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Extended Audio Sample The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne Click for printable size audiobook cover
3 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 53 out of 5 3.00 (270,552 ratings) (rate this audio book) Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne Narrator: Shelly Frasier Publisher: Tantor Format: Unabridged Audiobook Delivery: Instant Download Audio Length: Release Date:
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"The Scarlet Letter" is a 19th-century romance novel written by the great American author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Set in the restrictive New England Puritan society of Salem and Boston, Massachusetts, the novel starts out with a lengthy chapter describing how the book came about. A narrator describes how he found a certain piece of cloth, finely embroidered in gold with the letter "A." The listener will discover that the letter was a mark of disgrace and punishment for one woman who had been accused of adultery at a previous time.

The story of Hester Prynne and the scarlet letter she was forced to wear doesn't begin until after this initial chapter, which Hawthorne labels as the "Preamble."

Early in the novel, Hester Prynne and her infant daughter, Pearl, appear as they are led from the town prison and subjected to ridicule and punishment by the townspeople.

Hester has borne Pearl out of wedlock, and the town wants to know the father of the child, since Hester's husband was thought to have been previously lost at sea. The remainder of the story is an examination of Hester, her story, the two men in her life and an examination into the nature of sin itself.

Insightful readers and listeners will discover that the novel is a deep examination of Boston society and Puritan hypocrisy of that time as well as the people within Hester's community.

Who comes out on top, and whether there is any hope of retribution and eventual salvation is a question the listener must reserve for the novel.

Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1804. It is interesting to note that one of his ancestors, John Hathorne, had served as one of the judges at the infamous Salem Witch Trials in 1692. To remind himself of his family's part in that part of American history, Hawthorne added the "w" to his name, which served as a reminder of his familial connection to witchcraft.

Hawthorne attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where he met Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He became interested in Transcendentalism as an outgrowth of his friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller.

Among Hawthorne's works are: "The Blithedale Romance," "The Marble Faun," "The House of the Seven Gables" and numerous short stories.

He is regarded as one of the greats in early American literature. Herman Melville, of "Moby Dick" fame, dubbed him the "American Shakespeare". Hawthorne died in May, 1864 at his home in Concord, Massachusetts.

It is 1642 in the Puritan town of Boston. Hester Prynne has been found guilty of adultery and has borne an illegitimate child. In lieu of being put to death, she is condemned to wear the scarlet letter A on her dress as a reminder of her shameful act. 

Hester’s husband had been lost at sea years earlier and was presumed dead, but he reappears in time to witness Hester’s humiliation on the town scaffold. Upon discovering her deed, the vengeful husband becomes obsessed with finding the identity of the man who dishonored his wife. To do so he assumes a false name, pretends to be a physician, and forces Hester to keep his new identity secret. Meanwhile, Hester’s lover, the beloved Reverend Dimmesdale, publicly pressures her to name the child’s father while secretly praying that she will not. Hester defiantly protects his identity and reputation, even when faced with losing her daughter, Pearl. 

Hailed by Henry James as “the finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a masterful portrayal of humanity’s continuing struggle with sin, guilt, and pride.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “[Nathaniel Hawthorne] recaptured, for his New England, the essence of Greek tragedy.”

    Malcolm Cowley

  • The Scarlet Letter isn’t a pleasant, pretty romance. It is a sort of parable, an earthly story with a hellish meaning.”

    D. H. Lawrence

  • “Considered a masterpiece of American literature and a classic moral study.”

    Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

  • “The finest piece of imaginative writing yet put forth in the country.”

    Henry James

  • combines the strength and substance of an oak with the subtle organization of a rose, and is great, not of malice aforethought, but inevitably. It goes to the root of the matter, and reaches some unconventional conclusions, which, however, would scarce be apprehended by one reader in twenty. For the external or literal significance of the story, though in strict correspondence with the spirit, conceals that spirit from the literal eye. The reader may choose his depth according to his inches but only a tall man will touch the bottom…very story may be viewed under two aspects: as the logical evolution of a conclusion from a premise, and as something colored and modified by the personal qualities of the author. If the latter have genius, his share in the product is comparable to nature's in a work of human art,—giving it everything except abstract form… A gloomy and energetic religious sect, pioneers in a virgin land, with the wolf and the Indian at their doors, but with memories of England in their hearts and English traditions and prejudices in their minds; weak in numbers, but strong in spirit; with no cultivation save that of the Bible and the sword; victims, moreover of a dark and bloody superstition,—such a people and scene give admirable relief and color to a tale of human frailty and sorrow.  Amidst such surroundings, then, the figure of a woman stands, with the scarlet letter on her bosom… But a writer who works with deep insight and truthful purpose can never be guilty of a lack of decency. Indecency is a creation, not of God or of nature, but of the indecent.whoever takes it for granted that indecency is necessarily involved in telling the story of an illicit passion has studied human nature and good literature to poor purpose.

    Atlantic (an excerpt from the review)

  • “A gloomy and energetic religious sect, pioneers in a virgin land…with memories of England in their hearts and English traditions and prejudices in their minds; weak in numbers, but strong in spirit; with no cultivation save that of the Bible and the sword…Such a people and scene give admirable relief and color to a tale of human frailty and sorrow.”

    Atlantic

Listener Opinions

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 by Pamela | 2/20/2014

    " A satisfying re-reading. This time around (my 3rd or 4th) I recognized more than before what a very strange book this is. It's realism with an extremely strong undertow of the supernatural--perhaps that is what is meant by "a romance," Hawthorne's label for The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne has here invented or found a great array of symbols and signs (Hester's letter, her daughter Pearl, sunshine and shade, the forest, the scaffold, a rosebush, a brook) that carry an uncanny, frightening charge. As a writer, I was fascinated by the fact that the novel is almost entirely summary and exposition and abstraction--and yet it is so humanly moving. My edition had a number of Hawthorne's more famous short stories, such as "Young Goodman Brown" and "The Minister's Black Veil," included, which extended the experience very nicely. "

  • 2 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 52 out of 5 by Celeste | 2/18/2014

    " A struggle for me to get through. Excellent sleep aid, though. "

  • 5 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 55 out of 5 by Jamie | 2/18/2014

    " Omg I hated this book, but what a masterpiece. "

  • 4 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 54 out of 5 by John Miller | 2/18/2014

    " This was very good, but I just found it a little difficult to read. But, a true classic. "

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