The Puritan New England of less than 400 years ago seems a distant and oftentimes unreal past. The early Boston settlement was austere, fanatically conforming, even to the point of intolerance, and vehemently pious. Indeed, this culture is startlingly different from the diverse and bright Boston of the modern age. Looking back at the past, however, brings me a personal joy: not is this world intriguing, I find that learning from history brings the present a whole new dimension of meaning.
"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne is perhaps the finest depiction of Puritan New England. His novel is not a critical portrayal of the Puritans, but rather an astoundingly accurate and multidimensional portrait. The setting of does not necessarily influence the story as much as it provides a beautiful juxtaposition between the reality of the characters and the stark appearance of the place.
Hester Prynne is the protagonist of the book, a woman forced by the community to wear a scarlet "A" on her chest, punishment for her adultery. While raising her daughter, Pearl, the living proof of her sin, Hester remains silent on the identity of the father, choosing to live alone in her denouncement. Meanwhile, Roger Chillingworth, Hester's husband, calculates his revenge on a torn and miserable minister, the secret father of Pearl, Arthur Dimmesdale. What enfolds is one of the greatest American tragedies of all time.
But "The Scarlet Letter" is not merely a story of adultery and sin; it revolves mainly around guilt and redemption. Hawthorne displays a great understanding of the human psyche, both of the judgmental Puritan community and the specific characters of the story. In Hester, he shows a once confident and beautiful woman degraded; in Pearl, a child born into sin and unable to love; in Dimmesdale, a man agonized by his secret sin; and in Chillingworth, someone with a cold and merciless drive for revenge.
I give "The Scarlet Letter" a 9 out of 10, and I recommend it to older readers, due to its content. Hawthorne's text can be difficult at times, however, once readers are engaged, they will find a stunning and captivating story. Maintaining a highly unusual storyline, Hawthorne captures the essence of a time and a place, while offering a timeless perspective on human nature, the human heart and the nature of judgment.
Mari Miyachi is an Andover resident and high school student at Phillips Academy, who reviews books for young adults.