Set in the harsh Puritan community of seventeenth-century Boston, this tale of an adulterous entanglement that results in an illegitimate birth reveals Nathaniel Hawthorne's concerns with the tension between the public and the private selves. Publicly disgraced and ostracized, Hester Prynne draws on her inner strength and certainty of spirit to emerge as the first true heroine of American fiction. Arthur Dimmesdale, trapped by the rules of society, stands as a classic study of a self divided. [BL synopsis]
I know this is one of the great American classics, but I have to admit that I did not enjoy it all that much.
The language is quite complex - in itself not a bad thing but not quite my style. Where Hawthorne can use a lot of words to describe something in a roundabout way, he goes for it! I had to re-read some passages because the I was too busy trying to process all these words to understand what he was saying.
Hawthorne paints a tapestry of the morals of Puritan times - I feel that this was one of the reasons I could relate to little to the book. Even though Hester Prynne is said to be one of the first heroines of American fiction, the statements on women in general and in relation to individual characters felt deeply patriarchal and were grating. Yes, these have to be read in the context of the time, but I could not but be at times a little annoyed. I don't know if Hawthorne did any meaningful research or if this is just what he thought a Puritan society looked like, but the picture he paints is oppressive for anyone with opinions. Still, due to the heroine's unflinching adherence to rules/morality/general good person-ness, society (or people) relent at the end.
I have to give Hawthorne credit for not making his "fallen woman" weak or despiccable but quite principled and with inner strength. Props (and an extra star) for that. I could not relate to Dimmesdale (weak) or Chillingworth (pure evil/plot device). Pearl is uncomfortably described with too much reference to the circumstances in which she was created (sin/evil) even though she apparently turned out all right in the end.
Overall, and all the more when setting the writing against some of his contemporaries in Europe, I get the feeling that the success of the book stems in part from the relative scarcity of good American writers at that time, and the scarcity of novels set in Puritan times which did - and still do - provide a reference system for American society.
And the introductory tale is just a small minded revenge for being fired from the Custom House. That cost him some of the goodwill I had when picking up the book.