The Scarlet Letter is a difficult book to love. Melancholy drips from every page. From its sober beginning to its funereal ending, The Scarlet Letter is a bit of a slog—albeit a well-written one.
As was expected, the book is a harsh indictment of Puritan social structures and culture. Themes of hypocrisy and judgment are pervasive, but I was far more interested in the exploration of confession. Hester Prynne, by virtue of her wearing the scarlet letter, is a walking confession—a socially (and personally) imposed punishment. Yet, her accomplice in the sin (who I won't reveal here) avoids confession and lives as a hypocrite, which, it can be argued, is the much more egregious sin. The book bears clear witness to the danger and agony of living such a life. There is plenty of fault and guilt to go around in the book, including and perhaps especially that guilt and shame which its Puritan society should feel.
To provide my own commentary, I would hesitate to embrace the lesson of unrestrained tolerance as the moral imperative to be learned from Hawthorn's tale. Adultery is an evil, regardless of society's unbalanced condemnation of it. In our society of acceptance, it is easy to condemn (as they would us) the Puritan moral and ethical protocols. However, it doesn't follow that everything they would condemn should become behaviors we should embrace. Rather, I think the question becomes what the "scarlet letter" should be; in other words, societies—organically or not—create scarlet letters for all sorts of behaviors. Furthermore, societies within a larger society, such as a religious community, create and perpetuate their own scarlet letters. A scarlet letter—whatever form that takes—as a means to correct or guide behavior is not an inherently bad thing. The discussion should revolve around how it should be used and for what behaviors, not whether or not it should be abolished entirely. That simply won't happen.
The ending line, which almost requires additional research to understand and appreciate, highlights perhaps the main theme of the book, which is the great Christian obligation to "[j]udge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). More often than not, our ability to judge and discern correctly is severely limited, and we know very little of others' personal torments and motives. The scarlet letter becomes the behavior or choice which is the most conspicuous, but the background and context against which it is set and contrasted against is far less understandable. In our lacking understanding, we often judge incorrectly and often far too harshly. Perhaps that is the most important personal lesson I learned from Hester Prynne.
As you can see, The Scarlet Letter is not terribly enjoyable to read, but it does offer plenty to talk about. I fear, and perhaps this is an unjustified judgment, that the discussions surrounding this book focus far more on toleration rather than on moderation. I am more interested in the latter than I am the former, but I would gladly participate in the discussion.
Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Heart of Darkness
Memorable Moments: A Tale of Two Cities - 'Tis a far, far better thing'
Pointless Stories and the Morality of Fiction