The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

My book club decided to read this classic which most of us hadn't read since our schooldays. I was curious to see how it would hold up. What I remembered most about it was the sense of sin, the guilt around having sinned, the secrecy. Since I don't think much about sin these days, I wasn't sure the story would still be relevant.

I do think a lot about good and evil. There is much good done in this world, and much evil. Perhaps I missed too many Sunday School classes or heard too many harmless activities classified as sins, but it always seemed to me that when you talk about sin, you're talking about a basically decent person who does some wrong thing, carried away perhaps in the heat of the moment or even misled by others. Evil, on the other hand, is when someone who knows full well what he is doing and how many people will be hurt by his action and still selfishly, greedily, goes ahead and does it.

Hester's sin, having sex outside of marriage, having a child out of wedlock, does not seem so terrible to me. Apparently Hawthorne agreed, since the way he describes the people who condemn her, their hypocrisy and self-righteousness, makes her a far better person than any of them. Even the villagers come to respect her for her good works and almost forget what the letter stands for.

Guilt is something else again, though. Guilt is always with us. And secrecy that eats away at you.

The part I hadn't remembered in the story was the ending. After everything falls apart, Hester sets aside the letter that marks her and leaves with her daughter. The daughter grows up and marries a rich man, but Hester returns to the community that branded her. She puts the letter back on and lives out the rest of her life in the same cottage where she'd lived before.

Why, having once escaped, would she voluntarily take up the symbol of her shame among those who knew how she'd earned it? Perhaps it was the only place she felt like herself, the self she had become through the terrible ordeal of prison, ostracism, and isolation. Surely sharing the untainted, privileged life her daughter was starting with her new husband was impossible for Hester. She could not return to the normal social life she had enjoyed before her sin.

I think a lot about coming back. In fairy tales and legends, the hero sets out on some great adventure, and then you come home, profoundly changed. Whatever the trials you've been through, you return changed, maybe harder, maybe kinder. Perhaps, as with Frodo and Sam in the Lord of the Rings, your home too has changed while you were away. There's a profound sadness in this return, a lost and lonely nostalgia that can never be assuaged.

And you can't tell anyone where you've been or what you've been through. Who would understand? They look at you and talk to you as though you were the same person you were before you left. But you're not. You're like the soldiers of the Great War whom Wilfred Owen described, those grey ghosts, “too few for drums and yells,” who “creep back, silent, to village wells,/Up half-known roads.”

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