The Scarlet Letter (1850)

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In Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino’s first definition of “a classic” is a book “about which you usually hear people saying, “‘I’m rereading…,’ never ‘I’m reading….'” (3). By this he essentially means that, if one were to read, say, The Scarlet Letter outside of high school, one would never admit to having never read it before, especially if one were held in high esteem for literary knowledge. I, however, choose to shed all pretensions and fully admit that, though I had read Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown” (in many ways similar to this novel), before this past weekend I had never read Hawthorne’s magnificent allegory. And I’m glad for it.

You see, barring some precocious enigma, most people will not yield the full potential of a classic until after—I argue—college. It is only then that one has enough experience to bring to a book in order to make connections with the text that extend beyond rote extraction of plot, setting, and characters. Plus, as we age, we (potentially) become more patient in such actions as reading. How many times have I heard the phrase “I used to hate history, but as I’ve grown older I’ve gained an appreciation for it”? But let me stop there, before sharing my vision for teaching literature in schools, so as not to steer away from the real purpose of this review.

Full disclosure: For me, the first 50 pages, which comprise “The Custom-House,” the introductory chapter, were dense and meandering enough to make me question whether I would enough this beloved classic or not. Still, in retrospect, I question Hawthorne’s intention for so much preamble before the story proper. In fact, The narrator offers a sort of apologia to the whole chapter, which seems to expose Hawthorne’s own awareness of the uneven quality of the writing: “Rusty through long idleness, some little space was requisite before my intellectual machinery could be brought to work upon my tale, with an effect in any degree satisfactory” (46). There is even an authorial preface to my Vintage edition wherein Hawthorne addresses negative reception to the “Custom-House” opening, and he ends on a passive-aggressive yet eloquent note: “The author is constrained, therefore, to republish his introductory sketch without the change of a word” (1). Well all right then.

But Hawthorne quickly redeems himself with the opening paragraph of the first chapter of the story proper. It is but a single sentence that paints a poetic and atmospheric picture of the setting: that of colonial, Puritanical Salem. What is it about “gray, steeple-crowned hats,” combined with the knowledge of the notorious Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century, that strikes at something in the reader’s core? And just after this opening, Hawthorne assert’s some of his book’s heavy preoccupations: despite the attempts of a group of people to establish a community of purity, sin (symbolized by the prison) and death (symbolized by the cemetery) will never stop.

The book is so packed with allusion and symbolism (especially with the color red), that I choose to omit an enumeration thereof in order to preserve space and to focus on some other things of note. One such notable allusion is to that of John Milton’s “Lycidas”:

Yet once more, O ye laurels, and once more
Ye myrtles brown, with ivy never sere,
I come to pluck your berries harsh and crude,
And with forc’d fingers rude
Shatter your leaves before the mellowing year.

Compare these words, written over two centuries earlier, to Hawthorne’s: “…we could hardly do otherwise than pluck one of its [the rose bush’s] flowers and present it to the reader” (50). We must keep in mind that, when Milton wrote this poem, he was not ready to begin his public writing career. In fact, he was in the midst of a self-imposed scholarly sabbatical, during which he was studying and preparing to proffer to the world its next epic poem. So there is a parallel between Milton and the narrator of “The Custom-House,” in not really being ready to start their respective writing for the public. And yet, they both “pluck” something red and natural (a berry and a rose, respectively) to offer to the reader.

In a fantastic feat of writerly skill, Hawthorne reprises this image of the rose much later in the book. The young Pearl is being interrogated regarding her parentage, and she cleverly answers “that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door” (115). It is moments like these that keep me reading. And, beyond the cleverness of the self-referential metaphor, Pearl is right. She has no natural parents. Hawthorne himself has plucked her from the rose bush of his imagination.

The book is a long meditation, as I said, on weighty topics, and the central conflict is nothing short of Shakespearean. Hawthorne questions the transmission of sin through a family line versus our being born completely free, siding with the latter view in the manner of Rousseau’s: “Man is born free yet everywhere is in chains.” Set among the Puritans of colonial America, the concept of tradition versus reform and community versus individuality are ever present, allowing for such sublime aphorisms as “‘Thou must gather thine own sunshine'” (107; my favorite moment of the entire book) and “I am but child. It [the sunshine] will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!” (190) and “…a sickness…in your spirit, hath immediately its appropriate manifestation in your bodily frame” (141), to name a few. Mercy, justice, redemption, retribution, vindication, immorality, immortality, witchcraft, Catholicism, Protestantism, and feminism are among the many, many dimensions Hawthorne offers in this his most notable work.

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