The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
“Whether you know it or not – yet mainly whether you will it or not and like it or not, by decree of society if not by our own choice – we are all artists of life; and there’s no room for compassion in art. Art, and life therefore, must not be understanding” seems to be whispering Hester Prynne from the pages of “The Scarlet Letter”.
If you are looking for the traditional easy read – for a book by which you expect to be captivated since the very first handful of pages – then, my friend, I can assure you “The Scarlet Letter” isn’t what will turn out to be the next topic of your small talk with friends. It’s not the kind of book which makes you say: “I cannot put it down”, and I’m definitely not afraid to assert that’s not one of those cases in which “each page leads to the following one”.
Were it a building, “The Scarlet Letter” would be one of those baroque architectures, which are as magnificent as their lavishness tends to grow. Were it a painting, the whole composition would show itself as a cryptic and studied chiaroscuro. Were it a portion of the Scriptures, it would tell us of an episode of epiphany. Were its denouement a concrete artifact, it would have the perfect roundness of a sphere.
If you have the necessary amount of patience, which is needed to face the reading of such a novel, then you might understand what stands behind this odd example of stream of consciousness of mine. The plot of the romance is not a tremendous challenge itself. We are in year 1642, in the puritan town of Boston. Our main character – and heroine I’d dare to say – is a woman by the name of Hester Prynne. We make her acquaintance while a fanatic crowd gathers around the gallows platform on which she stands: she’s been found guilty of adultery. Memento mori of her sin – and laconic yet at the same time “speaking” presence throughout the whole story –, a scarlet letter “A”, which she is required to constantly wear on her dress.
“Adulteress” will be her epithet from now on; and her daughter Pearl, whose father’s – and therefore accomplice in her mother’s crime – name her mother has refused to reveal, is the malicious fruit of an act against the common morals and the Lord himself.
Since her husband is thought to be lost at sea – actually we know he’s back in Boston, in the guise of the physician Roger Chillingworth, after spending some time as prisoner of a Native American tribe – Hester has to raise her child only by herself, and against the prejudice and the ignorance of the fanatic society in which she lives. She’s also denied the love of Pearl’s father – a distinguished member of the community who is above suspicion – and who is almost physically torn between his feelings towards his beloved Hester, and his role as clergyman.
Willing not to reveal the plot in its details, I will now just talk about the meaning of what I wrote at the beginning of this review: “Art, and life therefore, must not be understanding”. You may argue: “aren’t you being exaggerated, if not even theatrical, by stating such tremendous verdicts?” Well, allow me to explain to you the nature of what I actually maintain.
Hester Prynne’s life is a real work of art, since by the end of the story, she turns out to be a prophetess; in particular, the prophetess of a new “divine” law: that of heart.
As Hawthorne writes in the conclusion of his novel, even though Hester “had long since recognized the impossibility that any mission of divine and mysterious truth, should be confided to a woman stained with sin, bowed down with shame, or even burdened with a life-long sorrow” – the stigma of the scarlet “A” on her breast – and even though it is said that “not through dusky grief, but the ethereal medium of joy” the sacred happiness brought by true love shall be revealed, I still believe, that of Hester Prynne, is a most glorious metaphor of hope.
In this case, hope towards a brighter time, when the world would grow out of its own intolerance and narrow-mindedness, willing to embrace a new truth, in order to establish the whole relationship between men and women on the ground of mutual happiness.
Beyond this main – at least in my opinion – teaching, the novel is also a great manual about mankind’s feelings. Particularly, it’s perfectly showed how love and hatred are often similar – if not exactly alike – for what concerns their effects on the mind and the heart of every man and woman: that’s the case of Chillingworth, whose maniacally planned revenge against his wife’s lover, has brought him to experience the same disruptive consequences, through which the aforesaid clergyman went, yet the latter suffering for the purest feeling of love.
Eventually, I would suggest you, my dear hypothetical reader, to pick up a copy of “The Scarlet Letter”. If not for its yell against a sinful vision of human passion, at least for how the institution of the very first american puritan colonies are – in a masterly manner and with historical accuracy – painted. Yet I’m willing to remind you to be aware: reading “The Scarlet Letter” will touch your heart, if it won’t change it forever.
Written by Leonardo Monterubbiano III H