Puritans, assigned reading, high school: it’s a recipe for literary disaster. But The Scarlet Letter is stronger than that, hardier (like Hawthorne’s grim Puritan forbearers), and a hell of a lot more interesting. I recently read the classic and am here to tell you one thing: Hester Prynne is a babe. Hester Prynne is a super babe.
The young woman was tall, with a figure of perfect elegance on a large scale. She had dark and abundant hair, so glossy that it threw off the sunshine with a gleam, and a face which, besides being beautiful from regularity of feature and richness of complexion, had the impressiveness belonging to a marked brow and deep black eyes. She was ladylike, too, after the manner of feminine gentility of those days; characterized by a certain state and dignity, rather than by the delicate, evanescent, and indescribable grace, which is now recognized as its indication.
This is not a flighty, reedy, wisp of a girl. This is a grown-ass woman. Everything about her is large: her beauty, her temper, her desire, her shame, her penance. Even the A, the letter she wears on her breast as punishment, is baroque in its detail, loud in color, and large in scale. If Hester is going to wear this A, she is going to wear it. She is a Puritan diva.
Before I go any further, a pro-tip: skip the first 40-or-so pages of The Scarlet Letter, “The Custom House.” Instead, flip ahead to “The Prison Door,” where Hester, awaited by a crowd of sad-colored and bitter men and women, appears for the first time since her conviction. “Never had Hester Prynne appeared more ladylike, in the antique interpretation of the term”—that is grand, lordly—”than as she issued from the prison.” It’s only once she’s thrown off (in part) the strictures of Puritan society that she can be totally, thrillingly herself.
How Hester ended up here—alone, fabulous, a bundle of contradictions—is not given much attention. Hawthorne also denies his readers the pleasure of lingering on how Hester earned her A: he supplies no steamy prologue. Suffice it to say that she grew up, poor, in England, and was offered at a very young age a chance at a comfortable life through marriage to a humpbacked scholar, who uses the name Roger Chillingsworth when he later arrives in Boston. She accepted, and Hester was sent ahead from Europe to New England, where Chillingsworth planned join her. His ship sank, however, and he was thought lost. Sometime after her husband’s (supposed) death at sea and before the book’s opening, Hester gives birth to a daughter—a pregnancy which condemns her (absent a living husband) as an adulteress in the eyes of Puritan Boston. Sex (or more broadly desire) is the axis on which this book turns, though guilt and shame are its principle issues.
There is a moment that I love towards the end of The Scarlet Letter, when Hester waits in the forest for her lover, seven long years after they were last alone, to warn him against the machinations of Chillingsworth, who appeared in Boston at the same time of Hester’s sentencing but did not publically reveal himself as her husband. The father of her young and wild daughter, Pearl, is Arthur Dimmesdale, a purportedly handsome and brilliant minister but essentially just a big lump of angst. Not knowing Chillingsworth’s true identity or purpose (which is—guess what—revenge!), Dimmesdale has let the shrunken older man become his roommate (bad idea), resulting in the longest and most effective guilt trip in all of literature. Dimmesdale, eaten away by Chillingsworth’s bullying and his own remorse, is very ill, and Hester offers him a way out: flee crappy Puritan New England with her. What a great idea—why didn’t they think of it earlier? Dimmesdale protests on account of his hard-won tortured-minister look (you know he has an emo haircut), but almost immediately comes around because a) Hester is a babe, b) sex, c) Puritans suck.
Take a breath. Just getting here was complicated: Hawthorne loves melodrama! Now, finally, in this forest grove with her angsty BF, Hester “undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves.”
The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight, until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair; and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves, with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour.
This is 100 percent a shampoo commercial right here, that moment in movies when a bespectacled girl takes off her classes and lets her hair down. Hester’s babeliness literally lights up the forest.
All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees.
Unfortunately, Dimmesdale doesn’t have the strength for it, and, close to death, publically confesses his involvement in Hester’s adultery the day before their boat is to depart. “Twine thy strength about me!” he begs Hester, and with her support rips open his shirt—a la Superman—to reveal “a ghastly miracle,” a red A etched into his flesh. The exertion, spiritual and physical, exhausts him, and he collapses.
“Shall we not meet again?” Hester asks the dying Dimmesdale, “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!” He unhelpfully informs her that adultery is still a sin in Heaven and tells her to be grateful he’s dying now so they can’t sin anymore. Sure, by Puritan standards, this is a kind of redemption. By mine, it is final confirmation that he is a big useless ball of wax. Hester, you are better off without him.
Read all Bitch books coverage, including Molly McArdle’s previous review of a sexy old book: Dracula. Photo of Lillian Gosh as Hester Prynne from Victor Sjostrom’s 1926 film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter.