The Scarlet Letter

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The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published 150 years ago this spring, was the great opening event in American literature; a very strange book, it’s been said, that gets better and more relevant all the time.

The letter was a flaming red A stitched as a punishment in Puritan Boston to the bosom of the defiant single mother Hester Prynne. The “A” stood for adultery, at one level, or Hawthorne’s own Art, or maybe for Angel, or Amor, meaning love; or could Hawthorne back in 1850 have anticipated Aids? Hester takes her Puritan punishment and survives — a prototypical strong woman. It’s the men in her life who do themselves in: the guilty preacher father of her child, Arthur Dimmesdale; and Hester’s obsessively vengeful husband Roger Chillingworth. Can anyone read The Scarlet Letter today and not think of Bill Clinton and Ken Starr?

The endless meanings of an American masterpiece, on this show.
(Hosted by Christopher Lydon)


English Professors: Millicent Bell (Boston University), Walter Herbert (Southwestern University), and Lauren Berlant (University of Chicago).