The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
The story is set in 16th century England. Hester Prynne, a typical girl most women even today could identify with, is with a child out of wedlock. She has to bear the punishment of the times which is imprisonment, public humiliation and to henceforth wear the “Scarlet letter A” on her dress. She refuses to disclose the name of the father of the child, may be because she loved him, maybe because the consequence would be the end of his career. Battling with guilt and rejection from society, she tries to establish a life, by earning her means of livelihood by needle work and gardening. She tries to bring up her daughter Pearl by Christian values and principles.
Pearl is another central character in the book. Pearl is a child of difficult temperament and impulsivity with strange behaviour and thinking. This is not surprising, considering that she is brought up isolated from other children with her mother as the only playmate. She also shows an extraordinary amount of intelligence in comprehending the realities of life. Initially serving as a reminder of her failure to Hester, she is gradually able to develop a relationship of trust and bonding.
Arthur Dimmesdate is a very popular priest, liked for his piety and godliness. He moves people with his exceptional voice and sadness which disguises his guilt. He is to his congregation an example of righteousness and his physical weakness is almost equalled to the suffering of Christ. We are gradually lead to the truth that he is the father of Pearl, but we do not know for sure till much later in the book.
Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. In his quest for justice in finding the father of Pearl and punishing him, he finds that his personality has changed. The scholarly kind hearted man has becomes under the weight of unforgiveness and revenge seeking, a person void of goodness. Even though we should empathise with the wronged husband, the reader finds him/herself unable to do so. You find yourself increasingly disliking him.
Is it better to admit your sin and suffer the consequences? Or to come to terms with it alone in secrecy? Is it only between God and an individual?
“I will stand with you and mother on the day of judgement” Arthur tells Pearl in a secret meeting.
At the end of the story, Hester and Arthur and able to avail God’s grace and mercy.
The detailed descriptions of events might be a little weary for most of us modern day readers. But the psychological insights into character and descriptions of personality are invaluable. The depths of thinking about right or wrong, about justice and fairness gives you a new perspective.
Central to this book is also the theme of “branding” of sin, while we all are sinners. Which sins should be punished and which don’t need to and to what extent? We can’t help notice that while Hester is so severely and unfairly punished, Arthur is being sympathised with for the same crime committed.
We also see in Hester a character so strong and so intelligent. She takes us through the process of being completely rejected by society, questioning values and authorities we have been taught to respect and finding the truth, if only for oneself.
A must read for those who can put up with long sentences, and descriptions, but nevertheless want something to think about.
“People who conceal their sins will not prosper, but if they confess and turn from them, they will receive mercy”- Proverbs 28: 13
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. “ 1 John 1:9
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