Thursday, March 16, 2006

On this day in literature . . .

The point which drew all eyes, and, as it were, transfigured the wearer, —so that both men and women, who had been familiarly acquainted with Hester Prynne, were now impressed as if they beheld her for the first time, —was that scarlet letter, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated upon her bosom. It had the effect of a spell, taking her out of the ordinary relations with humanity, and enclosing her in a sphere by herself.

On this day in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was published. This book ranks, deservedly so, as one of the major American novels and is well worth reading (and rereading).

Though some seem to think that Hawthorne simply skewers the Puritans in this novel, I find that accusation to be simplistic. Hawthorne actually had quite the ambiguous relationship with his past (his ancestors were Puritans, one of whom was a judge during the Salem trials). Unfortunately, in our rush to claim that Hawthorne stereotyped the Puritans, we have stereotyped Hawthorne. He sees guilt as something that passes from generation to generation, sin as a pursuer we cannot escape. And I find great truth in that perspective. Though Hawthorne may leave us without a solution, I think his novel skillfully examines the nature of sin and guilt - that guilt is not merely imposed by outside forces but rather resides inside even those who appear most pure.


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