I listened to this book in September 2007
History: Published in 1850, it was also one of the first mass-produced books in America. Into the mid-nineteenth century, bookbinders of home-grown literature typically hand-made their books and sold them in small quantities. The first mechanized printing of The Scarlet Letter, 2,500 volumes, sold out within ten days, and was widely read and discussed to an extent not much experienced in the young country up until that time.
Plot: The novel takes place in 17th-century Boston, Massachusetts during the summer, in a then Puritan village. A young woman, Hester Prynne, is led from the town prison with her infant daughter in her arms and on the breast of her gown "a rag of scarlet cloth" that "assumed the shape of a letter. It was the capital letter "A". The scarlet letter "A" represents the act of adultery that she has committed and it is to be a symbol of her sin – a badge of shame – for all to see. A man in the crowd tells an elderly onlooker that Hester is being punished for adultery. Hester's husband, who is much older than she is, sent her ahead to America while he settled some affairs in Europe. However, her husband never arrived in Boston. The consensus is that he has been lost at sea. While waiting for her husband, Hester has apparently had an affair, as she has given birth to a child. She will not reveal her lover’s identity, however, and the scarlet letter, along with her public shaming, is her punishment for her sin and her secrecy. On this day Hester is led to the town scaffold and harangued by the town fathers, but she again refuses to identify her child’s father.
The elderly onlooker is Hester’s missing husband, who is now practicing medicine and calling himself Roger Chillingworth. He settles in Boston, intent on revenge. He reveals his true identity to no one but Hester, whom he has sworn to secrecy. Several years pass. Hester supports herself by working as a seamstress, and her daughter Pearl grows into a willful, impish child, who is more of a symbol than an actual character, said to be the scarlet letter come to life as both Hester's love and her punishment. Shunned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. Community officials attempt to take Pearl away from Hester, but with the help of Arthur Dimmesdale, an eloquent minister, the mother and daughter manage to stay together. Dimmesdale, however, appears to be wasting away and suffers from mysterious heart trouble, seemingly caused by psychological distress. Chillingworth attaches himself to the ailing minister and eventually moves in with him so that he can provide his patient with round-the-clock care. Chillingworth also suspects that there may be a connection between the minister’s torments and Hester’s secret, and he begins to test Dimmesdale to see what he can learn. One afternoon, while the minister sleeps, Chillingworth discovers something undescribed to the reader, supposedly an "A" burned into Dimmesdale's chest, which convinces him that his suspicions are correct.
In the meantime, Hester’s charitable deeds and quiet humility have earned her a reprieve from the scorn of the community. One night, when Pearl is about seven years old, she and her mother are returning home from a visit to the deathbed of John Winthrop when they encounter Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold, trying to punish himself for his sins. Hester and Pearl join him, and the three link hands. Dimmesdale refuses Pearl’s request that he acknowledge her publicly the next day, and a meteor marks a dull red “A” in the night sky. It is interpreted by the townsfolk to mean Angel, as a prominent figure in the community had died that night, but Dimmesdale sees it as meaning Adultery. Hester can see that the minister’s condition is worsening, and she resolves to intervene. She goes to Chillingworth and asks him to stop adding to Dimmesdale’s self-torment. Chillingworth refuses. She suggests that she may reveal his true identity to Dimmesdale.
Hester arranges an encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest because she is aware that Chillingworth knows that she plans to reveal his identity to Dimmesdale, and she wishes to protect him. While walking through the forest, the sun will not shine on Hester, though Pearl can bask in it. They then wait for Dimmesdale, and he arrives. Hester informs Dimmesdale of the true identity of Chillingworth and the former lovers decide to flee to Europe, where they can live with Pearl as a family. They will take a ship sailing from Boston in four days. Both feel a sense of release, and Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. The sun immediately breaks through the clouds and trees to illuminate her release and joy. Pearl, playing nearby, does not recognize her mother without the letter. She is unnerved and expels a shriek until her mother points out the letter on the ground. Hester beckons Pearl to come to her, but Pearl will not go to her mother until Hester buttons the letter back onto her dress. Pearl then goes to her mother. Dimmesdale gives Pearl a kiss on the forehead, which Pearl immediately tries to wash off in the brook, because he again refuses to make known publicly their relationship. The day before the ship is to sail, the townspeople gather for a holiday put on in honor of an election and Dimmesdale preaches his most eloquent sermon ever. Meanwhile, Hester has learned that Chillingworth knows of their plan and has booked passage on the same ship. Dimmesdale, leaving the church after his sermon, sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He impulsively mounts the scaffold with his lover and his daughter, and confesses publicly, exposing the mark supposedly seared into the flesh of his chest. He falls dead just after Pearl kisses him.
Frustrated in his revenge, Chillingworth dies a year later. Hester and Pearl leave Boston, and no one knows what has happened to them. Many years later, Hester returns alone, still wearing the scarlet letter, to live in her old cottage and resume her charitable work. She receives occasional letters from Pearl, who was rumored to have married a European aristocrat and established a family of her own. Pearl also inherits all of Chillingworth's money even though he knows she is not his daughter. There is a sense of liberation in her and the townspeople, especially the women, who had finally begun to forgive Hester of her tragic indiscretion. When Hester dies, she is buried in "a new grave near an old and sunken one, in that burial ground beside which King's Chapel has since been built. It was near that old and sunken grave, yet with a space between, as if the dust of the two sleepers had no right to mingle. Yet one tombstone served for both." The tombstone was decorated with a letter "A", for Hester and Dimmesdale.
Review: This is from All Things Considered, NPR: Hester Prynne, protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterwork The Scarlet Letter, is among the first and most important female protagonists in American literature. She's the embodiment of deep contradictions: bad and beautiful, holy and sinful, conventional and radical.
At first glance, Hester may seem more victim than heroine. In the self-righteous eyes of the townspeople, she is the ultimate example of sin.
Hester Prynne is also the object of a cruel and shadowy love triangle between herself, her minister lover Arthur Dimmesdale, and her husband, now called Roger Chillingworth.
America was in the midst of a growing feminist movement when Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote The Scarlet Letter. Professor Jamie Barlowe, of the University of Toledo, says that Hawthorne — living in Salem, Boston and later Concord, Mass. — "was very, very aware of the growing feminist insurgence. Women's rights were a part of the cultural conversation."
The first women's-rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y., was held in 1848, two years before The Scarlet Letter was published. Strong women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were gathering other women to talk about science, politics, and ideas. For the first time in America, women were challenging the firmly established male patriarchy. Hester Prynne can be seen as Hawthorne's literary contemplation of what happens when women break cultural bounds and gain personal power.
In The Scarlet Letter , Hester Prynne may seem a victim and an object, but she also shows great personal strength. She survives.
Hester builds a small business doing embroidery-work. She raises her daughter, Pearl, by herself, fighting to keep her when the authorities try to take the child away. Over the years, Hester gains the respect of other women in Boston, becoming something of a quiet confidante for them.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike says the book still makes him cry. He describes a scene where Hester meets her lover Dimmesdale in the forest and implores him to run away with her.
"First she throws away the scarlet letter," Updike recalls. "Then, quote, 'By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance and imparting the charm of softness to her features.'
"How wonderful, the power of the hair," Updike says.
Updike wrote three novels of his own based on the characters of The Scarlet Letter; they're often called Updike's Hawthorne Trilogy. The final one, titled simply S., is the story of a 20th-century version of Hester Prynne. Updike says Hester is "fun to write about, because she was so irrepresible."
"She's such an arresting and slightly ambiguous figure," he says. "She's a funny mix of a truly liberated, defiantly sexual woman, but in the end a woman who accepts the penance that society imposed on her. And I don't know, I suppose she's an epitome of female predicaments."
Professor Barlowe says that how a reader feels about Hester Prynne "will have something to do with how that individual person sees women as functioning, or ways they should function."
So, just as Hester is a vessel for the feelings and actions of the men who surround her in the book, she's also a mirror, revealing the true feelings of the reader about the role of women in society.
At the end of her life, Hester Prynne chooses to live in Boston and to continue to wear that red letter "A" on her breast, long after she has fulfilled her punishment.
"Never afterwards did it quit her bosom," Hawthorne writes. "But, in the lapse of the toilsome, thoughtful, and self-devoted years that made up Hester's life, the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too."
It becomes a symbol, in other words, that throughout her life she wore her sin bravely, out in the open, on her chest.
All the contradictions of Hester Prynne — guilt and honesty, sin and holiness, sex and chastity — make her an enduring heroine of American literature. She is flawed, complex, and above all fertile.
The idea of Hester Prynne, the good woman gone bad, is a cultural meme that recurs again and again — perhaps because we as a culture are still trying to figure out who Hester really is and how we feel about her. In John Updike's words, "She is a mythic version of every woman's attempt to integrate her sexuality with societal demands."
Opening Line: “A throng of bearded men, in sad-colored garments and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods, and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.
Closing Line: “It bore a device, a herald's wording of which might serve for a motto and brief description of our now concluded legend; so sombre is it, and relieved only by one ever-glowing point of light gloomier than the shadow:-- "On a field, sable, the letter A, gules."
Quotes: “She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom.”
“A bodily disease, which we look upon as whole and entire within itself, may, after all, be but a symptom of some ailment in the spiritual part.”