Book review: The Scarlet Letter

“Truth is to power what fire is to wax, that’s why power and truth are mortal enemies,” says Bangambiki Habyarimana, a Rwandan author of the book, Pearls of Eternity.

The book by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published in 1850, is concerned with the relationship between these two adversaries, in whose battle we see inflict untold suffering upon the secrets-bearer when truth is subdued and power dominates, in the same way that freedom is the prize if truth wins.

The Scarlet Letter opens in the summer of 1642 in Boston, and is narrated in a third-person voice some two hundred years later, based upon inherited information. It is a time when the Massachusetts Bay Colony is of severe Puritan character, in which law and religion are indivisible, so that what is construed as sin is a naturally punishable offence. Against this backdrop a married woman, Hester Prynne, conceives a baby out of wedlock. Her sentence is to endure three hours of public ignominy on a scaffold in the heart of the market-place, and then to wear a scarlet letter “A” upon her breast for the rest of her life. Despite intense pressure to declare the name of the child’s father, she remains defiantly resistant.

Standing in the mid-day sun before the critical, grim judgement of the city’s inhabitants, Hester catches sight of her legally-wedded husband watching her from amidst the crowd. Two years ago, Roger Chillingworth, a scholar and physician had sent his beautiful wife from Amsterdam to Massachusetts to establish station, following their decision to emigrate, while he was himself delayed to attend to certain affairs. When he realises the nature of his spouse’s crime, as he enters the town, Roger Chillingworth is sworn to exact revenge — not on the fallen woman, but her accomplice.

Through a dramatic device the physically misshapen intellect unearths that the perpetrator of his wife’s temptation is a young, high revered minister of the parish, Arthur Dimmesdale. But, instead of publishing the sinner’s disgrace, Chillingworth perceives that the real agony of sin for the much-loved Reverend lies in the dread of its discovery.

In elegant, albeit rather dense, prose, Hawthorne describes the inmost condition of each of the four characters: Hester Prynne, (her daughter) Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth. The action of the book rests not in incident but in the gradual manifestation of the people in the tale until they become totally transparent. We are asked to regard less of the plot and more of the substance, which skilfully finds semblance with our own most intimate nature under each circumstance.

The narrative crosses seven years, during which we read Hester’s thoughts as a pariah of society, watch little Pearl’s elfish, wayward growth, witness Dimmesdale’s rapidly withering health, under a cocktail of Chillingworth’s medicinal care and insidious psychological torture.

Towards the conclusion of the story, Hawthorne engages in the discourse of whether “hatred and love be not the same thing at the bottom.” He contends that each involves a high degree of heart-knowledge, each renders one party dependent for emotional sustenance upon another, and each leaves the lover/hater desolate by the other’s withdrawal.

At the end, this is a romance, whose form assumes the spontaneity of a flower unfolding from a force within, with a moral significance in which we learn that a sinner — rather than live a life of saintly deeds, or scourge himself — should be true, and openly accept his shame, otherwise be subjected to the power not only of those who take the law into their own hands, but also that in the load of secret guilt within his own heart.