The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This has the feel, throughout, of a blue-blooded American classic. It is set in New England in the 1600s, where Puritan settlers from England lived in what was to them a new world but to which they brought the religious beliefs, the exquisite cruelties of which had been wrought in the workshops of ancient Europe, that seem in this story to carry an inexorable tendency towards misery.

Hester Prynne is the main character, a woman who has a child outside marriage and how is then condemned by her righteously indignant peers to wear a large, red, letter ‘A’ on her clothing at all times. One thinks of more recent history and times when people have been forced to wear symbols on their clothing.

But all that was in the future when Hawthorne was writing. His style is elegantly archaic, to the modern eye, but very enjoyble. I read the Penguin edition, which includes a really interesting introduction where he writes about his time as a customs officer, autobiographically, while at the same time setting the imaginative scene for the main narrative.

The period of Puritan settlement in the United States has been the subject of other great works – The Crucible, perhaps most notably. I think the self-contained nature of the society, and the rigid morality based on some notions of eternal truth but ultimately lacking in humanity, is a great source of stories, especially those with a tragic dimension, of good people who cannot be good in the way required by the mores of the time.

A great book and, as I say, an American classic.


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