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The Scarlet Letter

I read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne in high school. I remember sitting in the classroom surrounded by my friends and being very aware that not everyone was as into this ancient novel as I was. Although I was generally enthusiastic about school and learning, I always struggled in math and got bored in science – my nerdiness really flourished when it came to books. To this day, The Scarlet Letter stands out as a novel that beautifully illustrates significant themes and opened my eyes to the power of symbolism in writing.


Symbolism

When the new Top Gun movie came out this past summer, many people were going back to watch the original. My brother said something about the 1986 Top Gun that stuck with me: “It was full of cheesy cliches, but what I realized was that Top Gun is what made them cliches. At the time of the movie coming out, they were completely new and original.”


That’s how I feel about the symbolism, imagery, and irony in The Scarlet Letter. It almost feels over the top now, but only because, over the years, they’ve been alluded to over and over again until they’ve become a part of our vocabulary. When I read the novel for the first time, though, the figurative language served its intended purpose: communicating a message clearly and powerfully without beating the reader over the head with it. This story represents the beginning of my love of literature and the power of effective storytelling.


Religious Rules vs. Faith

The subject matter of this story was also really impactful for me, especially at the point that I read it. Growing up in a religious atmosphere, I observed the difference between faith grounded in love and a fervent dedication to a set of rules. In this story, the most “religious” are actually the most evil, while the pariah is the one we end up admiring, as imperfect as she is. Hester Prynne is loyal, kind, selfless, and generous. She responds with love even though people have treated her horribly.


Maintaining Reputation vs. Honesty

Hester never reveals the identity of her daughter Pearl’s father, despite the community’s pressure to do so. He is a deeply respected member of society and would most likely lose his position if he were exposed. But his unwillingness to reveal himself ends up tormenting him and leads him to a fate that is much worse than Hester’s.


In many ways, the fact that Hester cannot hide her infidelity (because she became pregnant) is what saves her. Not only is she not required to conceal her actions or live a lie, which eats away at the father of her child, but Pearl herself (the product of the infidelity) gives her a reason to go on. Hester doesn’t have the luxury of maintaining her reputation. But it turns out that keeping a deceitful facade is much more damaging.

 

I haven’t read this book since I was around 16 years old, but I can still remember the feelings I had sitting in English class discussing the symbols of light and shadow. It makes my nerdy self want to go buy the Penguin Classic and read it again.

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