take responsibility for freely choosing evil over forgiveness.

You'll probably recognize human behavior that is still present, such as making up tidbits of gossip and refusing to believe the truth when told it.
The book does provoke thought, but it also provoked considerable anger in this reader, at least.

I liked Ms. Gibson's narration.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
This mid 19th century American classic novel is very much set within the ethos and mores of the Puritan community in New England in the mid 17th century. A young woman Hester Prynne with a baby (Pearl) is humiliated by the community and marked with the eponymous letter A for adultery (though the
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word is never used in the book). The story is about her relationship with her daughter, with an old doctor who is revealed to be her ex-husband, and with the clergyman who is Pearl's father. The story is told within a framework narrative, with an over-long introduction describing the author's personal experiences working in a custom house, where he purported to have found old documents describing Hester's story. Hawthorne is clearly sceptical of the grim joylessness of extreme Puritanism, when he describes one of their rare festive events thus: "Into this festal season of the year ............the Puritans compressed whatever mirth and public joy they deemed allowable to human infirmity; thereby so far dispelling the customary cloud, that, for the space of a single holiday, they appeared scarcely more grave than most other communities at a period of general affliction." The novel is very well written and needs to be read in relatively small doses truly to appreciate the language, though it is short at only 138 pages.
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Pages

443

ISBN

0393956539 / 9780393956535
Page: 1.357 seconds