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NA201312 - HAWTHORNE, N.: Scarlet Letter (The) (Abridged)
The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter, first published in 1850, traces the effects of one sin on the lives of four people in the town of Boston: the young passionate Hester Prynne, who is forced to publish her shame to the community by wearing on her dress the letter A, for adultery; her lover, the cowardly Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale; her vengeful, aging husband, Roger Chillingworth; and her illegitimate daughter, the quixotic little Pearl.
Nathaniel Hawthorne himself described the novel as a ‘hell-fire story’
of shame and redemption. It displays his lifelong preoccupation with the themes of secrecy and guilt, the conflict between the laws of nature and those of man. As an illustration of the effects of Calvinistic Puritanism on life in mid-17th century New England, it has no equal.
The characters are, at the same time, both palpably real, and the embodiment of moral traits, while the powerful narrative and rich imagery evoke the stark lifestyle of Boston’s Puritans, as well as the surrounding wilderness that played an important part in shaping the American psyche. The strenuous, joyless effort to fashion a Utopian world by eliminating the unorthodox is evident here in a society, full of self-righteousness, where witches and witch-hunting abound.
The novel’s language is rich and lyrical with rolling, biblical cadences while, in contrast to the rhetoric, Hawthorne also gives us simple, vivid descriptions of a community’s everyday life: the festivals, the variety of people, the Indians, the sailors, the ships in the harbor, the deaths of the respected and the concerns of young maidens.
The story itself is extraordinary and shocking. It tells of a spirited woman who becomes ‘fallen’ in the eyes of the strict community to which she belongs. Though the eponymous letter itself is intended as the badge of adultery, it takes on other significances - particularly for Pearl - as the novel develops.
Melodramatic but never superficial, The Scarlet Letter explores one woman’s certainty of what is right, of her dignity and finally her triumph over prejudice, hypocrisy and fear. Perhaps above all, it asks what sort of society could ever decree by law that a woman should be branded an outcast and compelled to live outside it.
Notes by Jan Fielden
Katinka Wolf trained at the Drama Studio, London and was part of the Stalhouderij Company, Amsterdam, where she appeared in numerous productions of classical and modern plays. She is a familiar figure in fringe theater in Britain, has appeared on British TV and is the voice of Anne Frank at the Anne Frank Museum, Amsterdam. Wolf recently appeared in The Duchess of Malfi in the West End.
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