Tag Archives: Nathaniel Hawthorne

One big happy family

Almost as interesting as the literary connections we’re making on this classical journey are the ties between authors.  It’s almost as if they are one big happy family.  Well, more of a dysfunctional family, but you get the idea.

There was the friendship of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne that resulted in Moby-Dick being dedicated to The Scarlet Letter‘s author.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain were neighbors.

Now thanks to the intro of Invisible Man, I learned that Ralph Ellison tried his hand at writing all thanks to Richard Wright of Native Son fame.

Imagine all of our WEM authors sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner together.  I can hear the table talk now.


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Posted by on November 25, 2013 in Invisible Man


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Renaming The Scarlet Letter

By now you know that the WEM First Level of Inquiry Questions require me to retitle the novel.  I’ve talked about the task here and here.  These are the two questions that will help me with that assignment.

1. Who is the central character in this book?
2. What is the book’s most important event?

Let’s tackle the second question.  Can we agree that the adultery was the most important event in the book?  Or at least Chillingworth witnessing Hester’s ignominy on the pillory?  The entire book centers on the adultery, so that’s the answer I’m using.

Now for first question.  Instinctively I want to say that Hester Prynne is the central character, but part of me wants to say that Rev. Dimmesdale comes in a close second.  I don’t want to leave anyone out, so can I include Roger Chillingworth as well?  Let’s face it.  Other than a few governors and the occasional townsperson (Mistress Hibbons), who was on your character list?  These three.  Oh, and Pearl.  We can’t forget the living representation of the scarlet letter.

Back to the retitling…
The WEM says, “Now give your book a title that mentions the main character, and a subtitle that tells how that character is affected by the book’s main event.”

So readers, here’s your assignment.  Give The Scarlet Letter a new title using one of the three main characters’ names and a subtitle explaining how that character was affected by the main event of the novel.

Here’s my attempt at using Chillingworth.

Roger Chillingworth: a husband returns to find his wife publicly shunned for having another man’s child, so he dedicates his life to seeking revenge upon his wife’s lover by concealing his identity and befriending the man in order to torture him psychologically at the cost of the husband’s own spiritual and physical destruction.

Your turn.


Posted by on March 20, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter, Well-Educated Mind


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Another reason to read Moby-Dick

Did you admire Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing of The Scarlet Letter?  It appears that Herman Melville did as well.  Here is what is inscribed on the dedication page of Moby-Dick.

In Token
Of My Admiration For His Genius
This Book Is Inscribed
Nathaniel Hawthorne

Very Interesting.

Have you located your copy of Moby-Dick?  You will not want to miss this classic!


Posted by on March 19, 2012 in Moby-Dick, The Scarlet Letter


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More in Common Than the Moustache

We know from his reference to the doorway to hell that occupied Chillingworth’s eyes that Hawthorne knew his Bunyan, but there is a more subtle commonality running between the two.

Bunyan’s work is full of Sins.  Personified Sins, no less.  And yet, no sin is ever described in detail.  We didn’t spend lots of time with Wanton or Madame Bubble, but instead heard only of their affects on the Faithful and Standfast souls they attacked .  I think that Bunyan knew that to dwell too long on evil was to glorify it and make it attractive.

The same is true for Hawthorne’s treatment of adultery.  He wanted us to sympathize with Hester, and possibly even Dimmesdale, but I don’t believe he wanted us to sympathize with Adultery.  The capital A marks it as a personified sin, much like those encountered on Christian’s journey, and as in the Pilgrimage we see only the effects that Sin has on all that it touches.  We can hurt for those whose lives have been forever changed by the dark misdeed, but we cannot love Adultery itself.  Love the sinner, hate the sin.

Nicely done, guys.


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Concerning Chapter Titles

In the WEM‘s section titled “How to Read A Novel,” readers are asked to pay attention to the table of contents of each book.  Susan Wise Bauer explains that it makes a difference whether a novel has chapter titles or not.

Don Quixote has many short chapters; the chapter titles (“The prophesying ape,” “The puppet show,” “The braying adventure,” “Concerning a squire’s wages”) tell you that the story will unfold as a series of separate, brief events.  The chapter titles of The Scarlet Letter (“Hester and the Physician,” “Hester and Pearl,” “The Minister in a Maze”) introduce you to the story’s main characters.  In both cases the chapter titles tell you how to approach the book.  Don Quixote is an episodic adventure; The Scarlet Letter is an examination of character.

My copy of The Scarlet Letter does not have a table of contents, but the chapters do have titles.  Chapter three is called “Recognition.”  Hester stands on the scaffold, holding infant Pearl.  She notices a stranger.  Hawthorne paints a description of the character without revealing his name.  Hester does not need the narrator to name this man she immediately (as the chapter aptly says) recognizes.  It is such as shock to her that she “presses her infant to her bosom with so convulsive a force that the poor babe uttered another cry of pain.”

The other instance of recognition in this chapter comes toward the end when the man shouts out from the crowd, “Speak; and give you child a father!”  Here, Hawthorne tells us Hester recognized the man’s voice.

Tell me, first-time-readers, who did you suspect this man was when you reached chapter three?


Posted by on March 6, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter


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What I’m getting Hawthorne for his Birthday

I have a few months to wait before Nathaniel Hawthorne’s birthday.

But when July 4th comes, I know just what I’ll be giving him.

What?  You don’t think he’ll be thrilled to receive a thesaurus?

Oh, but I think he needs one.

Has anyone else noticed how many times the author of The Scarlet Letter uses the word ignominy?

Ignominy is a noun that means disgrace, dishonor; public contempt.

Hawthorne is fond of this word: extremely fond of it.

I’m not a novelist, but I confess that in my blog post writing when I find I’m over-using a word, I go to a certain website that’s become a friend:

I used to look up other options for the word ignominy.  There was baseness, disgrace, lowness, meanness, and sordidness.

If Hawthorne did not like any of those choices he could have used a synonym from this list: disfavor, dishonor, humiliation, infamy, opprobrium, shame, or stigma.

Hey, that opprobrium word sounds familiar.

I’ll go ahead and order that thesaurus now so that when July comes, and I get my invitation to celebrate Hawthorne’s 198th birthday, I’ll be ready with a gift.


Posted by on March 4, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter


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It’s working!

In chapter 2 Hester Prynne is standing on the pillory, wearing the scarlet A in public for the first time.  Instead of seeing the crowd of people staring at her and her child, Hester begins “seeing” scenes from her past.  It’s her way of coping with the humiliation of her punishment.

Hester Prynne at the Stocks - an engraved illustration from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter

Her mind, and especially her memory, was preternaturally active, and kept bringing up other scenes than this roughly hewn street of a little town on the edge of the Western wilderness; other faces than were lowering upon her from beneath the brims of those steeple-crowned hats.

This reader cheered, oh, not for Hester, but for herself.  She cheered for the fact that she did not need to consult a dictionary to know the meaning of the word preternaturally.  Then this reader cheered for the blogger who wrote the “Classic Word of the Day” posts.  Thanks, Christina.  It’s working!


Posted by on February 28, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter


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Starting Off on the Wrong Foot

Last night I searched through the books on my nightstand, looking for the next novel on the WEM list.  Finding it, I began a quick perusal of The Scarlet Letter, promising myself that I would not to begin earnestly reading the book until I had completed my WEM questions for Jane Eyre.

I started flipping through the novel.

This is where Nathaniel Hawthorne and I got off on the wrong foot.

My Bantam Classics copy of The Scarlet Letter is 240 pages long.  In this particular version, there is an introduction called “The Custom House Introductory”.  It is forty-four pages long!  A forty-four page long intro for a story that’s less than 200 pages?!  I read Charlotte Bronte’s introduction to Jane Eyre, but it was whopping two pages!

Now the WEM rule about introductions is that if the intro is written by the author of the novel, one should read it.  If not, then don’t.

I don’t want to read a forty-four page introduction! (whining intended)

This morning I googled “Hawthorne’s The Custom House”, wanting some help deciding if I need to read this intro or not. appeared to be a trust-worthy site.  Here’s what Jan Arabas, Department of Art at Middlesex Community College, Bedford and Lowell, MA had to say:

In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter–a dark, brooding novel of hidden sin and expiation.  Fearing that the novel was too dark, he prefaced it with a short, lighter introduction: “The Custom House” sketch.  Hawthorne had actually worked in the Custom House as Surveyor, from 1846-1849.  In his introductory sketch, he leads the reader up to the building and through the first story offices, in a literary virtual tour.  Finally, he brings the reader to the musty and cobwebbed second floor where, he solemnly assures us, he discovered the historical records that became the novel, The Scarlet Letter.

The Salem Custom House

I see.

Guess I will be reading that introduction after all.


Posted by on February 24, 2012 in The Scarlet Letter


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A Valentine’s Day Invitation

On this Valentine’s Day it is time to search your bookshelves, place that library hold, take a trip to the bookstore, or make on online order.


Because very soon A Classic Case of Madness will begin reading a love story.

Awww!  How romantic!

Will it be a love story similar to Pride and Prejudice?


Will it be a love story more like Jane Eyre?


Well, what kind love story is it going to be?

The next classic novel on our WEM list tells the tale of a married woman who has an affair and gives birth to a daughter.  When the woman’s husband unexpectedly returns, she refuses to reveal the identity of her child’s father.

Have you guessed the title?

Get ready to read about Puritans.  Get ready to read about adultry.  Get ready to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s
The Scarlet Letter.

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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in The Blog, The Scarlet Letter


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