Puritan Life in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
This classic work on Puritan life and morality was written 200 years after the events described took place. Hawthorne (House of the Seven Gables and Twice Told Tales) begins with an autobiographical description of the Custom House of Salem in his day, of his work there, and of how he came to write this story. He then jumps in 'in medias res' and we see a woman being put on display before the people of Salem with a scarlet A on her breast, to be worn forever as a remonstrance for her adultery. It is to be a warning to others and a scourge to her soul.
We follow the story of this woman (Hester Prynne), the child of her affair (Pearl), her husband (unknown to the community and in the guise of a doctor), and the object of her sinful passion, whom Hester has refused to name before the magistrates, clergymen, or town. Hawthorne treats everything with vivid descriptions and the style of prose popular in his time (1804-1864) that is often seen as cumbersome today. (Think Dickens if unfamiliar with Hawthorne's contemporaries.) With concentration, however, any reader can get through the seemingly endless procession of commas and insufferably long paragraphs to see the beauty of the story within.
Most fascinating is the way Hawthorne describes the physical transformations that occur as a result of their sin. In addition, he lays bare the consequences of sin, not only on Hester, forced to wear the scarlet letter all of her days, but on everyone touched by the adultery.
Hawthorne was a transcendentalist, friend to Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts, and many other influential thinkers of his time. This philosophy is seen in the reverence with which he describes nature as well as the harshness he has for Puritanical solemness. He holds no approval of adultery, however, even if he does disapprove of Salem's residents and society, but desires to place before us an example of the consequences of sin, in order that we might not do likewise. He also holds out hope in the last paragraphs that an equality in marriage, such as had not been seen in the 1600s would develop, in contrast to the unhappy unequal marriage to which Hester felt bound. This was another distinguishing trait of the Transcendentalists, especially the Alcotts.
It is a classic for a reason, a beacon of time tested truth. It should not be read with a modern eye for it is not a modern tale, but full of what we consider unwieldy language and awkward grammar.