Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why am I supposed to hate The Scarlet Letter?

I just finished The Scarlet Letter a couple of days ago. I'd never read it before. It turns out to be - what's the technical literary term? - awesome. Chapter XII, "The Minister's Vigil" - holy cow, what a piece of writing. Virtually nothing in Hawthorne's short fiction, almost entirely written before The Scarlet Letter, prepared me for the artistic quality of the best parts of this novel.

The impression I have picked up, here and there, is that this novel is much hated. Is this some lingering reaction to high school forced-feeding? I'm very glad, so so glad, that I was not assigned this book in high school. My understanding of fiction was a little narrow then. A little - to go back to my discussion of Gautier - utilitarian.

I was leafing through a book of snippets of essays on Hawthorne and came across a passage by Mark van Doren that I should have written down, since now I have to paraphrase it. Van Doren granted that The Scarlet Letter had some psychological acuteness and some symbolic resonance, but claimed that it is most valuable for Hawthorne's insightful understanding of Puritanism. Now, this strikes me as completely absurd, almost a crime against the notion of literature. The high school Amateur Reader might have agreed with van Doren, I'm afraid. I would have assumed that we were reading The Scarlet Letter because it complemented our 11th grade American history curriculum. It would help us learn about Puritans.

I might not have thought of it quite that way, but I did see fiction as a sort of sugar-coating to make the pill of useful historical information less bitter. Since I like useless - sorry, useful - historical information pills anyway, the Flintstones shape was not really necessary for me, but I would not have complained. I thought Moby-Dick worked very well as a way to learn about the whaling industry and 19th century sea-faring. And I was right about that, but, a little narrow, huh?

I also knew that there was such a thing as escapist literature, fantasy literature, The Hobbit and The Phantom Tollbooth and whatnot, very enjoyable. What a revelation, some years later, to understand that every novel is a fantasy novel. Different novels intersect with the actual world in different ways, and those intersections are often of great interest. But they're all imaginative creations. Even the parts that aren't made up are made up. And this is all aside from the fact that The Scarlet Letter features a witch, a vampire, and an elf-child.

Henry James, from his little book Hawthorne (1879):

"The faults of the book are, to my sense, a want of reality and an abuse of the fanciful element--of a certain superficial symbolism. The people strike me not as characters, but as representatives, very picturesquely arranged, of a single state of mind; and the interest of the story lies, not in them, but in the situation, which is insistently kept before us, with little progression, though with a great deal, as I have said, of a certain stable variation; and to which they, out of their reality, contribute little that helps it to live and move." (Ch. 5)

I would say that the second sentence is exactly right, while the first is more a matter of artistic judgment. For me, the novel has no more reality than it requires, and superficial symbolism is one of Hawthorne's primary subjects, what the book is actually about.

This is a short week for me, due to some coincidentally Hawthorne-related travel, so I won't spend more than another day on The Scarlet Letter. In the meantime, please, fill me in. What am I missing?


  1. This nearly makes me want to go re-read Scarlet Letter, as I was one who read it twice in high school and hated it both times, until I remember how many books I want to read that I have never previously disliked. I guess I'll not be able to answer your question. Somehow 20 years later I cannot recall why I dislike this book so much. It was not just being forced to read 19th century lit; I loved Tale of Two Cities and P+P and understood that Tess was great even if I didn't like it. I enjoyed some of the other "slow" works we read (Ethan Frome, Cry the Beloved Country) and didn't mind books I didn't fully "get" (Camus, Toni Morrison). I just distinctly hated Scarlet Letter. Hmmm. Too much allegory? Awful "custom's house" intro? No sympathetic characters? (I know you don't care about that, but it is the main reason I can't stand W. Heights). I'll be curious what other S.L. dislikers have to say.

  2. People hate this book? If so, I don't know any of them. I loved it and everyone I know who's read it, loved it - indeed, one friend loved it so much she wrote her dissertation just on film adaptations of it!

  3. I remember loving this book in high school and in college when I was forced to read it. Certain scenes are still vivid in my mind. Frankly, I just love Hawthorne! I enrolled in an online not-for-credit class on Hawthorne (and only Hawthorne!) just for fun this summer. What are your Hawthorne-related trips?

  4. Respectful differences of opinion on Vanity Fair aside, I am with you on this one. The Scarlet Letter was hella awesome. Also, little Pearl freaked my shit out.

  5. I read The Scarlet Letter in my sophomore year of high school and had negative-to-neutral feelings about it. (By comparison, Moby Dick, from the same year, was a definite thumbs down.) I don't have a lot of specific memories of SL but, like Raych, I found Pearl creepy. It would be interesting to revisit the book!

  6. Here I stand, a confessed Scarlet Letter hater. I can only tell you why I remember disliking it, not why I actually disliked it or how I would feel about it now that I have read and enjoyed other Hawthorne.

    This was a high school reading assignment, but simple force-feeding isn't enough of an explanation, as I liked plenty of what we read, 19th century or no. But one thing I remember about SL is the language not appealing to me. Now, I also remember this as a specific complaint against The Red Badge of Courage, read in the same year, and I also recently read some Stephen Crane that I thought was gorgeous. Has my taste changed that much? I don't know; things I liked then for their language I still like now. Maybe my tastes have just expanded.

    But the other thing that turned me against SL was its subject matter. Not the Puritans, per se, but I have a visceral negative reaction to stories about women whose lives are, how to say, negatively impacted by a pregnancy. Irrational, often irrelevant, but there it is.

    I've been planning a re-read for a while; I'm really curious how I'll feel about this book now.

  7. I remember disliking it when I had to read it in high school. So much so I didn't finish the book. I think it was more that I was forced to read it--I was such a twit then (well, hopefully that's changed).

    Many of the works I hated in school but have revisited I have enjoyed (which of course leads to the inevitable kicking of myself). This is definitely on my list to read...although it may be a while before I get to it. Thanks for the extra push.

    Funny thing what you associate with works--I'll always remember The Scarlet Letter because at the same time the class was reading it I found out I needed glasses.

  8. As someone who has lately become the biggest fan, if not the biggest advocate, of Hawthorne's ambiguity, I can't help but ask: Was Hester's life negatively impacted by her pregnancy?

  9. Very instructive. So far, the split is 4 hate, 3 definitely do not hate. The 4 negative votes are all based on high school experiences. I don't have an interpretation here - just presenting data.

    Rob, good question. Her life was deeply affected - but negatively? Good question.

  10. Obviously excited that the SL effort has begun here at WE, and put me down as a non-hater of course. For me the book that seems so difficult and hatable for high school/young readers is Silas Marner, which I've mentioned before, but I forget that Scarlet Letter must present a lot of the same issues. My expanding view on Hawthorne tells me that SL is an infinitely greater book. Very happy to hear that it made such a strong impression on you. Just finished my own Hawthorne-related travels--it will be interesting to compare notes. And on the "negatively impacted by pregnancy" issue, there's some very interesting writing (by Nina Baym, Hawthorne scholar extraordinaire) about how the death of Hawthorne's mother coincided with him sitting down to write the book "in a fever."

  11. Rob & AR: Right, well, I would have to get to my re-read to really say of course. But she does spend years ostracized and oppressed while Dimmesdale can go about his business (suffering internally, natch) because his involvement isn't so obvious. He seemed really weak to me, at the time, too. I guess I really should pick this up again.

  12. Didn't read this in high school that I can remember, did read it sometime after college and remember liking it but not enough that huge chunks of the story have remained with me.

    I'm surprised people would hate it in high school, it's about an illicit affair, if the teacher knows what they're doing that should spark some real conversation...

    Although I didn't love Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury, I did like learning that Hawthorne may have based The Scarlet Letter on Margaret Fuller.

  13. short answer: you are not supposed to hate The Scarlet Letter. You are supposed to hate the teachers who made reading this perfectly boss book seem to you to be tedious, a chore, the work of a drudge. How teachers do this...the making of the incontrovertibly interesting and wonderful into the dreary and mundane...I will never know. But we have talked at length on this subject.

  14. I'm writing considerably after the Hawthorne Moment has faded here on Wuthering Expectations, but as you know I recently took the Scarlet Letter plunge and, if I didn't hate it, I didn't assign it to the technically Awesome camp either. So, to honor the question in this post's title, let's see if I can articulate why you aren't supposed to love The Scarlet Letter.

    In your comment to MY post on SL, you described the characters as "reduced, like a wine sauce." I smiled at that, because I had thought of SL's prose as being "overcooked." To me, the emotional pitch felt too hot and sustained to be justified by the scenario. Hester is a little too ready to devote her life to proving a point; the good Reverend a little too excited about his own sense of guilt; Chillingsworth a little too maniacal about his eccentric revenge. With everyone feeling their own pain quite so intensely, the tone veers at times dangerously toward melodrama.

    My other complaint would be that Hawthorne gives his happy trio of characters precious little to DO over the course of the book. That's not to complain of the plot, which is more than adequate, but of Hawthorne's tendency to tell us about his characters rather than show us some actions and dialog and let us infer meaning from them. With so little actually happening in the book, there is little suspense and few unresolved situations. This lack of forward momentum is, I think, why I found SL singularly un-gripping despite its merits.

    I disagree in part with commenters who take teachers to task for "ruining" this book for high school students. This is simply not a book for a 21st Century adolescent. I'm a lifelong intensive reader in my 40s and had trouble with the slow plotting; it's hardly fair to ask a new reader to plow through nearly 100 pages mostly about the experience of feeling extremely guilty. Add to that the florid language of 1850 quoting the archaic language of the 17th century, and you have a poison pill for all but the very most literature-inclined high school student. I would not scold teachers for doing a bad job teaching SL so much as question the wisdom of picking a text so unlikely to attract the enthuiasm of the average student.

  15. M5000, I somehow feel like I should find some serious disagreement, but I don't see it. The pitch is "hot" - yes, right, and good word. The scenario is thin. That's where one can see most clearly the short story expanded out. As a result, the links between the big scenes are, well - it's the big scenes that matter!

    The House of the Seven Gables is a more effective novel-as-such. But the novelsitic improvements actually diffuse the symbolic patterning that is Hawthorne's unique strength. Except in the "Governor Pyncheon" chapter.

    I'm more on your side, too, about how this functions as a high school book. It obviously works for some people. But I doubt I would have read it well.

  16. Just discovered your blog; it's a pleasure to read, a lot of fun! I first read The Scarlet Letter about 20 years ago and then picked it up 2 years ago for a close reading. Which means I read it twice and feathered it with dozens of notated yellow Post-its. I adore this book, as I do all of Hawthorne, including the tales that are so off the wall. Probably has something to do with my grandparents' giving me The House of the Seven Gables when I was 12 and my having to try it once a year for 3 years before I could read it. Your Sympathetic Character Project reminded me of one fascinating (to me) theme in SL - the theme of sympathy - an inner connection that characters feel with one another - not always happily - or with nature. It's something that Hawthorne played with only in this story, as far as I can see. An example, Roger Chillingworth confronting Hester in the prison: "There is a sympathy that will make me conscious of him.... Sooner or later, he must needs be mine!" (p. 70).

  17. Ah, a quite different kind of sympathy. Hawthorne's German influence showing through. I should think more about how they're connected.

    Thanks for visiting.

  18. I know this is a bit late, considering this post is several years old. But I, a high school senior, read this beautiful novel for the first time in my life and finished it about a month ago. It's a spellbinding, rich, symbolic, powerful, allegoric, visionary, permanent novel; Melville loved it, calling it a book of strange beauty in his "Hawthorne and His Mosses." And Melville was later inspired to finish and perfect his epic vision of the visionary poem unlimited, the epic Moby Dick.

    If Melville borrows from Shakespeare's language and psychological and human resonances, Hawthorne borrows from Shakespeare's dealing from history, and he deals with it well. Like Shakespeare, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is retrospective and based in an older, more foreboding time in history. Yet it is all entrenched in the time of the Puritans, the time of the nineteenth century, and all time. It's a fantastic novel of historical novel, a lofty romance, and a visionary and permanent work of great literature for all times.

  19. Too late, oh no. A great defense of the novel!