Subtitle: The Heroic Hester Prynne
Have you ever read Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter? Some of us may have read it in school, before we were prepared to squeeze all the wisdom like a great juice out of it.
I just read it anew, and was amazed. I had just enjoyed Hawthorne's other well known story, The House of the Seven Gables, a couple of weeks ago, and I have to admit that I didn't look forward to The Scarlet Letter, fearing a bit that it would be a dull moralistic tale. But I was so very wrong. Hawthorne is a keen observer of human nature, and a real philosopher.
The book dives deep into such issues as morality and hypocrisy, shame and courage, vengeance and forgiveness, self identity and redemption, and does so in ways that relate to each of us now, in our own time and lives. Hester Prynne, publicly shamed sinner, ends up being the hero of the story, displaying great inner strength and our deep ability to do good for others, despite how they might despise us in return. Our own alchemy can then in the end work surprising transformations in the lives of those others. Mistakes can be woven into the cloth of success for ourselves and others.
It's a great, great book. Some random quotes.
Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. (14)
Mighty was their fuss about little matters, and marvellous, sometimes, the obtuseness that allowed greater ones to slip between their fingers! (16)
It is a good lesson—though it may often be a hard one—for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world’s dignitaries by such means, to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at. (25)
The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. (34)
When an uninstructed multitude attempts to see with its eyes, it is exceedingly apt to be deceived. (110)
It is the unspeakable misery of a life so false as his, that it steals the pith and substance out of whatever realities there are around us, and which were meant by Heaven to be the spirit’s joy and nutriment. To the untrue man, the whole universe is false,—it is impalpable,—it shrinks to nothing within his grasp. And he himself, in so far as he shows himself in a false light, becomes a shadow, or, indeed, ceases to exist. (128)
"Then I consented to a deception. But a lie is never good, even though death threaten on the other side!" (169)
And, as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit and enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and perplexities, and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble. (227)
My page numbers are from the Barnes and Noble edition, but for an easily accessible edition, click HERE.