A Reader posted a review at 2007-10-30 09:19:10.
A fascinating and perceptive account of the effects of guilt written in 1850 and set in the early years of the Puritan colony in Massachusetts.
During her husband's long abesnce, Hester Prynne has a baby as the result of an adulterous affair and is held up to public scorn and forced to wear a red letter "A" (for "Adulteress") on her breast as a mark of her sin. The identity of her lover remain unknown, though the reader soon realises that it is her minister, the Revd Arthur Dimmesdale. Through a strange twist of circumstances, the identity of Hester's husband also remains unknown to everyone in the community except Herster herself.
The story focusses round Hester's heroic silence and patient acceptance of her ignominy and Arthur Dimmesdale's gradual spiritual and psychological disintegration under the combined effects of his guilt and the subtle persecutions of Hester's estranged husband, who suspects his secret.
The parallel development of the spiritual and psychological explanations of the story's events and the characters' experiences is extremely clever and surprisingly modern. The two dimensions of the tragedy always remain in balance and reinforce rather than undermine each other, making the novel both a forensic study of morbid psychology and a case history of the damage done to the soul by guilt and hypocrisy.
While the characterisations and the historical setting are vivid and convincing, the narrative itself is relatively simple and uncomplicated, sharply focussed as it is on the experiences of the central characters. Thus, while the writing and the insight are the match of anything by Dickens, the novel lacks the breadth and richness of his works.
The character of Hester's daughter Pearl is the least modern, most "19th century" aspect of the story and the contemporary reader may wince slightly as I did at her arch perspicacity and mercurial would-be cuteness.
These minor quibbles are what induced me to award four stars rather than five, but this is still a great novel. It ought to be on the essential reading list in every seminary and theologicial college in the English-speaking world.