Friday, September 7, 2012

The Re-Education of a Book Lover - Part Two: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I have loved to read for as long as I can remember. Recently, however, it has come to my attention that there are some G A P I N G holes in my literary education. For example: I have read every Austen and Bronte you can get your hands on, but somehow had never managed to read a Charles Dickens novel in its entirety. So, with a little help from my mom, the English Teacher, and a couple of good friend, the English Majors, I am setting a course to re-educate myself by filling in some of those gaps.

For my next selection, I've chosen The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  (I actually might have read this before - I don't know if I'm familiar with the story because I've seen a movie, or because I actually read it in high school....either way, the details are fuzzy enough that reading it seems a good idea.)

originally published in 1850

(I'm listening to an audiobook version read by Kristen Underwood)

Synopsis from publisher:

Having been found guilty of adultery, Hester Prynne is forced to wear an embroidered scarlet letter “A” as a punishment for her sin. While her vengeful husband embarks on a quest to discover the identity of her lover, she is left to face the consequences of her infidelity and find a place for herself and her illegitimate child in the hostile environment of 17th-century puritan Boston. Nathaniel Hawthorne's tense narrative astonished readers with its unparalleled psychological depth when it first appeared in 1850, and the novel now stands as one of America's literary landmarks.

My thoughts:

First Impression - 8/22/12

 I definitely do not remember the "prologue" to this novel, and I have to admit to checking a couple of times to make sure I was listening to the right book! The author's ramblings about life as a customs-house officer seemed like an odd way to begin a novel, and I was quite honestly about to give up until the actual story began. While there were certainly parts of the customs-house narrative that I could relate to - the inexplicable love a person finds for the place of their birth; the frustration at the corruption of politicians - most of that first section was honestly just not that interesting to me.

However, once I got into the actual story, things changed. I think I am actually enjoying this novel! I had forgotten how authors from this time often addressed the reader directly - that has taken some getting used to. But I think the writing has a nice flow, and I am definitely engaged in the story of Hester Prynne - how did she get here? What is she going to do next?

Second Thoughts - 8/28/12

AND now I remember I'm reading Hawthorne and I'm not going to get "how she got here" or "what happens next", am I?

It's easy to see why today's youth would dislike this novel - I'm sure the typical 11th-grader who is assigned The Scarlet Letter in English class thinks they are being given some type of punishment. It's themes of guilt, remorse, and revenge may be universal, but in today's culture we do not think of them in the same way Hawthorne did in the 1850's.

I was thankful to see Hester finally getting angry, and showing some spirit when she confronted Chillingworth. She had been soooo good up to this point, that I was having a hard time connecting to her character. My favorite in the novel is Pearl - that little girl reminds me of my own kids so much that I just love her. I can't figure out why Hawthorne seems to insist that she is some sort of demon-child - she sounds just exactly like my daughter most days. =)

I definitely think I am having a better experience with this novel in audio form. I think I would have a hard time reading some of Hawthorne's paragraphs upon paragraphs of descriptions and inner thoughts - listening to them seems to engage my imagination in just the right way.

Last Word - 9/2/12

I read that Hawthorne patterned the character of Hester in part after his own wife, Sophia. Toward the end of the novel, I realized that I was really starting to like Hester, and appreciate how much strength and spirit Hawthorne gave her. In many ways, she was almost a feminist heroine - her free thinking and resourcefulness made her a woman quite a bit before her time.

I think I enjoyed this novel more than I expected I would. There were definitely parts that dragged, and times when I felt like rolling my eyes (Dimmsdale is just ridiculously annoying), but as a whole it was a good reading experience. I'm glad I chose to listen to this on audio - I think it might be the route I take for a lot of these 'classics' that I'm planning to experience.

Finished: 8/31/12
Source: Des Moines public library
MPAA rating: PG? probably for subject matter, although it's really pretty tame
My rating: 7/10

1 comment:

Ryan said...

I love the title of this blogpost. I think we all need to revisit the classics more often than we do. that being said, I've never read The Scarlett Letter, but your review makes me want to try.