It’s Ok to Ask For Directions (Reflections on The Scarlet Letter and Reading Classics in General)

Are you ready to hear something possibly surprising about this book reviewer? Here goes: sometimes, I read a book and I weigh every word, I analyze the themes and motifs, let the plot sink in, evaluate the characters, then I close the book and…have no idea what I just read means. Sometimes the scenes of the book tumble and jumble in my head, noisily knocking around like Mexican Jumping Beans and I can make no sense of them. I can grasp no common thread or foundation to build on.

This must mean, you might say, that it’s a badly written book. But what if this book is a classic? What if this book is universally recognized by literary scholars as a Madonna of American Literature? Then, you would be forced to say what I was forced to see, that this blogger was missing something and needed help.

The book in question was “The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I initially gave the book four stars because I relished the psychological depth it explored and because I loved and strongly pitied the character of D–. But I was puzzled by the ending. It wasn’t what I was expecting. And Nathaniel Hawthorne’s negative portrait of the Puritans and apparent uplifting of the feminist heroine Hester, nagged me like a perpetual buzzing in my ears.


So I turned, as I often do, to for chapter-by-chapter analysis. But the open contempt for the Puritans and glorification of Feminism (embodied by Hester) I found articulated there left me reeling. If that was what the book was about then it was one of the worst books ever written, indeed! I scrambled to demote my Goodreads rating to a moderate 3 stars rather than a glowing 4. “I really should rate it 2 or 1” I thought rather guiltily, “but the fact is, I did like many aspects of it.”


My next line of pursuit was to read a book off of my daddy’s shelf dealing with myths surrounding the puritans, called “Worldly Saints: the Puritans as They Really Were” by Leland Ryken.



Worldly Saints--IG

This one here is actually for sale. 😉

As a Reformed Baptist PK, I have grown up with primarily a positive view of the Puritans and their doctrine. The stereotype of them in The Scarlet Letter actually took me by surprise. “So this is what most of the population thinks of when they think of Puritans? How awful!” I thought. It was so utterly unlike my own mental portrait of the Puritans that I found them irreconcilable. “Was there any basis for this negative portrait? Maybe the New England Puritans were different than the English Puritans,” I began to think.

 by George H. Walker and Co. After J. E. Baker

Worldly Saints answered some of these nagging questions. Yes, the New England Saints had a more marked tendency towards legalism than their English cousins but not as dramatic as portrayed in The Scarlet Letter. I thought The Scarlet Letter might be referenced several times in Worldly Saints because it has been one of the predominant sources of confusion concerning the Puritans for the average American but it was only referenced once, and there, to add to my confusion, the author gave the book a pass, remarking that the error is due to readers failing to recognize the satiric genre.

The book Worldly Saints is excellent for those who do not know who the Puritans were as well as for people like me, who just wanted to learn about them in greater depth. The book is structured topically with chapter titles like “The Puritans on Work” and “The Puritans on Marriage and Sex” plus two chapters at the end on the weaknesses and strengths of the Puritans that we can learn from. I easily give the book 5 Stars.

But “Worldly Saints” did not help me interpret the meaning of The Scarlet Letter, so my search for help continued. Browsing through other books by Leland Ryken, I stumbled upon the perfect guide. Leland Ryken actually wrote a handbook on The Scarlet Letter! This was the ideal resource, given Dr. Ryken’s scholarship on Puritanism. I expected him to be scathing in his evaluation of The Scarlet Letter, but to my surprise this great defender of Puritanism gave a glowing commendation of the iconic “anti-Puritan” book. Why? Because, as Dr. Ryken explains, what most of us have heard about The Scarlet Letter is wrong. This guide is a must read if you have, are, or plan to read The Scarlet Letter.


I recommend waiting to read the guide until you finish the book because though the guide discusses one chapter at a time, it does presume a knowledge of the ending and the identity of Hester’s illicit lover (both things which are important to remain a surprise.) Once you finish the guide you will probably want (as I did) to reread the book “because you get it now” or wish (as I also did) that you had known those things when you read it the first time. These are normal emotions after reading a classic work of literature. It means the story has depth you won’t be able to mine fully the first time you read it. It means the story still retains the power to teach you something new. This is actually very exciting.

For the first reading you don’t need to grasp all the themes. Focus on bonding with the characters and entering their world. Don’t cheat yourself out of enjoying the book by jumping too quickly to analyzing the rightness or wrongness of the ideas presented in the book. There will be time enough for that later on.

To give you a general framework for those reading the book for the first time and a teaser for those who have read it already but are interested in the guide, I’ll leave you with four things to keep in mind while reading The Scarlet Letter:

    1.  The Scarlet Letter’s principle tension comes from a collision of worldviews. Hester embodies Romanticism while her co-adulterer embodies Orthodox Christianity.
    2. The author employs what is called “the guilty reader” technique. This means that the storyline will persuade you to a viewpoint then flip the tables and show the guilt of that viewpoint you approved, indicting you as well as the characters involved because you approved their wrongdoing. It’s a masterful way of illustrating the attractiveness of the wrong viewpoint and drawing the reader into the story, making them part of the drama. Don’t fear this but be prepared to have your perspective changed throughout the book as you’re given new information. Withhold final judgement until the end.
    3. Hester’s romanticism is initially expressed with orthodox Christian language (as errors most often are). This lends her credibility and an aura of sainthood–even a martyr complex. Once again, this is part of the “guilty reader” technique. Nathaniel Hawthorne wants us to remember that what sounds Christian not always is Christian
    4. With the tension between Romanticism and Christianity, two different philosophies for dealing with sin emerge. Hester believes her problem is external like her Scarlet Letter, that the problem is society, and the solution is rising above their prejudices and proving herself to be a worthy woman–never mind that empty symbol of sin attached to her bosom. In contrast, her former lover believes the problem is internal. The problem is his sinful heart and the only solution is to throw himself upon the mercy of God. Pay close attention to which of these characters find redemption in the end, this is the key to understanding the story as a whole.
    5. The book appears to be harsh on Puritanism but we need to keep in mind that:

              a. The book is satire. It’s not intended to be an accurate portrait of Puritanism at large. What is portrayed in the beginning is a community with the outward forms of Puritanism without its heart, without its doctrine. Puritan doctrine, Leland Ryken, scholar on Puritan faith and practice, says, is ultimately upheld.

             b. The negative scenes of the Puritans are centered around Hester, who we must remember views the law-abiding community as her root problem. When the glow of Romanticism fades and is outshone by Christianity in the personage of [spoiler removed] we are given a positive portrait of the Puritans celebrating Election Day with joy and festivities. Here again is the “guilty reader” technique, we are shown that we too, like Hester, have been taken in by Romanticism.


in this film adaption, we can observe how Hester’s personal beauty and innocent upturning of her face promotes her as a saint, a victim of societal bigotry rather than a sinner in need of grace.

Now you will have the unspeakable pleasure, as I do, of pulling out your hair over grossly misinterpretive summaries such as this one featured as the official book description on Goodreads:

“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. [Spoiler Removed–really, Goodreads?!], trapped by the rules of society, stands as a classic study of a self divided.”

But you will also have the true pleasure of enjoying a (truly) Christian story that deals eloquently, passionately, and convincingly with sin, guilt, and salvation, leaving you awed by both the depth and subtlety of sin and the necessity and greatness of God’s mercy.

Interpreting literature is not always easy. Nor are all “classics” equally clear or equally clear to all people. There is a delightful game of chase involved. It’s a work-out of the mind. Muscles have to be strengthened and focus honed. There’s such a thing as brain sweat and brain cramps, lemme tell ya. But every time you push through the pain and claim a runner’s prize you’ll strengthen those brain muscles and either the next race will be easier or you’ll be able to run farther the next time. It’s ok to ask for directions because we all get lost from time to time. Good interpretative resources like Dr. Ryken’s guide to The Scarlet Letter will not only help you see a particular book more clearly, it will help train your eyes what to look for. I love reading established classics not only because they are deeper and more complex than easy-in, easy- out, pop fiction but because as a result of their wide readership and study by men and women well-skilled in the art of literature analysis, I know I can find help if I get stuck. I can google, “what does — mean when he said —?” and usually find an answer. I can read articles such as the one I’m writing and you’re reading right now. Or if I’m really serious I can read a stack of books on the book. That is the beauty of reading classics.

Leland Ryken writes in the introduction to his guidebook:

“…classics are known to us not only in themselves but also in terms of their interpretation and reinterpretation through the ages…If we have a taste for what is excellent, we will automatically want some contact with the classics. They offer more enjoyment, more understanding about human experience, and more richness of ideas and thought than lesser works (which we can also legitimately read). We finish reading or rereading a classic with a sense of having risen higher than we would otherwise have risen.”

Have fun!

11 thoughts on “It’s Ok to Ask For Directions (Reflections on The Scarlet Letter and Reading Classics in General)

  1. I can totally relate!!

    I have almost finished reading this in my lit. class, and it does tend to have that effect. Perhaps you might try learning more about the author? That could help you to decode his work. 🙂


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! I really like this book too and the way it deals with human depravity, as well as the way it turns your perspective around on you. Of course, people can always force their own worldview onto things, as seems to be the case you ran into with this book. Interesting. Now you’re making me want to go reread it! Stop it!! My pile’s big enough already! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. The guilty reader technique is a kind of an illusion, isn’t it… To make something seem different than it is. My struggle with The Scarlet Letter (which I do love) was that Hawthorne maintained his depiction of Hester in a sympathetic light up until the last page of the book. Where other women “burdened with sinful passion” come to her for sympathy, and she imagines a future age where the relationship between men and women “would be on surer footing” and “sacred love should make one happy.” even on the last page of the book, it felt like there was not just a sympathetic depiction of an evil doer (which can actually be awesome…I am a Loki fan as well) but as though Hawthorne was saying what she did wasn’t so bad, and that in the future it should be socially acceptable. In the spirit of asking questions to understand… Did I misinterpret the ending? I’ll certainly look for Ryken’s guide.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mm. Good question! There were details of the book I still struggled to reconcile with this perspective after reading Ryken’s guide. It gave me a framework for understanding Hawthorne’s book but did not explain everything.

      It’s been awhile since I read the book and it’s all a little hazy now, but from what I remember, those comments at the end could be seen not as a part of the guilty reader technique, but a depiction of the blindness Hester still has and a prophetic insight that this blindness would soon become the cultural norm. Combined with D’s death, it’s a chilling depiction of the cultural shift in worldview.

      I think Ryken’s interpretation of The Scarlet Letter is right but that is not to say that there are not definitely some things I wish Hawthorne had made clearer for future readers. Of course, you don’t want to over-explain and weaken your storyline. When you write a story, there’s always that risk of your story being misunderstood. It’s a delicate balance.


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