A classic of American literature. It has been praised by classic authors George Eliot, DH Lawrence and Henry James. I thought it was dreadful.
It was written in 1850 and is firmly in the melodrama school. As a historical novel it reminded me of Walter Scott. It is full of 'thee and thou' dialogue, with tortured sentence structures:
- "'One thing, thou that wast my wife, I would enjoin upon thee,' continued the scholar. 'Thou hast kept the secret of thy paramour. Keep, likewise, mine!'"
- "'Sayest thou so?' cried the Governor. 'Nay, we might have judged that such a child's mother must needs be a scarlet woman, and a worthy type of her of Babylon!'"
It starts with a long rambling frame narrative in which Hawthorne recounts the tribulations of working in a Customs House and eventually gets round to a discovery he has made of a manuscript. The 'Scarlet Letter' story is based, he claims, is based on this manuscript.
At last we get into the story proper. In the first scene Hester Prynne and her baby girl are on the pillory in a puritan New England town in the early days of settlement: she has been convicted of adultery and sentenced to three hours humiliation and a lifetime of wearing on her clothes a scarlet letter A. There are two mysteries. Who is the hunchbacked stranger who, that very moment, has been brought out of the forest by the Indians? And who is the father of Hester's child? The first mystery is resolved within a few chapters: the hunchbacked stranger becomes a vengeful devil. The solution to the second we are pretty sure of long before the half way mark when it is finally revealed (in so much as a Victorian novelist can reveal extra-marital sex). There is therefore very little dramatic tension in the story.
The characters are stereotypical. Of course the hunchback is a villain. Of course the accused Hester is an angel. The child is a proto-hippy wild child as a 'natural' child would be in the imagination of a Victorian. There is an old crone who cackles about meeting the devil in the woods.
There are some redeeming moments in which the author makes some cogent observations about life:
- "Neither the front not the back entrance of the Custom-House opens on the road to Paradise." (Introductory)
- "The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognised it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison." (Ch 1)
- "A man burdened with a secret should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician." (Ch 9)
- "Trusting no man as his friend, he could not recognise his enemy when the latter actually appeared." (Ch 10)
- "No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true." (Ch 20)
Pointless frame narrative, dreadful dialogue, melodramatic but predictable plot, stereotypical characters. At least it is short compared to other Victorian novels.
April 2021; 287 pages
|This review was written by |
the author of Motherdarling