I somehow never had to read this book in junior high, high school, or college, so I don’t know if I would have disliked it as much as Tom Perrotta (who wrote the foreword to the edition I read) did when he first read it. Perrotta talks about how he “found the book strange and difficult, bordering on oppressive,” and how it “just seemed so foreign—so cold and forbidding and buttoned-up and so remote, as if it had been written not just in another century but on another planet.” When Perrotta re-read the book as an adult, though, he was surprised to find that he really liked it, and that he saw it in a totally different light: as a “coming-out story,” a book that “wants us to know that happiness isn’t possible if you’re living a lie.” Perrotta’s foreword definitely made the book feel more approachable to me, moreso than Robert Milder’s much more academic introduction to the edition I read—which was interesting too, but more in this vein: “Ultimately, the meaning of the book resides in its title and irreducible symbol, the scarlet A itself, which stands for nothing so much as Ambiguous (the literary text) and Ambivalent (the author’s relationship to it).”

You probably know the story of The Scarlet Letter already: it takes place in the 1640s in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where the Puritans have settled. They’re a dour bunch, “a people amongst whom religion and law were almost identical, and in whose character both were so thoroughly interfused, that the mildest and the severest acts of public discipline were alike made venerable and awful.” (As Perrotta notes, this is “a historical novel, its setting as distant from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s time as Hawthorne’s is from ours today.”) Anyway: Hester Prynne, who was sent to Massachusetts ahead of her husband (who hasn’t been heard from in a few years and is presumed dead) has had a child, which means she committed adultery, and as punishment she has to wear the letter A, embroidered from red thread, for the rest of her life; she also has to spend three hours standing on a high platform in the public square, on her first day wearing the A, while everyone looks on. Everyone wants her to reveal who the father of the child is, so that he can be punished too, but she refuses to say.

Hester moves to a cottage that’s a little ways away from everyone else, and raises her daughter (whose name is Pearl), and supports herself by needlework, and does good deeds, and won’t tell anyone who Pearl’s father is—even when the man who was her husband turns up and asks. (She won’t tell, but he says he’ll figure it out, which he does; he also makes her promise not to tell anyone who he is, and uses this anonymity to exact revenge on Hester’s erstwhile lover while acting as his “medical adviser.”) Meanwhile, Hester feels guilty for not having told Pearl’s father who his physician really is, and resolves to tell him, which leads to probably my favorite part of the book, in which the two of them talk in the forest and there, in the middle of the wilderness, get a sense of possibility, a feeling that there might be another way for them to live. (There’s a sense of possibility in Pearl, too, who is described as “like a creature that had nothing in common with a bygone and buried generation, nor owned herself akin to it. It was as if she had been made afresh, out of new elements, and must perforce be permitted to live her own life, and be a law unto herself, without her eccentricities being reckoned to her for a crime.”)

I probably liked this book more now than I would have if I’d read it when I was younger, though I could have done without most of the introductory section where the narrator talks about working in a customs house (as Hawthorne did); the conceit is that the narrator finds the scarlet letter itself, and a bundle of papers containing Hester’s story, in a disused attic room. I did enjoy the part about moonlight, though, and how it transforms “the little domestic scenery of the well-known apartment” so that “the floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other.”

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