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The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter
THE SCARLET LETTER, by Nathanial Hawthorne
Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 masterpiece is America's first psychological novel. Set in Puritan New England in the 1600s, THE SCARLET LETTER focuses on the effects of sin and guilt through the life of Hester Prynne, who gives birth to a daughter after committing adultery, refuses to identify the father, and works to forge a new life and new identity. Because of the book's symbolic, imaginative, and nonrealistic slant, it is usually classified as a romance rather than as a novel.

Critics praised THE SCARLET LETTER for its "subtle knowledge of character" and "tragic power," which derive from Hawthorne's interweaving of the classic archetype of the Garden of Eden with his probing of the true meaning of identity, morality, evil, sin, and guilt. Much like Adam and Eve, Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale and Hester Prynne are symbolically cast out of Paradise for their sin, forced to suffer, toil, and confront their guilt at their transgression of society's norms -- as well as their own. In doing so, they become aware of their mortality and humanity, which results in their personal growth and ability to empathize with others. Hester's scarlet A, initially a despised symbol of shame for her sin, becomes transmogrified by the end of the novel. It becomes a cherished sign of Hester's ability to feel compassion and work for the greater good of the community. It also symbolizes her hard-won identity as a valued member of society.Hawthorne grapples with what it means to be evil, guiding readers to the inevitable conclusion that evil lies not in illicit love but rather in violating the sanctity of the human heart and the perversion of love into cruelty. Although more than 150 years old, THE SCARLET LETTER is still powerful and timely because of its psychological and philosophical depth.

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The American Novel