intense sensations

The ambiguity of sin

Posted on: December 26, 2011

The Scarlet Letter The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There has never been an easy time for writers. New England in the first half of the nineteenth century was especially tough. American publishers didn’t have to pay royalties to English authors so they were able to make big profits on popular writers from across the Atlantic and could afford to ignore their compatriots who wanted an income from their work.

It takes a very determined kind of writer to succeed in such a market. Hawthorne was very determined indeed. But he was an artist, not an artisan. He tore up his first, unsuccessful novel and worked on short stories for 20 years.

Some of his stories are among my favourite stories in any language. The Birthmark, for instance, is as perfect as a story can be.

But probably it is The Scarlet Letter, which he wrote in desperation after losing his job in 1849, for which he will always be remembered.

People talk about the literariness of this very literary novel. It is drenched in symbolism, with the scarlet letter of the title coming to represent different things for each of the four troubled characters at the heart of the story. But what I love about Hawthorne is his intense compassion for people, his very human qualities, his rebellious intelligence and his open heart.

It is very rare to find a writer who is at once so emotional and so incisive. His rigorous scientific understanding is always tempered by empathy and love.

For this reason I can accept very easily his Christianity, even though I don’t really believe in God. And when I read this novel I don’t dwell on its symbols and structures, honed to perfection during a 20-year apprenticeship. What I dwell on is the heart and soul of Nathaniel Hawthorne which, thanks to his fiercely independent turn of mind and his great moral understanding, are still living and beating 150 odd years after his death.

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3 Responses to "The ambiguity of sin"

I remember reading this book many many years ago in China, in Chinese translation too, and I was so touched by the story and how it was written. Then I watched the film some years later and was deeply moved too. I actually have the book in English as well, and following your review, I need to get it out and read it soon :).

Great review, as always!

I was thinking of his story, The Birthmark, again at the weekend when someone was telling me of a friend’s face-changing operation by a Korean plastic surgeon that had gone wrong. He was such a visionary writer!

Now I must read Birthmark too :)

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