Speaking in absolutes is never a safe habit but it is especially unsafe when you are a teenager. In high school, I broke rank with my favorite teacher, Diane Woodbury, and decided that I hated Nathaniel Hawthorne. Absolutely hated the guy. I figured that if The Scarlet Letter was supposed to be his masterpiece then there must not be any redeeming value to the rest of his contribution to literature. Ms. Woodbury loved Hawthorne more than any other American writer so the fight was on from the first moment I denounced The Scarlet Letter as rubbish.
Hawthorne was heir to the Puritanical tradition of his home state of Massachusetts. Guilt, the utmost importance of public appearance and binding faith, ruled the Puritan's life. I totally agree with the experts who say that few could write as eloquently as Hawthorne on the Puritan tradition. The real issue that occurred to me is: Why would anyone find it interesting?
Another Look at a Classic: The Scarlet Letter
I recently picked up The Scarlet Letter (my wife's copy) for the first time in over 14 years to remind myself why I don't like the book. From the beginning, the book's Preamble (which I affectionately called the pre-ramble), I was bored. The first chapter describes a gloomy crowd of people, who gathered outside of a formidable prison, with a nearby rose bush. The opening chapter works in tandem with the pre-ramble to vie for--in my opinion--one of the most boring openings in literature. Ms. Woodbury had assured us that the first chapter was rich in symbols that reoccur throughout the novel. Isn't this, she asked, a great way to start a novel?
Hester Prynne, the adulterous woman who wears the scarlet "A" as a mark of her crimes, is introduced to the reader, along with her infant daughter Pearl, in the second chapter of the book. Hester was sent ahead to the new world by her much older husband, Roger Chillingworth (which, I concede, is a great name for a villain). After arriving alone in the New World, she commits adultery and Pearl is the result.
Hester adamantly refuses to reveal the identity of her lover and the reader soon finds out why. Her lover is Arthur Dimmesdale, the town's priest and spiritual leader--making for "fascinating" explorations into the burdens of faith, the nature of evil and the pitfalls of knowledge, all against a backdrop of pilgrim struggle against the wilds of the new world (at least according to Ms. Woodbury). While these themes are intriguing, the book was a horrible chore (the book was my benchmark for "awful" for the remainder of the school year). I could say: "At least this book isn't as bad as The Scarlet Letter," which never ceased to get a rise out of Ms. Woodbury.
Discover "Another" Hawthorne: Beyond The Scarlet Letter
I stayed in touch with Ms. Woodbury through my university years, continuing my "I hate Hawthorne" banter the whole time. I didn't pick up another Hawthorne story until my Junior year. In an American Lit. course, we read "The Birth-mark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter." I was faced with an unsettling truth: both stories were really good.
"Rappaccini's Daughter" is an intriguing tale that mixes science and religion masterfully against a backdrop of an allegorical Garden of Eden. "The Birth-mark" is an equally interesting story of a husband's obsession over his wife's sole imperfection, a birthmark on her cheek. Both stories march out many of Hawthorne's usual themes and symbols (sin, religion and purity, strong female characters who die tragically because of the follies of weaker men). Why then did I like these stories yet dislike The Scarlet Letter?
There are three answers to that question... First, while Hawthorne is undoubtedly a talented writer, I think he is an exceptionally talented short story writer. His eloquence and layering of themes is best, for me, taken is small doses. Novels like The Scarlet Letter simply fail to hold my interest for long periods of time. Second, both of the short stories deal more in the realm of the supernatural, which has always interested me. Finally, I think that I was a mature enough reader that I could start to appreciate the Hawthorne's language, characters, and themes.
Naturally, I had to call Ms. Woodbury and concede defeat. I told her how much I liked "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "The Birth-mark" and, therefore, had to retract my "I hate Hawthorne" statements. She had a good laugh and said that she always knew I'd come around. Pride and good taste, however, have not changed my opinion of The Scarlet Letter.
I think--secretly--that if I were to re-read The Scarlet Letter today, I would enjoy it. But, a few scraps of teenage defiance remain.