The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneSo, once you’ve read Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemmingway and Steinbeck, and once you’ve read that monstrosity of a book about a whale and wondered at its status as an American classic, where to next? Of course, there are the novels of Willa Cather which are all great, and there are those beautiful novels of Faulkner, and the odd classic by Plath or Salinger or London, and then the stories of Poe: but who next? Hawthorne’s novel had long escaped me, but on reading it this week it proved to be quite a revelation: a great novel, a well-written novel, and an important novel, which hasn’t, of late, got a great deal of attention. It is a bit densely written (making it seem a little old-fashioned and hard-going by modern standards, where we expect prose to run away with itself never far from the surface of the page / action), but the conception and execution are both equally fine. This is truly a novel, such as Of Mice and Men, For Whom the Bell Tolls, or Huckleberry Finn, which everyone should read, and from which everyone would benefit. Such a wise novel, so artfully and sympathetically written, it is well worth slogging through the opening section in the custom house, if one really can slog through beautiful prose, to get to the novel’s central tale. But even the framing of the story thus: a collection of papers and manuscripts relating to the early settlers found in the middle of the nineteenth century by a narrator (who himself merits a great deal of thought) becomes something interesting in itself, much as Lockwood’s framing of the central tale of Nelly Dean in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a device which obsessed Conrad at the end of the century, and in some ways set up the concerns of the novels of this century: whose story is this? Is it true? Can it be credited? Must we question it, just as we wonder at it?

 

Mr A

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