Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Scarlet Letter


First published: 1850

Found: My hand-me-down kindle with a free copy crashed and wiped the memory; so I bought a copy

Pages/read time: 264, one 17 hour plane flight and a snow-day in Illinois


It’s 1642 and Hester has been accused of adultery. The tiny post-invasion settlement town of Boston is aflame with righteous sentiment. She should be hanged. As she looks out from the gallows platform, infant daughter in her arms, across the seething mass of new Puritan Americans, she spies a man in the crowd who she had thought dead. Just at the point when she is being pressed to reveal the name of her co-adulterer, one Reverend Dimmesdale convinces the council not to hang her. Instead, she is fated to forever where a huge ‘A’ embroidered in scarlet on her breast.

Condemned to the ‘A’ and banished to the fringes of the village, Hester raises her illegitimate daughter, Pearl, in relative peace. She supports her daughter with money made from her extraordinary needlework. She is the town’s worst kept secret. Rich women’s gowns, dowagers’ reticules, virgin-brides’ lace veils.  No-one dare tell where their beatuiful clothes come from, but everyone knows it’s the fallen woman on the edge of town. The adulteress who lives in grey, shapeless clothes with only the ‘A’ for adornments, but dresses her child in clothes reminiscent of a fairy-child.

We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our sleep.

As Pearl grows up and starts to question the world her mother has made for her, persons of authority want the child removed. The Reverend Dimmesdale comes to the aid of the duo more than once. In fact, Dimmesdale seems very concerned with the fate of little Pearl. And then the man from the crowd at Hester’s sentencing turns up. Actually, he’s her long-dead husband, intent on controlling Hester and Pearl through blackmail and determined to destroy the life of his wife’s partner in sin. He’s just not sure who he is yet. Meanwhile  There are also witches.

There is an unnecessarily long prologue about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s mythical discovery of the embroidery ‘A’ in an 1850’s records office, but after that the prose settles into a pleasant ramble of descriptions. Pearl and her mother in the magical forest, the fervour of the Dimmesdale’s inner torments and all manner of eclectic townsfolk. Given the time of writing and the subject, The Scarlet Letter is surprisingly liberal in its approach to describing the plight of unmarried women in seventeenth century America. And the descriptions of squirrels, to die for:

A squirrel, from the lofty depths of his domestic tree, chattered either in anger or merriment,—for a squirrel is such a choleric and humorous little personage that it is hard to distinguish between his moods,—so he chattered at the child, and flung down a nut upon her head.

Reading suggestion: Read with squirrels in proximity.


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This entry was posted on August 25, 2017 by in Classics, Fiction, USA and tagged , , , , , , , .

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