Although I was not keen on Hawthorn’s wordiness and the authentically old-fashioned dialogues in the style of “good sooth, what wouldst thou say, whence come you and what sent you hither”, I enjoyed the book. It’s a very dramatic story and the author displays a deep insight into human nature in general and the minds of the severe and joyless New England Puritans in particular, with their terrible emphasis on sin and retribution. Though they proclaim their God to be a merciful one they are terrified of eternal punishment and spend their lives doing penance for their real or imagined sins.
The two protagonists, being people of their time and place, are tortured by guilt over their own incomparably sinful crime (adultery) that not only the community but they themselves consider evil and possibly unforgivable by their God. Whereas Hester’s part in the adultery is openly admitted and castigated, the man’s hidden guilt is gradually eating him up and turning him into a half-dead, crumbling wreck.
Despite being ostracized (or because of it) Hester’s fate seems easier to bear as she lives outside the constraints of the community in relative isolation accompanied by her (fairly creepy) child Pearl. While atoning for her sin she assumes the freedom to reflect on the human institutions of the time and on a newer and more just society where women’s lives would be worth living as they would be in a fair and suitable position and the relationship between men and women would be one of mutual respect and happiness.
Over time through her skills with the needle and her good works she gains the reluctant acceptance of the community while her partner-in-crime drives himself mad with his thoughts endlessly revolving around God, sin, penitence and punishment. In the end, while trying to find salvation for himself, he doesn’t even grant Hester the comfort of hope of a life together in the next world.
Instead of Hester being an example of the “frailty and sinfulness of women” proclaimed by the priests she comes across as a very strong character, a thinking woman, someone who lives her life and makes her decisions according to her own inner voice and principles and in that way finds a measure of peace.
since I've first read it as a teenager (a regrettable amount of years ago). I've two different editions of it at home in print on my bookshelf. When I found it for free, so that I can carry it with me on my kindle as a book without weight, I was thrilled. Three hugs and kisses to the Gutenberg Project.