When ‘true love’ unravels, what next?

Ninety-eight percent of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s classic, The Scarlet Letter, explores some of the what-not-to-dos. Instead of running fast and far from the amorous passion that caused her first irreparable mistake, Hester Prynne, the virtuous but flawed heroine of this exceptional tale, stays put. With her somewhat enigmatic love-child daughter, Pearl, as her only companion, and the ever-present, public reminder of her fall, a majestic, self-embroidered scarlet-coloured letter ‘A’(adulteress), pinned to the top of her clothing, she decides to tough it out under the punishing glare of her community, but, unfortunately, always within sight of her accomplice.

Her heroic fortitude, unyielding work-ethic, and her magnanimous ability to support other misfortunates eventually elicit a grudging form of acceptance from her fellow seventeenth-century Puritan ne’er-do-wrongs. But what she desperately needs, understanding, never comes. And when its proxy arrives in the broken figure of her original lover, it finds that seven years of hardened resolve and physical and moral isolation from her community have left her easy-prey for a second, premeditated, and more enduring fall. Only his death on the cusp of their intended recidivism sets her free to do what she should have done at first: leave the scene of the crime and start afresh.

Written almost 170 years ago, The Scarlet Letter still offers today’s readers many insights into the, at times, irreconcilable tensions between young men and women in love. In this enduring character study, the biblical parallels connecting the symbol of Hester’s fall and humiliation, the scarlet letter, and the Cross of Christ, tease out the salutary effects of forgiveness. In families and communities where friendships and relationships prove unsupportable, this book highlights the imperative to seek a way forward that is underpinned by understanding. But for this avenue to be liberating, it must freely incorporate an acceptance of culpability. In Hester’s case, as perhaps in the case of many of our young -and not so young? -who find that their heads and hearts are in opposition, her wrong was stoically acknowledged externally, but it was never internalised. As Hester belatedly understood, a clean break from the source of the incompatibility may often be the only real step forward in resolving the seemingly unresolvable.

This is a thoroughly engrossing read, but it requires a mature reader to appreciate its beauty

David Breen is a teacher working in New Zealand.