The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is certainly one of the most famous American novels of the 19th Century, and though maybe not as accessible as works from the likes of Twain or Steinbeck, it rightly belongs in the same realm of great American literature. The book begins with an introduction called Custom House. It can be skipped for all but the most enthusiastic readers of classic literature.
The main story begins in a Puritan village in Massachusetts with a woman named Hester Prynne being forced to stand on a scaffold in front of a crowd as punishment for the sin that resulted in her child she is holding. She also must permanently wear a letter A as a mark for that sin. Hester continually refuses to disclose the name of her child’s father. Back in prison she sees a doctor, a deformed man named Roger Chillingworth, who has a significant connection with her past unbeknownst to others in the village. Another man, a young frail minister named Arthur Dimmesdale, is also a significant character in the story in respect to his connection with Hester and his close but uneasy relationship with Chillingworth. Hester’s daughter, Pearl, is an elfish mischievous child and becomes a symbol as much as an actual character; a symbol of Hester’s past and hope for the future. Hester spends in the years afterward being a seamstress, doing charity, and eventually becoming an excepted if not beloved member of the community.
The book deals with sin and redemption, religion and revenge in beautiful but often ambiguous ways. The story itself is simple, and the book is not long, but the inner emotions of characters are explored with rousing detail. The novel hardly ever meanders needlessly, though as I mentioned it’s not the most (though certainly neither the least) accessible book, especially to an audience not well verse in classic literature. Do not be intimidated though because it’s an experience well worth having. It’s Hawthorne’s masterpiece.