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Reading Buddies Discussion: “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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Before I get into The Scarlet Letter: If you haven’t voted for February’s book, please do so! The poll is up in the sidebar.

Welcome, Scarlet Letter Reading Buddies! This month’s selection is one I read in high school, but I can only recall the most basic things about it. I remember it being hard to read, and I know I did not like it one bit at the time (my general reaction toward books I was forced to read!). I also remember the relationship between the three central characters, which took some of mystery out of the 25 or so pages I’ve read so far.

Only 25 pages, you say? Yes indeed. My edition (the Modern Library one) begins with an autobiographical sketch by Hawthorne entitled “The Custom-House,” which I don’t remember reading that first time around in high school. It’s about 45 pages long and deals with Hawthorne’s time as surveyor at the Salem customhouse. It also explains the origin of The Scarlet Letter: while going through old papers at the customhouse, Hawthorne came across a roll of paper and a tattered scrap of embroidered scarlet cloth in the shape of an A. The paper explained the entire story of the letter, which Hawthorne eventually expanded into the novel we’re reading this month. The essay also showed me that Hawthorne could be rather scathingly witty as he turned his pen slyly against his comrades at the customhouse.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthorneAside from learning about Hawthorne’s inspiration for The Scarlet Letter, the other thing I really enjoyed about “The Custom-House” was the way Hawthorne placed himself within a matrix of his famous contemporaries. Perhaps it’s akin to name-dropping, but Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Henry David Thoreau, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and several others are mentioned in this essay.

Did your edition include this piece? I couldn’t tell if it’s part of The Scarlet Letter or just something relevant that the editors of my edition decided to include.

My biggest struggle with The Scarlet Letter so far — at least, during the few pages I’ve read — has been the language. I think that’s partly because Hawthorne is imitating the style of some 200 years earlier (the novel was published in 1850, but my edition claims historical markers place the story in about 1642), but having read “The Custom-House,” I think it’s partly just Hawthorne’s style. I’m certainly doing better with it than I did in high school, but I’m still having to slow down quite a bit. Thank goodness The Scarlet Letter is on the shorter side!

How is The Scarlet Letter going for you? Is this your first time reading it? If you’ve posted about the book on your blog, please feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments!

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  • http://bookchatter.net Ti

    I will be reading this one over Christmas Break…maybe January for my Lit club. I’ve read it before, but I need to re-read it as it was so long ago.

  • http://www.lovelaughterinsanity.com Trish

    I read this one maybe 10 years ago but remember really struggling with the writing as well. I’d be interested in reading it now that I have a few more classics under my belt. Wonder how it would be listening?

  • http://www.ragingbibliomania.net/ zibilee

    I want to do a double read of this book and then When She Woke, and compare and contrast them in the new year, and your review has really opened my eyes, because I didn’t know the text was so difficult, so at least I will be prepared with this one! Thanks for he heads up!

  • http://zeteticat.blogspot.com Catherine

    I haven’t read this since high school either, although I was one of the few people that actually enjoyed the book as a teenager, though I thought I wouldn’t. I hope to pick this up and join you at the end of the month! This kind of makes me want to create a mini-challenge of my own, that is, reread all the classics I read in high school to see if I enjoy them as much or as little now.

  • http://semifictional.wordpress.com/ Sarah

    I read the book this week and I have to say I liked it very much! For some reason, the character of Hester, the atmosphere and the plot really affected me. I’m glad this readalong prompted me to read it for the first time.

  • http://perduedansleslivres.blogspot.com virginie

    I read this book for the first time as a college student, that means quite a long time ago and I’m so glad to read it again. I was very impressed by the story at the time. So I’m glad you picked this title this month. I’m almost finished, I had a lot of time to read yesterday and still have 60 or so pages which I hope I’ll be able to read today!
    I enjoy the book very much, even more maybe than the first time I read it! My edition also includes “The Custom House” and a brief glimpse on Hawthorne’s life and backgrounds, which is very interesting and helpful for the reading and understanding of the Scarlet Letter. As for you, I took me a few pages to adapt to Hawthorne’s language and style but got into it quite easily. I find this book much more easier to read than Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White, for instance, which I must say with shame I didn’t finish.
    I’m glad this month’s pick gave me the opportunity to be part of your Reading Buddies again.

  • http://jillianreadsbooks2.wordpress.com/ Jillian

    Hi Erin! I read this book a few weeks ago and really liked it! My copy also had the “Custom-House” chapter. Just for your edification, while Hawthorne did work in a custom-house, the narrator in the opening is not intended to be Hawthorne, as I understand it. The narrator is only a character, and there was never actually a scarlet letter.

    Hope you enjoy this one! If I remember right, Hawthorne’s short story “The Birth-mark” is written in a more clear style. I read it in college a year or so ago, and may be remembering wrong though. 😀