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A Brilliant Classic

posted by Scot McKnight

100_0533.JPG I don’t consider Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter
“fiction” because I’d prefer to maintain my impish, indefensible line: I don’t read fiction. So, having read the book lately, my line needs commentary: “I don’t consider classic fiction to be fiction; it’s a classic.”

Perhaps you are unconvinced. 
The book is brilliant, classic or fiction, because Nathaniel Hawthorne (statue at left) can get to the heart of darkness.
Any comments about the novel? or the descriptions of Puritans in the book? What do you like most about this novel? What do you dislike?
The story revolves around one Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the woman with whom he had an indiscreet affair (Hester Prynne), the child of that union (Pearl), and the diabolical doctor, Mr. Roger Chillingworth. I don’t think I’ve read the story through since either high school or college, so I had forgotten some of it … and what really took me in this recent reading was that Hawthorne turned Chillingworth, the secretive husband of Prynne, into one whose soul was destroyed by his possession with revenge on his wife’s lover. And I was taken away by the odd descriptions of little Pearl and how she mirrored her mother’s wild nature.
I must register an issue — that so many learn what “Puritan” means from the stereotyped hypocrite that we find in Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who impregnated Hester Prynne and who failed to admit his sin and was tortured by his conscience. As his fame rose among the residents of Salem, so his conscience assaulted him for his sin. Puritans, it ought to be observed, have suffered the fate of the Pharisees: the terms have both become synonymous with “hypocrite.” Such is not the case with either Puritan or Pharisee. We owe our children a fair and positive description of the American Puritans.


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Charlotte

posted November 30, 2009 at 5:24 pm


I remember reading that book in my junior year of high school; it was one of my favorites we read that year. I got extra credit points for bringing in the scripture that Pearl’s name comes from.



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Mark Baker-Wright

posted November 30, 2009 at 7:27 pm


It’s actually hard for me to find much nice to say about this book, having hated being forced to read it in high school. I certainly agree with Scot’s comments about the negative impact works like this have had on our impression of Puritans (impressions Hawthorne himself seems to have harbored, from what I can tell).
If I must find something “nice” to say about the work, I can certainly appreciate with honesty the bravery that it must have taken Hawthorne to write so honestly about sin and its effects to a culture that must have found this scandalous.



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John W Frye

posted November 30, 2009 at 7:29 pm


Ah, ha! Now you’ve added *The Scarlet Letter* to your annual reading of *The Old Man and the Sea.* You definitely like to read fiction. LOL



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Nora

posted November 30, 2009 at 8:54 pm


Have you tried Hawthorne’s short fiction? “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” are two really fascinating stories that also deal with the Puritans.



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Dave Moore

posted November 30, 2009 at 9:09 pm


I love Hawthorne’s work. Unlike some of his contemporaries, especially Whitman and Emerson, Hawthorne appreciated the reality of personal sin. His description of the inner struggle over hidden sin is indeed brilliant.
Make sure to catch some of his short stories. The Celestial Railroad is one of my favorites.



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Scot McKnight

posted November 30, 2009 at 9:43 pm


Dave, I agree: magnificent insight into the conscience.



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MatthewS

posted November 30, 2009 at 11:26 pm


I read it as a fairly young person but its been many years. I related my own secret guilts (nothing more major than normal teen-age kids but guilt weighed heavily on me) to Dimmesdale’s torment. I really identified with the desire to punish oneself in secret enough to make up for ones sins but realized that there is an element of pride in that – no matter how much he felt he had suffered in private, Dimmesdale never publicly confessed. In this, Hester and Pearl were in a sense stronger and truer people. I suppose this is a longer way of saying hypocrite. I concluded that I did not want to live such a life. Better to be Hester in public than Dimmesdale in private.



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Randy

posted December 1, 2009 at 9:55 am


Scot,
You are right about the Puritans. A comparison of them and their current offspring in the American Northeast would be interesting though.
I too commend both Young Goodman Brown and the Celestial Railroad.
The later underlies Christopher Lasch’s The True and Only Heaven: Progress and its Critics, an excellent book on Americans who have fought the notion that our brains, our brawn our technology or our money will save us. Without directly engaging any of the current issues of Global Climate Change, End of Oil, Environemnt, etc. he spoke richly of “limits,” in the 1980s, an age where we imagined we could do anything we pleased.
Peace,
Randy Gabrielse



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Tony Hunt

posted December 1, 2009 at 12:40 pm


Scot,
I have a Thoreau quote that might help you maintain your motto:
“Of pure invention, such as some suppose, there is no instance. To write a true work of fiction even, is only to take leisure and liberty to describe some things more exactly as they are.”
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers



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Wayne Park

posted December 1, 2009 at 1:23 pm


The Puritans deserve more credit than the epithets named to them, both European and American. Reading Owen, Baxter, Edwards et al requires some modern filtering lenses, but nonetheless one will find oneself mining riches therein.



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Mike M

posted December 2, 2009 at 12:14 am


Over Thanksgiving, my twin nieces came to stay. Named Sarah and Angela they are identical twins. In order to help us tell them apart, I suggested that Sarah wear a sweatshirt with a big red “S” and Angela wear one with a big red “A.” Didn’t work.



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