Monday, 28 March 2011

Massachusetts and The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester Prynne, who is punished for conceiving through an adulterous affair, and is set during the years 1642 to 1649 in a Puritan village near Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an English settlement established in 1628 which included much of present-day central New England. The Puritans were a group of English Protestants who felt that the Church of England post-Reformation was still too tolerant towards practises associated with the Catholic Church, around 21,000 of whom migrated to New England between 1630 and 1640 and supported the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans dominated the governance of the colony and the laws of the land were strongly influenced by the religious leaders. The punishment for adultery in Puritan Boston was death by hanging, and Hawthorne makes a point of explaining in the opening chapters that the enforced wearing of a scarlet A for “adultery” (an invention of Hawthorne’s rather than a real punishment) would have been seen as a lenient sentence for the time. While The Scarlet Letter is a work of fiction, it features several real historical figures as characters, including Ann Hibbins, who was executed for witchcraft in 1656, and Richard Bellingham, who was the governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when the story opens in 1642 and with whom Hester pleads with not have her daughter taken away from her.

The Scarlet Letter has been adapted for the screen on numerous occasions, so it was a surprise on reading it for the first time that, unlike nearly every film version, the novel does not describe the adulterous affair itself in any detail. The story actually opens after Hester Prynne has been marked with the red letter “A” and follows her and the unnamed father of her child, who is revealed to the reader as the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, living with their guilt and remorse (openly and secretly respectively) over the following seven years. It’s a deeply philosophical and psychological novel that reminded me at points of Crime and Punishment in the manner in which it depicts a man whose inner turmoil with his guilt and the burden that it places on his soul manifests itself into a physical illness that threatens to take his life. Despite what I foolishly predicted The Scarlet Letter is a difficult read, and I would be hard-pushed to recommend it to anyone not interested in 19th century American literature. It’s easy to see why it is so revered as one of the great American novels, but it moves at a weighty pace and I don’t feel like I especially got much out of it by treating it as a quick read... So, moving swiftly on...

Next: Rhode Island

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