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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes

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REFERENCE

THE CRITICS

THEME

In The Scarlet Letter, passion justifies nothing, while its denial
justifies all. The fallen Eden of this world remains fallen; but
the sinful priest purges himself by public confession, becomes
worthy of his sole remaining way to salvation, death. Even
Hester, though sin and suffering have made her an almost
magical figure, a polluted but still terrible goddess, must finally
accept loneliness and self-restraint instead of the love and
freedom she dreamed.

Leslie A. Fiedler, "Achievement and Denial" Twentieth
Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter, 1968

You have your pure-pure young parson
Dimmesdale.

You have your beautiful Puritan Hester at his
feet.

And the first thing she does is to seduce him.
And the first thing he does is to be seduced.
And the second thing they do is to hug their sin
in secret, and gloat over it, and try to
understand.

Which is the myth of New England.

D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923

PURITANISM

Hawthorne was morally, in an appreciative degree, a chip off
the old block. His forefathers crossed the Atlantic for
conscience sake, and it was the idea of the urgent conscience
that haunted the imagination of their so-called degenerate
successor. The Puritan strain in his blood ran clear-there are
passages in his diaries, kept during his residence in Europe,
which might almost have been written by the grimmest of the
old Salem worthies.


Henry James, Hawthorne, 1879

SYMBOLISM

"The Custom House" throws light on a theme in The Scarlet
Letter which is easily overlooked amid the ethical concerns of
the book. Every character, in effect, re-enacts "The Custom
House" scene in which Hawthorne himself contemplated the
letter, so that the entire "romance" becomes a kind of
exposition on the nature of symbolic perception. Hawthorne's
subject is not only the meaning of adultery but also meaning in
general; not only what the focal symbol means but also how it
gains significance.

Charles Feidelson, Jr., Symbolism and American Literature,
1953

CHARACTERS

Above all it is Hester Prynne whose passion and beauty
dominate every other person, and color each event. Hawthorne
has conceived her as he has conceived his scene, in the full
strength of his feeling for ancient New England. He is the
Homer of that New England, and Hester is its most heroic
creature. Tall, with dark and abundant hair and deep black
eyes, a rich complexion that makes modern women (says
Hawthorne) pale and thin by comparison, and a dignity that
throws into low relief the "delicate, evanescent, and
indescribable grace" by which gentility in girls has since come
to be known, from the very first-and we believe it-she is said
to cast a spell over those who behold her.

Mark Van Doren, Hawthorne, 1949

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