Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book Review: Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter Guide

Hawthorne's <i>The Scarlet Letter</i>From the Publisher:
Each book:
  • Includes an introduction to the author and work
  • Explains the cultural context
  • Incorporates published criticism
  • Contains discussion questions at the end of each unit of the text
  • Defines key literary terms
  • Includes brief bibliographies for further study
  • Evaluates the classic text from a Christian worldview through analytic commentary

This guide opens up the signature book of American literature, Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter, and unpacks its universal themes of sin, guilt, and redemption." (Elsewhere, this sentence concludes with: "...unpacks its universal themes of sin, knowledge, and the human condition."
My Take:

Ryken begins this guide with a one-page analysis on each of the following topics: "The Nature and Function of Literature", "Why the Classics Matter", "How to Read a Story", and "The Author and His Faith". This introductory matter also includes a two-page, "Book at a Glance" spread, which functions as a basic overview of the entire book. Each chapter of Ryken's guide to The Scarlet Letter includes a plot summary, commentary, reflection/discussion questions, and additional  published commentary. This material aims at explaining the story to aid the reader in thinking critically and exercising discernment as he/she reads. As such, first-time readers will likely want to enjoy The Scarlet Letter, and then, return to this guide for a more detailed analysis lest their reading experience be spoiled.

Ryken seeks to help his reader recognize and evaluate the many religious themes (sin, guilt, confession, salvation) as well as the rich symbolism within The Scarlet Letter. According to Ryken, one of the major contrasts throughout The Scarlet Letter centers between the Romantic worldview and the Christian worldview. In the former, "evil is external and societal", whereas in the latter, there is a "spiritual torment" for the guilty sinner (pg. 50). Ryken notes that these two worldviews differ in their diagnosis of the problem and thus, in their solutions.

While there is much to ponder in this material, one must ask, "Does Hawthorne's novel accurately represent a truly "Christian worldview" or merely a religious mindset?" Although Hawthorne mentions God, forgiveness, mercy, and salvation, he never mentions or alludes to Christ who is the way, truth, and life. The first (and only) mention of "Christ" in this study guide is on Page 67. Ryken writes:
"The very last sentences of Dimmesdale's final, farewell speech are particularly filled with theological and biblical meaning. After cataloging the agonies that Dimmesdale paradoxically claims were part of God's mercy to him, he asserts that if any 'of these agonies had been wanting, I had been lost forever.' To be lost is a loaded theological word that denotes being without salvation in Christ and therefore to be condemned eternally in hell" (pg. 67).
 In spite of the fact that Dimmesdale goes to God for forgiveness, one must ask, "Where is Christ?" There is no mention of the perfect life that He lived, the death He died in the place of sinners, etc. In short, Hawthorne's novel contains no Gospel. So, how does Hawthorne truly represent a "Christian worldview" as Ryken asserts throughout this entire guide? [ex. "Dimmesdale will achieve the salvation of his soul" (pg. 48).] Everything in Scripture points to Christ. Hawthorne fails to accomplish this.

That being said, I think there are many themes that make The Scarlet Letter a thought-provoking novel worth reading. For starters, Hawthorne sees sin as sin, depicts the danger of concealed sin (just like David) and vengeance, and truthfully portrays sexual sin as sin against the soul (without going into any nitty-gritty details). Ryken's guide does a decent job of bringing out some of the significant themes in The Scarlet Letter. Ultimately, Hawthorne and Ryken accurately represent the truth that unconfessed sin causes one to waste away just as it resulted in the demise and death of Dimmesdale.

Additional questions that might have made this guide more helpful include: "What caused Dimmesdale and Hester to commit this sin? Why did Hester confess her sin? Was she repentant?" To some extent, Ryken looks at this as he represents Hester's Romanticist worldview. However, he fails to consider why Dimmesdale never confessed his sin. Ultimately, it seems to be because he feared man rather than God. There is a lesson to be learned here. We must fear God who can cast our souls into Hell rather than man who can merely harm our physical bodies. Most importantly, salvation is to be found in Christ alone, not in merely confessing our sin. The message in these books is sketchy. Scripture says, "If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness." How does this happen? We must turn from our sin and toward Christ. This is where Hawthorne and Ryken seem to miss the boat. Ryken analyzes what Hawthorne wrote and labels Hawthorne's message as representing a "Christian worldview", but how can it be a Christian worldview without clearly representing Christ as Savior and Lord? All-in-all, this guide is useful for analyzing themes, but one must bring discernment to Ryken's message as well as the novel.

Other books in the "Christian Guides to the Classics" series include:

Homer's "The Odyssey"
Milton's "Paradise Lost"
Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Expected in Spring 2014:

Dicken's "Great Expectations"
Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress"

*Many thanks to Crossway for sending me a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion!

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