Friday, May 7, 2010

Book Review: The Scarlet Letter

Scarlet Letter. Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1850. 237 pages.

A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.

This "review" will mainly be observations.

I skipped "The Custom House" introduction to the novel. I have no idea if anything in this introduction by Hawthorne is important, is relevant to understanding the novel. But I know that I never would have finished the book if I'd had to finish this introduction.

I don't trust Hawthorne. I don't trust his representation of the Puritans. I think it is just a little too easy for authors to make Puritans the ultimate bad guys.

I think it would be horrible if The Scarlet Letter was a person's only exposure to Christianity. Because you know what, what this book lacks--really lacks--is the gospel message.

Though I suppose you could say that it's content is still relevant today. Stories about ministers (some famous, some not so much) confessing to their congregation, confessing to the world, apologizing for making big, huge mistakes in their personal lives.

I don't think the lack-of-gospel has anything to do with the Puritan characters, the Puritan background. I think one only has to begin reading Puritan theologians to discover gospel truths--gospel gems everywhere.

The characters. How much do we really know about Hester, about Pearl, about Arthur, about Roger? Are any of these characters truly three-dimensional, truly fleshed out characters? Especially Hester, Pearl, and Roger.

Pearl. I thought Hawthorne's descriptions of this child were strange. And it's not because I buy into this Pearl-isn't-quite-a-normal child argument. I don't think her being born out of wedlock makes her otherworldly. I think Hawthorne's description of childhood, of parenthood is lacking in some ways.

Hester. I had trouble connecting with Hester. I'm glad she's painted in a positive light. I'm glad that others come to see her as a good woman. However, when it comes right down to it. I still don't feel like I genuinely know her. I still don't understand her. I am not sure exactly what's right and wrong here. Speaking of the to-tell-or-not-to-tell dilemma. Whether her keeping quiet is the right thing, the noble thing, the brave thing to do. I do get the sense that she felt it was the right thing to do.

Roger. I thought he was very one dimensional. He was only meant to be evil and out for revenge. Yet, I had a hard time buying him as a real person, a human character. No one is so completely evil, so obviously up to no good. And if Roger really was this type of person. Why was Arthur so very, very slow to realize this? And what was Roger's motivation? Did he really care about Hester? I don't get the idea that he really cared about her as a woman, as a wife. And since no one knows that he is the wronged husband, his pride--his vanity--isn't being threatened. If no one knows he's Hester's husband, if no one connects Hester with him at all, not even a little bit, why dedicate your whole entire life--your whole entire being--into discovering the truth and getting revenge?

This observation isn't so much about Roger as it is the writing of the book itself. I'm trying to think if there was ever a moment when I didn't know the truth. When I didn't have all the dots connected. When I didn't know who Pearl's father was. I don't know if this is because this one is a classic and this spoiler is just part of our culture. (Like knowing that Elizabeth and Darcy are so-meant-to-be.) Or if Hawthorne is to blame. Is there suspense? Is there a real mystery to be solved by the reader?

Arthur. Where to start?! His case is both tragic and stupid. Stupid because it's senseless. If this minister had ever opened his Bible at all, he would know that his misery is so unnecessary. His burden didn't have to be so heavy. His guilt, his shame--hidden though it was--was so pointless. Had Arthur never once read Psalm 51? Seriously?! How could he not know about David and Bathsheba? How could he not know that this man--this king--that committed adultery (and murder) was a man after God's own heart? Why was the concept of man's sinfulness and Christ's righteousness so foreign to him? Why did he not grasp the concept of grace? of mercy? of forgiveness? Why did he not understand that we all have sinned and fallen short? Why did he not know that we all like sheep have gone astray? Why does he not know that each and every one of us is in need of a Savior? Why does he think it's all about him? Why does he think he can be holy all on its own? Why is he trying to earn his way into heaven, into God's favor? Why can't he look upon Jesus? call upon Jesus? How could he be a minister in a church and not know the gospel? Why didn't Arthur read the Psalms? Or the four gospels? Or the book of Romans? Just think of the needless suffering, the restless days and nights. Think of being tormented in your very soul for years and years with no hope. That is tragic. God is such a good God, a merciful God.

Did I like Arthur? Not really. He just didn't get it. I'm not sure that any of the characters did.

Am I glad I read this one? Yes. I think I may have "read" this one in high school. But was my reading more than skimming? I can't remember. Even though I didn't necessarily "like" this one, I can't deny that it was thought-provoking.

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible


sally said...

great review. I read this when I was young but that was a long time ago and I can't really remember much of it.

I do think, though, that at that time vicars often went into the church as a profession when they didn't believe the gospel at all. It's very strange, I think. But I guess some ministers today aren't Christians, either.

Donna said...

Not sure if you are interested, but I just read the introduction in The Scarlet Letter published by Ignatius Press (Ignatius Critical Editions). There is much insightful information about The Custom House...things we learn of Hawthorne ect. I don't mean it redeems the work, just that their introduction sheds much light on where he was coming from. Saw your review, thought you might be interested!

Jenners said...

It did seem to get your thoughts flowing!