Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hawthorne and The Power of Truth

On this date in 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was published. Of this book, Arnold Bennett wrote that it was "The one American literary work which comes as near to perfection as is granted a man to bring his achievements." Hawthorne's memorable tale of sin and redemption, judgment and forgiveness is an American literature staple.

Students often chafe at the difficulty of the language (Hawthorne's style is wordy and complex) and the dialogue (which reflects the speech patterns of 17th Century Boston). It is debated that this great work, always a part of the American literature canon, be replaced by a new, more modern work.

While I understand both sides of this debate, I wonder what book could supply all that THE SCARLET LETTER does in terms of American History, Puritan dogma, Emersonian self-reliance, Christian redemption and the reality of hypocrisy. The book, with its triangle of compelling characters including the oppressed Hester Prynne, her estranged husband Roger Chillingworth, and her lover Arthur Dimmesdale, examines a fascinating story that emerges from its Puritan setting, yet is timeless in its thematic intent.

I am always moved by this novel when I read it, and its simple moral, basically "tell the truth," is made powerful because of Hawthorne's exploration of the alternative to truth: the pain that comes with living a lie.

Hurrah for Hawthorne, I say. Long may his words live on.

3 comments:

Paula Reed said...

I have taught this book for over 20 years, and though my students complain about the density of the prose, they love the story and the class discussions are great. In fact, inspired by my students' questions and comments, I wrote a companion, Hester: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter. It was just released by St, Martin's Press and is available in bookstores or online.

Julia Buckley said...

What a fantastic idea! I will take this news to my English department. :)

Caro said...

Hai Julia

More than thirty years ago I had to read it at highschool. Nice to read about it again.
I also read your story about you and your dog Simon. Very nice. I have an Appenzeller Sennendog. Is not yet in the 'coffee with a canine' stories!!
Are you on facebook? Because it was possible to share the story on facebook. I am. There will be only one carola rummens I guess, so you can find me there with a lot of photgrapher friends around me and stories from me what I am doing.
Bye