When I went to high school in the early 1960’s, the English curriculum hadn’t changed much from that read by my parents and grandparents. We read several novels each year, one Shakespeare play, and much poetry. I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, therefore, when I was 15 years old. In college, I majored in English, not American literature, and didn’t review Hawthorne at that time. So by last week, it had been 55 years since I had read The Scarlet Letter.
I have been enjoying courses offered here through The Great Courses, which I listen to on my ipod. I was partly through an excellent course on American literature when the lecturere said he was beginning five lectures on Hawthorne. Before listening, I decided to reread The Scarlet Letter.
I find it difficult to believe that present day American high school students read the book. The sentences, long and meandering, full of challenging words, would try the patience of texters. Even the plot of deep shame and ostracism because of adultery might confound current students. What, they might ask, is the big deal?
But for me, the most compelling thread of the story is the slow poisoning of one mind by another’s. Reminiscent of Iago’s patient unraveling of Othello, Chillingworth’s attack on Dimmesdale’s soul horrified me to a depth I never plumbed as a teenager. He manages to capitalize on Dimmesdale’s susceptibility to endless guilt and self-hatred while he purports to be “curing” him.
If you, too, haven’t looked at this book as an adult, I recommend that you give it a read. Not easy, but eminently rewarding.