This Day In Writing History
On March 16th, 1850, The Scarlet Letter, the legendary novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne, was published in the United States.
Set in a Puritan village in 17th century Boston, The Scarlet Letter told the story of Hester Prynne, a married woman whose much older husband had sent her ahead to America while he settled some business affairs. He never came to join her in Boston and is presumed dead, lost at sea. In the meantime, the lonely Hester had an affair and became pregnant as a result.
The novel opens with Hester being led from the town prison with her baby daughter Pearl in her arms and a piece of scarlet cloth in the shape of the capital letter A pinned to the breast of her dress - a penalty for her adultery. It's a badge of shame that she must wear for all to see. Hester is led to the town scaffold, where she is forced to endure the verbal abuse of the town fathers.
An elderly onlooker asks what's going on, and a man in the crowd tells him. The elderly onlooker is actually Hester's missing husband, who is now a doctor living under the assumed name Roger Chillingworth. He wants to take revenge on the man who seduced his wife. He reveals his true identity to Hester, but she won't reveal the identity of her lover.
Several years pass, and Pearl has become a willful and impish little girl. Hester supports herself and her daughter by working as a seamstress. Still scorned by the community, they live in a small cottage on the outskirts of Boston. When town officials try to take Pearl away from her mother, the young, eloquent minister Arthur Dimmesdale intervenes to thwart their plans.
Dimmesdale appears to be dying, wasting away from a mysterious heart condition. Chillingworth takes him on as a patient, later moving in with him to provide round-the-clock medical care. The doctor believes that Dimmesdale's condition is psychosomatic, perhaps caused by guilt. He begins to suspect that the minister is his wife's lover. One day, while Dimmesdale sleeps, Chillingworth discovers something that convinces him that his suspicions are correct - supposedly the capital letter A burned into the minister's chest.
Meanwhile, Hester Prynne's kindness, charity, and quiet humility finally earn her a reprieve from public scorn. When she and Pearl return home one night, they find Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold, trying to punish himself for his sins. They join him on the scaffold. The three hold hands, and Pearl asks the minister to publicly acknowledge that she is his daughter. He refuses. A streaking meteor forms a dull letter A in the night sky. Dimmesdale believes it's the sign of adultery, but the townspeople think that it means "angel," as a prominent member of the community died that night.
When Chillingworth refuses to abandon his plan for revenge, Hester tells Dimmesdale that Chillingworth is really her missing husband. The lovers decide to flee with Pearl to Europe, where they can live as a family. They both feel a great sense of release and relief. Hester removes her scarlet letter and lets down her hair. In one of the novel's most striking metaphors, sunlight immediately breaks through the clouds and trees to illuminate Hester's joyous release.
The day before their ship is to sail, Dimmesdale gives his most eloquent sermon ever. Hester finds out that her husband has found out about her plans and booked passage on her ship. When Dimmesdale leaves the church, he sees Hester and Pearl standing before the town scaffold. He impulsively takes them to the top and publicly confesses to being Hester's lover and the father of her child, exposing the mark supposedly seared into his chest. Pearl kisses him. Relieved of his burden, Dimmesdale collapses and dies.
Frustrated over being denied his revenge, a bitter Chillingworth dies a year later, and Hester and Pearl leave Boston. Although she is not his daughter, Pearl inherits all of Chillingworth's money. Many years later, Hester Prynne returns to her old cottage alone and resumes her charity work. She receives letters from Pearl, now married to a European aristocrat and with children of her own. The townspeople finally forgive Hester for her indiscretion, and she - and the other women in town - feel a strong sense of liberation.
The Scarlet Letter is rightfully considered one of the greatest works of 19th century literature, and is still widely read and appreciated. It would be adapted numerous times for the radio, stage, screen, and television. The most famous feature film adaptations were the brilliant 1973 version directed by legendary German filmmaker Wim Wenders, and the dreadful 1995 Hollywood version starring Demi Moore as Hester Prynne - which took great liberties with the novel and was widely panned by critics.
Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the greatest writers of his generation. His other great works include the novel The House of the Seven Gables (1851) and the short story collections Twice-Told Tales (1837) and Tanglewood Tales (1853). He died in 1864 at the age of 59.
Quote Of The Day
"It is beautiful, admirable, extraordinary; it has in the highest degree that merit which I have spoken of as the mark of Hawthorne's best things - an indefinable purity and lightness of conception... one can often return to it; it supports familiarity and has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art." - Henry James on Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, The Scarlet Letter.
Today's video features a clip from the rare 1926 silent film adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, starring Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne and Lars Hanson as Arthur Dimmesdale. Enjoy!