Tips for Reading The Scarlet Letter - Better Book Clubs

let's talk about how to read The Scarlet

Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The

Scarlet Letter is a true American

classic everyone ought to read this

novel at some point if for no other

reason than that it encompasses two

important periods in American history

the first is the period that Hawthorne

is actually writing about in The Scarlet

Letter which he identifies as some time

before the close of the 17th century so

in other words this is pre revolutionary

colonial America at the time of the

Puritans and the novel is set in New

England in a Puritan colony but

Hawthorne is writing also about the mid

19th century 1850 to be exact which is

the date of the publication of the novel

so even though in a sense this is

historical fiction it's also telling us

a little bit about the time period in

which it was written

Hawthorne was particularly interested in

and one might even say obsessed by the

Puritans because one of his ancestors

John Hawthorne was one of the judges

during the Salem witch trials of 1692

Nathaniel Hawthorne was really disturbed

by the role that his ancestor had played

in sending 20 people to their death on

charges of witchcraft so he often played

out this interest in the Puritans in his

writing most notably in the scarlet

letter but also in some of his short

fiction including the very famous story

Young Goodman Brown Hawthorne of course

was writing about the Puritans as

historical fiction he was looking back

at that time period from a remove of

almost 200 years so in the mid 19th

century when he was writing The Scarlet

Letter of course there were other

influences on the novel one of the most

interesting is the fact that two years

earlier in 1848 the Seneca Falls

convention was held at which a group of

women got together and wrote their own

Declaration of Independence that

convention is often cited as the

beginning of the women's movement so

Hawthorne appears to have been at

to some extent thinking about Seneca

Falls and influenced by it in creating

his protagonist in The Scarlet Letter

Hester Prynne one of the challenges of

reading The Scarlet Letter is that it

begins with a long introductory section

called the Custom House this is a piece

that Hawthorne considered to be a sketch

and it tells the story much of it

autobiographical about Hawthorne's time

working at the salem custom house where

he was keeping the record of ships

coming in and out of the Salem Harbor it

seems to have a fairly limited

connection to the novel the rest of the

novel The Scarlet Letter and in fact

Hawthorne himself admitted that he

probably could have cut this sketch out

and it wouldn't have harmed the novel

any but the sketches in there to provide

a little bit of a frame for the story so

at some point it takes a fictional turn

and he claims to have found a Scarlet

Letter and a foolscap document that

tells the story of Hester Prynne in the

Attic of the custom house so this is his

fictional excuse for giving his story

credibility and it's not an unusual 19th

century device although the 44 pages it

takes for this sketch are sometimes

daunting to an unsuspecting reader

don't let that slow you down and in fact

it wouldn't be horrible for you to skip

the sketch and jump right to chapter 1

if that's what your book club wants to

do the story of The Scarlet Letter

itself is not that difficult to follow

it's pretty straight forward in its

chronology and if you are accustomed to

reading 19th century prose you probably

won't have any difficulty with the novel

itself there are a few things though

that I'll suggest that might be

interesting to think about as you're

reading The Scarlet Letter one of them

is simply to pay attention to the

character of Hester and also to her

daughter pearl thinking about how

Hawthorne might be positioning these

women what he might be thinking about

them in

essence asking yourself to what extent

you can do a feminist reading of this

novel and to what extent it's actually

following very traditional ideas about

women to what extent is Hester a Puritan

woman and to what extent is she a 19th

century woman maybe on the cusp of a new

era in women's rights another thing to

pay attention to in the novel is ha

thorns use of the natural world all of

the imagery surrounding the forest and

water and the sunshine anytime the

natural world is mentioned think about

how Hawthorn is using it symbolically

because it's often serving a symbolic

purpose you might also want to think

about how the Scarlet Letter has

influenced our culture today you often

find references to it in popular culture

it comes up over and over again and

interestingly only a couple of movie

versions have been made of it I

definitely would not recommend the Demi

Moore version it's really terrible in

terms of changing the ending for

Hollywood purposes so nobody has really

made a great movie version of The

Scarlet Letter and it's kind of curious

to ask why and to think about how what

role this story has played in our

culture and how it might work as a film

today Hawthorne was a true romantic of

his time period romantic with a capital

R as in the romantic period of

literature and there are also gothic

elements to this novel those are two

terms that you might want to look up and

learn a little bit more about before you

read the novel as well The Scarlet

Letter is a great pick for your book

club if you're interested in reading a

classic I hope you'll give it a try and

let us know in the comments below what

you thought of it read on