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The Scarlet Letter is a work of genius. Nathaniel Hawthorne tells his story with astonishingly perfect art. The plot is flawless (except for the final chapter). His prose style, though difficult, is entirely appropriate to the seriousness of his themes. We are taken into the mid-seventeenth century world of the Puritan New Englanders with brilliant economy, the social and natural scene is superbly rendered, the drama is immediately and vividly brought before us.
In a holier-than-thou community where the sinner (a person who has broken one of God's commandments) is forever judged, damned and punished, a young woman, Hester Prynne, has been found guilty of adultery. She will therefore be made a permanent example of. The story of the rest of Hester's life is one half of what the novel is concerned with, showing us the goodness and healthy rebelliousness of the human heart that must, and does, prevail.
The other half of the story concerns Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, Hester's lover (the father of their 'unnatural', illegitimate child), who only near the end reveals his crime to the people of the town. Before this occurs, unlike Hester, who is almost completely ostracized and forced to always wear a scarlet letter A, for Adultery, he is venerated as a saint by the community. His confession exposes the whole compromised, hypocritical system - outcome of a movement which began (history records) with hopes of being a 'new Zion', 'a city set on a hill'.


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The novel is at its most intense when revealing Dimmesdale's profound spiritual torment as he struggles with his feelings of guilt and need to both confess and keep hidden his 'fallen' state. Our appalled identification with him, as he recognises his utter damnation (his conscience continually pricked by Hester's vengeful, cold, intellectual husband, whose true identity only she knows), shows us the full horror of believing sins are never forgiven and must be defeated through suppression of 'corrupt' human nature.
As well as the justly famous symbolism, the story is composed of many other elements, including fable, psychology and the simplest down-to-earth realism. Reading it is to feel that all life - however circumscribed - is here. The characters, especially Hester and Dimmesdale, are so well drawn they rise above symbolic limitations. They are fully realised human beings, with recognisable flaws and virtues.
The Scarlet Letter is a book for all humanity and all time. It took me to a world which I sometimes found oppressive and very nearly life-denying, yet due to Nathaniel Hawthorne's artistry an infinitely enriching and always enjoyable experience. These are, after all, the surest signs of a great novel.