Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I had picked this book long time back. I only got around reading it recently. After I finished it, I felt nothing has changed. A woman is still dubbed a scarlet one if she has a child outside of marriage while the man goes free. People are as fond of gossip now as they were ever before. It still interests people, who is sleeping with whom.

The novel is set in the 17th century. It was written by Hawthorne in 1850. A touching human story of a time that makes us wonder how far religious and moral extremes could take us.

The novel opens with Hester being led to the scaffold where she is publicly shamed for having committed adultery. Hester is forced to wear the letter "A" on her gown at all times. Hester carries Pearl, her daughter, with her. On the scaffold, she is asked to reveal the name of Pearl's father, but she refuses. Though her husband comes to the town, he tells her not to let it be known that they are related in anyway.

Hester moves into a cottage near the woods where she lives with her daughter Pearl. She redeems herself in the eyes of the village people by her austere and virtuous living. She with her quiet behaviour goes on about her work as a seamstress who mainly stitches funeral gowns initially. Though she goes on loving the man with whom she had the child, she cannot name him as he is a man of repute who holds a great esteem in the eyes of the people. Hester’s husband, a cold-hearted man described as “having successfully turned himself into a fiend by taking on the office of one,” moves forward with his plan of revenge.

Hawthorne’s writing is very refreshing and real. Making good use of magic realism and vivid imagery, he portrays the Puritan mindset so well that we are drawn into the world of 17th century New England complete with witches who fly on broomsticks, people who meet the Devil in the woods and a scarlet letter “A” imprinted in the flesh of Hester’s secret lover.

Despite its gloomy message, The Scarlet Letter is also a story of passion and the will to survive. In Hester, we find a woman of great courage. Who bears her punishment with fortitude. Her very exclusion from her town is as much a blessing as a punishment. Marked as an adulteress, she no longer needs to abide by society’s rigid expectations and strict morality. Her lover, on the other hand, is forced to deny his desire, his needs and even his humanity because he would not choose Hester’s fate.

This book contains a message that is as relevant and poignant as the day it was written. It’s as much about the abuses of women in a society too rigid in its moral and religious ideals to still be human as it is about two people’s will to survive. With the vivid imagery, magic realism and the profound symbolism, The Scarlet Letter is a must-read for anyone concerned about society, values and the right to be human.