Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Classic

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, I think we’re on a bit of an American classics kick. My next selection from The List came in the form of an excessively dog-eared Penguin Classic edition of Moby Dick, once belonging to my husband. (I can’t believe I married a heathen that defaces books in such a manner, forgive me.)

Moby Dick - Herman Melville - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Moby Dick was published in 1851 and – like all of our favourite classics – it was a complete commercial failure, out of print by the time of Melville’s death 40 years later. It wasn’t until the 20th century that it gained a reputation as The Greatest American Novel Of All Time (Suck It Hawthorne, No Takesibacksies). The story is based on Melville’s experience as a whaler in the 1840s, and appears to draw from the story of an actual boat that tragically sank (the Essex, in 1820), and an unrelated albino whale called Mocha Dick (which was killed in the late 1830s). So, the story practically wrote itself, by the sounds…

It kicks off with the narrator, Ishmael, meeting his exotic lover friend Queequeg in Nantucket, and they seek to go a-whaling together. (There’s a lot of veiled homoeroticism, but I think you’re supposed to ignore that.) They end up aboard the Pequod, with a mysterious one-legged Captain Ahab that you don’t see much for the first couple hundred pages. Once he appears, however, he has them all just sail around the world, bumping into other ships and asking them if they’ve seen Moby Dick, the infamous white whale that bit off his leg.

The book is over 600 pages long, and 235 pages go by before anyone actually sees a whale. So how does he fill in the time? Well, Melville takes it upon himself to teach us all about whales. The etymology of the word “whale”. The history of all the whales (and I mean history – it starts with Genesis). An amateur taxonomy of whales (unfortunately for Melville, it doesn’t really hold up with the hundred and fifty years of scientific findings that followed). See, being that it was published in the middle of the 19th century, a reader couldn’t simply Google the terms with which they weren’t familiar, so Melville took it upon himself to write entire Wikipedia entries into the book itself.

He maybe takes it a bridge too far at times. I mean, he does a whole chapter on Things That Are Both Big and White. It doesn’t move the story along at all, it’s like he’s just sharing some fun facts.




When we get around to some actual narrative, Captain Ahab goes more and more nuts, pistol-whipping his employees and insisting that he can kill the unkillable white whale with a glorified sharp stick fashioned for him by a carpenter on board. To be honest, I almost preferred Melville’s tangential rambling chapters on whales to the actual narration of the story; action scenes bore me in movies, they do even less for me written down, and Melville writes so beautifully (when he feels like it) that I quite enjoyed his seemingly endless descriptions of all things big, white and whale-like.

Still, as Captain Ahab got increasingly pissed off, so did I – it got to the point where I had a couple hundred pages to go, and I started to wonder how much more there really was to say about whales. We’d already covered their shape, their skin, their spout, whether or not they can smell. We’d discussed whales in history, whales in religion, whales in art, whales in folklore. At that point, what stone possibly remains un-turned? What’s more (less than a hundred pages to go now), are they ever going to find this fucking Moby Dick creature? Maybe Melville was being super-meta, and his reader’s terminal wait for a resolution was meant to echo the experience of the whalers on board the Pequod waiting for Moby Dick to emerge. That’s clever, and all, but come onnnnnnnn.

Just as I decide I’m ready to throw the book across the room, there’s an absolute ripper of a storm, and the crew is ready to mutiny but Ahab gives them the old what-for and insists they press on (the guy is a study in the sunk-loss fallacy). Finally, finally, on page five hundred and ninety-fucking-five (only a couple dozen pages from the end), we actually lay eyes on Moby Dick!

Hold the champagne, though, because the boat promptly sinks and everyone dies. WTF, Melville?!

The book was originally published without an epilogue, which completely changes the story. The epilogue as it stands in all editions today reveals that not quite everybody dies; Ishmael floated away on a coffin-turned-life-raft and got picked up by another ship. So, without that bit, the whole thing seems to have been narrated by a perish sailor. The narrators back in the day got all mad at Melville for “breaking” the rules of fiction and narration. Wouldn’t they all absolutely shit if they could see them mess we’ve made of them today?

Initially, I really liked Melville’s style of writing, his rhythm, but I quickly learned that you can’t get too comfortable. He experimented with style and rhythm throughout, sometimes sounding like Shakespeare, sometimes sounding like a biology textbook, sometimes just making shit up on the fly. He did a lot of whacky things with narration and perspective. He writes for pages about an oil painting. He uses words like “abstreperously”. He shares some amazing pearls of wisdom, like “ignorance is the parent of fear”, and “better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunk Christian”. But the best moment, no question, was his actual unironic use of the world “whelmed”, which excited me (a dyed-in-the-wool child of the ’90s) no end.

Can You Ever Just Be Whelmed? 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I liked that there was no one over-arching ThemeTM constantly smacking you over head (a la The Scarlet Letter – Melville was miles ahead of his buddy Nathaniel Hawthorne, in my opinion). Reading Moby Dick is more like panning for gold, sifting out slivers of wisdom and brilliance and insight. There are some chunks of “search for truth”, and “perception is deception”, but on the whole there’s a lot going on and you can take from it what you will.

One minor 21st century critique (I can’t help myself, I’m sorry): there were precisely two female characters. Both of them appeared in the first 120 pages, and from there, nada. Only one of them had any actual dialogue. Once the ship sailed, it sailed on any hope of gender balance. I had unconsciously half-expected the white whale itself to be female (thinking that’d be a nice little piece of gender commentary maybe, a ship full of men chasing after a mythical female beast), but we were denied that also. So, don’t bother with Moby Dick if that bothers you.

Sexist narratives and tangential writing aside, I was very pleasantly surprised. I’d expected Moby Dick to be heavy and impenetrable and sure, it’s wordy, but it’s engaging and funny and brilliant. I enjoyed it. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I enjoyed it, other than it was just fun. I stop short of putting Moby Dick on our Recommended list, because I’m not sure you can enjoy it without patience and a sense of humour. If you’ve got those, and you want to learn a fucktonne about whales, dive on in because Moby Dick is perfect for you.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Moby Dick:

  • “I enjoyed it, but it has hundreds of pages describing the whaling experience.” – John McDaniel
  • “It may be a classic, but it’s a boring classic.” – Cindy M. Downs
  • “The book is fantastic, but the page numbering is not correct.” – Brodi
  • “I was told this was about fishing. It’s not. Because a whale is a mammal.” – Joe Octane
  • “I SURE HOPE YOU ENJOY LEARNING ABOUT WHALES!!!! Listen I read this book hoping to get a pretty good story hoping to see some of the solidarity in man by reading about his voyages in water hoping to relate to some of the struggles from being solely focused on obtaining a certain goal etc. But honestly good Lord! I swear 85% of this book is various lessons on whaling the origin of whales, whale distinction, whale body parts, whale sperm, different color whales. Oh my goodness the book starts off quick with the appearance of Queepeg you think ok we might have something here but NO! this book drags on and on and on. Gets off topic ALL of the time. The majority of this book is about how Ismael feels and about whale parts. And when Moby Dick does show up AT THE END OF THE BOOK Captain Ahab vs Moby Dick was as big a mis-match since the Super Bowl between Denver and Seattle. IT was anticlimactic some people might get this book but please don’t put me down as one. SAVE YOURSELF THE TIME AND ENERGY READ THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA A MUCH BETTER BOOK” – Pen Name

 

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Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë

OK folks, let’s be real here: before you read this review, you should know that I’m not going to shake the Earth with it. It turns out, Wuthering Heights has been reviewed and critiqued approximately eighty billion times already. My copy (purchased for $10, once owned by but never borrowed from the library of Riverside Girls’ High, according to the stamp in the front) has a Preface, Chronology, Introduction, Further Reading List (pages!), a Note on the Text, a Genealogical Table, a Bibliographical Notice for the author, and an Editors Preface to the New [1850] Edition… not to mention that the text itself is followed by 13 pages of notes. How can I possibly add to an analysis that’s already longer than the book? I’ll give it a shot, but I’m not optimistic… 😉

Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte - Keeping Up With The Penguins

(A hot tip for those of you yet to read Wuthering Heights: given how many characters Emily Brontë names for their parents, and how many of them marry their cousins, an edition with the aforementioned Genealogical Table in the front is really handy!)

So, it’s 1801, right. This moody guy, Heathcliff, lives with his daughter-in-law and her new husband (his own son having perished, at some point). The DIL is hot, but they’re all kind of rude and weird. Their kindly neighbour – who’s trying to narrate this mess – comes to have a sleepover, but they stick him in a really strange room and he has nutty dreams and sees a ghost. He bails quick smart. Then, presto, we kind of switch narrators, because that kindly neighbour – safe, back at his place – gets bored at dinner and makes his housemaid give him all the dirt on those whack-jobs up the road. So, it’s the narrator narrating the narration of his housemaid. Got it?

It turns out: that Heathcliff guy was once a ruffian street-kid, with a Cinderella-esque upbringing (once the dude who took him in died, the rest of the family started being really mean). Catherine (we’ll call her Cathy Senior for clarity – you’ll see why in a minute) was a saucy little minx, who flirtatiously tortured Heathcliff for years, but she ultimately decided to marry the snooty guy next door instead. It was a hella dramatic household – years of drunken rages and fights and marriage proposals and death. It’s great tea, but damn, I wanted to tell them all to just calm down for a minute.

Heathcliff went on a sulky walkabout after his true-love-slash-adopted-sister married the snooty guy. Cathy Senior is overjoyed when he eventually returns, which makes Mr Snooty super jealous. Then, Mr Snooty’s sister takes a fancy to Heathcliff, and Cathy Senior is so not jealous of them that she goes proper bonkers and locks herself in her room.

Heathcliff does actually take Mr Snooty’s sister for a wife (seemingly because they both just fancied a shag and this was the only way to get one back then), but being back living with the adopted family that hates him isn’t great for his mental health. Guys, this is just Volume I. Strap in!




I can see why Wuthering Heights has been picked apart so many times – there’s clearly layers of metaphor and hidden meaning, but (unlike Mrs Dalloway) that doesn’t mean that a surface reading isn’t perfectly enjoyable. Of course, you’ve got to keep track of all the love triangles dodecahedrons and set aside any qualms you have about incest…

In Volume II, Heathcliff decides he doesn’t give a damn who’s married whom, and sneaks in to see Cathy Senior while Mr Snooty is at church. They pash for a bit, but she’s still bonkers, and Mr Snooty ends up catching them at it. It turns out Cathy Senior was knocked up (though none of them have mentioned it up until now) – the shock of the whole situation sends her into pre-term labour, and she dies not long after the shorty drops.

This, in turn, makes Heathcliff even more mental (losing his true-love-slash-adopted-sister and all), so Mr Snooty’s sister leaves him… but it turns out she was knocked up as well (gasp!). She runs away to the country to have the kid and eat a lot of peaches… then the story jumps ahead 13 years, and she dies too. I’m serious! I’m not making this up, I swear.

Cathy Junior (yes, Brontë named both characters Cathy, it’s crazy) is a mad little scamp; she thinks her cousins are living far, far away… but it turns out they’re living up the road with Heathcliff, and when she finds out she gets proper pissed off. She becomes secret pen pals with Heathcliff’s son and they trade notes via the milkman for a few days, until they decide they’ve fallen in love. (It kind of seems like deciding you want to marry the guy you’ve been messaging on Tinder for a few days… only that guy is your cousin and living with your mother’s ex-lover and it’s all really fucked up!)

He's Your Cousin - Mean Girls - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Heathcliff isn’t at all bothered by the incest, and approves of the match. He’s so determined that Cathy Junior should marry his son that he takes her hostage, knocks her around a bit, and tells her that he won’t release her to see her dying dad until she’s got a ring on it. The whole thing is a study in Stockholm syndrome and domestic violence, and by all rights I should have been shocked and confronted… but I was so confused and bored by their dramatics that it passed by me with barely an eyebrow raised.

To skip ahead to the end (which I’m sure we’re all eager to do by this point): Heathcliff dies and the implication seems to be that he and Cathy Senior go on to have a rollicking good time in the afterlife, haunting the moors and so forth. Cathy Junior outlives her cousin-husband, and eventually falls in love with her other cousin (even though he’s really stupid). They… live happily ever after? I guess?

The thing is, while I was reading Wuthering Heights, I was having a pretty tough time personally – putting on pants in the morning was about all I could manage, let alone immersing myself in Brontë’s madness. I’ll definitely read this book again, not because the first time was so good, but because I could not possibly have got everything out of Wuthering Heights that it has to offer, when so much of my brain space was occupied with other things. Ergo, at this point, I can really only recommend it to someone who’s got the emotional and mental stability to enjoy it properly.

Tl;dr? Wuthering Heights is a bad boy’s decade-long butthurt over getting friendzoned. If that appeals to you, and you don’t have any emotional turmoil of your own going on, go for it.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Wuthering Heights:

  • “This book wasn’t particularly good and it wasn’t particularly bad. I don’t really like this style but I’m reading the classics so that I can say that I did.” – the1cuttiepoo
  • “Classic Victorian plot of everyone being too proud to be happy.” – Jamie K Devine
  • “A serious and depressing masterpiece where Heathcliff is an evil jerk and everyone dies….” – David Allen Patterson

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David Copperfield – Charles Dickens

Who would have thought this day would come so soon? Here it is, folks: my first wholehearted unreservedly Recommended novel from The List. It’s David Copperfield, from the master himself Charles Dickens.

David Copperfield - Charles Dickens - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Honestly, though, it was kind of a stacked deck: not just because Dickens is the Grand Poobah of English literature, but also because – for me – he’s inextricably linked to the memory of my late grandfather, who idolised Dickens and practically memorised every word he wrote. Clearly, I was genetically predisposed. This gorgeous two-volume set was plucked from his collection, and I’m sure he would have been damn proud that I finally got around to reading it.

David Copperfield appeared first in a twenty-month serial from 1849 to 1850, before being published as a novel (and, after the mess that was Vanity Fair, that alone was almost enough to put me off). The Introduction didn’t inspire much optimism, either: it was written by J.B. Priestly (who didn’t seem to be all that big a fan, to be honest), and he kindly pointed out that Dickens employed severe Victorian censorship on all sexual matters (booo!).

Priestly can suck it, though, because Dickens is a fucking God. I get it now. David Copperfield is a long book, don’t get me wrong, but I fucking devoured the thing like a drunk woman eating a kebab. Every word is purposeful, every character is a delectable caricature, every element of the story is consistent and compelling, and every emotion beautifully captured and rendered. Priestly hung a lot of shit on Dickens for what he called “supermarket” writing: novels were the primary source of family entertainment at the time (the Netflix of Victorian England, really), so Dickens had to write about politics for the fathers and adventures for the sons and romance for the mothers and daughters. It’s precisely this chuck-a-bit-of-everything style that makes this such an incredible book.




The story of David Copperfield begins with his birth, to a rather mopey young widow, and his early years being raised by her and her housekeeper. His mother remarries early on, but his New Daddy is an abusive son of a bitch; Dave is promptly sent off to a prison disguised as a boarding school. The kid meets some good chaps there, but it all-around sucks, and even his exodus is a bit of a bummer as it comes on account of his mother’s untimely stress-related death. New Daddy fires the nice housekeeper and sends Dave off to work in a wine factory (I didn’t think that bit sounded so bad, but the kid really hated it). Things get increasingly shit for young Dave, with starvation and his landlord going to prison and everything, so he takes it into his head to run away to find his rich old aunt.

Then things start looking up: he finds Aunt Betsey, she takes him in and sets him up for life. She is undoubtedly the baddest bitch in this story, and I adored her. She has no hesitation in telling people to fuck right off when they stick their noses in, and she protects and cherishes this charming old guy Mr Dick (the bloke’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic, but Betsey makes damn sure no one is shipping him off to a home). Betsey sets Dave up in a school without daily beating or torture (fancy!), and sponsors his gap-year to travel and “find himself”.

Dave finally settles down into a respectable profession, and promptly falls in love with his boss’ daughter. She’s a basic bitch in the extreme, but Dave doesn’t seem to notice, and he finally gets to marry her after her father croaks – only, she’s not that great at wifeing, and she dies pretty soon herself. Dave’s mates get into all sorts of trouble with money and politics and love, and there’s some unpleasant business with women falling from grace and turning to lives of prostitution and such – all of the characters weave in and out of Dave’s life, and yet are described so richly and have such entertaining development that you never once lose track of who they are or what they’re about.

In the end, a bunch of his mates ship off to Australia to start over, another bunch of them die (that’s how you can tell the story’s wrapping up – a device I’m noticing is rather common in 19th century literature), and Dave marries the girl who’s secretly pined after him all his life. He becomes a successful writer and spawns a bunch of kids, the good guys live happily ever after, and the bad guys go to prison. It’s fucking great!

My favourite thing about Dickens, though, is that I never once felt like I was missing the point – which is the feeling I get with basically every classic book or poem I read. Dickens was never condescending, and yet his writing never went over my head (despite the 150-year time lapse). I didn’t even roll my eyes that much at the privileged white guy writing about privileged white guys: there was a whole lot less sexism than I expected, and most of the female characters were strong and sassy and ran circles around a lot of the ones written today (hats off to Aunt Betsey!). Of course, there’s a whole stack of issues with lack of representation in this kind of literature, and I’m not blind to that… but it didn’t stop me really fucking loving this book.

Dickens said that David Copperfield was his “favourite child” and I can see why. This has been the best outcome of The List so far, and even if I were to stop right here (which I won’t), I’d be coming out ahead. I strongly recommend David Copperfield to anyone who likes… books. (And, even if you don’t, I hear the audio-book version is excellent, so give that a crack.)

My favourite Amazon reviews of David Copperfield:

  • “Smartly written trash, no doubt – but trash nonetheless. About 1 million words of it!” – Alex Kane
  • “Charles Dickinson is a timeless writer” – thimble19
  • “Charles Dickens won’t read this so it doesn’t matter what I say…” – Katie Barnes

 

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Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray

My third undertaking for Keeping Up With The Penguins undoubtedly took the longest. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray was one hell of a trudge.

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Vanity Fair is “a novel without a hero”, set during the Napoleonic wars. It was originally published as a 19-volume serial, from 1847 to 1848 – and boy, does it show. The title is a reference to John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”: a never-ending fair in a town called Vanity, representing man’s sinful attachment to worldly things (see: old-timey Instagram). The blurb on the back promised a “scandalous tale of murder, wealth and social climbing”, which was a relief after the giant whingeing bummer that was The Scarlet Letter… at first.

See, here’s the thing: the first couple hundred pages were amazing. I was laughing out loud, interrupting my husband cooking dinner to read him passages, delighting in the strong, sassy women holding their own among the vain, sooky fuck-boys of the 19th century. Things started to get a bit bleak once the Battle of Waterloo kicked off (I mean, I get bored during fight scenes in movies, let alone reading about military events) – but at least, 400 pages in, things were still happening (George Osbourne is dead! Fuck!).

By the 600th page, things had become frightfully dull. There were endless character sketches of folks beyond even the periphery of the plot. Thackeray treated us to lengthy (and I mean lengthy) descriptions of people’s living quarters. It’s abundantly clear, by that point, that Vanity Fair wasn’t written as a novel, and Thackeray just wanted to keep getting paid for his serial, even after all the action had passed. Indeed, I found out later that he had only written the first three volumes in advance – the rest he came up with on the fly. It’s like reading an essay where the student has made their point and just needs to pad out the word count.

When you just need to hit that word count - Very Young Small Early Peas - Vanity Fair - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Let me save you a bit of time. Vanity Fair opens in some kind of finishing school for girls, and – having lived in an all-girl dormitory at boarding school myself – I can attest that not much is different from present day. The story centers on two female characters: Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley. Becky was my favourite from the outset: she had “no soft maternal heart”, all of the bitches were mad jealous of her, and she basically ran around the whole book just sorting her husband’s shit out, teasing the fellas and ignoring her kid. She flirts her way into high society, and cons sugar-daddies into paying her debts without even taking her clothes off. This is the kind of anti-hero I can get behind!

Amelia, on the other hand, is the polar opposite: a whiney goody-two-shoes who really could have done with a copy of He’s Just Not That Into You. She gets hung up on a dude who condescends to marry her even though her Dad’s poor (what a guy!). Then he trots off and gets himself killed in battle, so it’s back to square one. Amelia mopes around after him for years, keeping his best mate Captain Dobbin shackled to the wall of the “Friend Zone”. Eventually, Dobbin sacks up and tells her off for pining over the ghost of a guy (who had shagged her best friend anyway). She capitulates and marries Dobbin in the end, and they go on to live a life of boredom.

The end of Becky’s narrative arc was far more fun. Her husband abandons her; he tried to have her and her chief sugar daddy merked, but the sugar daddy came through with a plum job for him on a far-away island, so hubby figures that’s just as good and gets the fuck outta Dodge before Becky can fuck anything else up. Becky falls into a life of prostitution and gambling, eventually snagging Amelia’s brother for Husband No. 2, only to top him and run away with the life insurance money. She lives far more happily after than the rest of them.




So, with all that, the story does perk up a bit towards the end, but it was well past the point where I was desperate for some murder or adultery to stay awake. At least crappy TV shows have the decency to cram in weddings ruined by car crashes and unplanned teen pregnancies to keep us entertained once they’ve jumped the shark. By the time Vanity Fair got interesting again, my brain had leaked out of my ears reading all those passages about home furnishings, and I no longer cared what happened. If you can bear with Thackeray through the endless dull passages about people you’ve never heard of and houses you’ve never seen, he does have some delightful asides and insights that are still startlingly relevant over 150 years later (e.g., “What’s the good of being in parliament, he said, if you must pay your debts?”). Modernise the language, and Vanity Fair would read like a 21st century blog (albeit one where the author is getting paid by the word).

The big “plot twist” is more of a cute little narrative device: it’s only on page 796 that Thackeray reveals the whole story has actually been written in the first person. The narrator is an actual character, recounting the entire tale as second- and third-hand gossip. The whole time, I’d thought it was just a charming, conversational, Woody Allen-esque omniscient figure, recounting a story designed to make girls scared of getting hung-up on fuck-boys and living lives of excess.

Ultimately, I’m not going to read Vanity Fair again, and I’d recommend that you don’t, either. Just Google a list of Thackeray’s best quotes, and watch a film version (where they’re forced, in the interests of time, to cut out the boring bits).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Vanity Fair:

  • “Great book. Becky is unique I hope.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Ugh, give yourself some time and alcohol; it’s a long one.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I wasn’t smart enough to stay with it – and I read a lot. Good luck.” – julie castleberry

 

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

I got my toe wet with The Hunger Games, and now I’m diving into the pool with a proper classic. The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 – an instant best-seller, though in its first fourteen years, Nathaniel Hawthorne made only $1,500 from its release. It was one of the first mass-produced books in America.

Reading the introductions to the classics is very important: the good ones really do provide some excellent context (and make you feel less stupid, because you know what you’re in for ahead of time). In this case, it turns out Hawthorne’s maternal ancestors were tried in New England on the charge of incest; among other things, they were sentenced to appear at the village church on the following lecture day with signs bearing the word “INCEST” pinned to their caps. So, it’s hard to imagine where he drew his inspiration…

The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” proclaimed the first page. This sounded promising (I’m a sucker for books with dirty bits). Alas, save for a couple of references to clandestine trysts and being held against a bosom, I was left wanting.

So, we kick off with a 60-page character sketch of all the fellows that ran the Customs House. The narrator bitches them out pretty hard (calling the other blokes “wearisome old souls, who had gathered nothing worth preservation from their varied experience of life” – burn!), and I heard it caused issues for Hawthorne upon publication – but he said fuck-the-haters and published as-is anyway, good on him. Anyway, it takes a while to link this chapter to the story itself: 60 pages (of pissing and moaning) in, the narrator finally finds a piece of red cloth with an A stitched into it, and we’re off to the races!




By “off to the races”, I do – of course – mean “let’s see how many ways Hawthorne can show and tell us that he hates the Puritans”. I was expecting this novel to be some kind of statement on the oppression of female sexuality, or at the very least a “romance” as the cover page styled it. In reality, it’s a 300-page rant about how much the Puritans suck. I’m really not sure what Hawthorne was thinking about his target market. I mean, anyone who reads this and feels vindicated already agrees that the Puritans need to get in the bin. And it’s not like Lyle Shelton’s going to pick this up and think “By golly, good point!”.

(And holy crap, Batman – long sentences abound! I’m a fan of the generous use of the comma and semi-colon, but old mate Hawthorne needs to learn to finish a thought. 14 lines without a full stop? I barely manage that after six coffees.)

The protagonist, Hester Prynne, is a bad bitch who had the audacity to get herself knocked up while her husband was lost at sea, and she does not give a fuck that this is all the tea for the girls in town for years. She refuses to give up the name of the baby-daddy, even with a bunch of idle ladies-who-lunch standing around talking about how their husbands should have executed her. She was pretty much the first ride-or-die chick. And she is ready to dismantle the patriarchy and smack the Stockholm syndrome right out of all the women who are slave to it:

“As a first step, the whole system of society is to be torn down, and built up anew… woman cannot take advantage of these preliminary reforms, until she herself have undergone a still mightier change.”

– Hester Prynne (Bad Bitch)

We find out pretty quickly that the town’s minister is the one who got her into this mess, and I don’t mind saying it’s not exactly a shocking Vader-esque paternity reveal. Even if I hadn’t encountered the spoilers in the introduction: (a) he’s the only male character to be examined thoroughly since we left those old-timers back at the Customs House, and (b) it just fits so neatly into Hawthorne’s vendetta against the Puritanical church. Of course there’s a sordid underbelly! Hell, the foundation of the Church was a woman’s fib about the paternity of a kid born in a barn. In its original context, yes, The Scarlet Letter’s plot “twist” might have been shocking, and the symbolic fuck-you to conservative religion might have seemed a little more subtle, but in this millennium I’m not sure it would even warrant a spoiler warning.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing and chest-clutching from Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy, especially once Hester’s long-lost husband returns from sea and starts doctor-ing under an assumed name. Their dramatics seemed kind of quaint, Hubby really didn’t pose much of a threat: he just sort of hung around for seven years, and showed no balls at all. No stabbings. No ratting them out. And yet Hester’s wailing about how “herbs would turn to poison in his hands”. Smh…



Hester and Minister Baby-Daddy hatch a cunning secret plan to sail away together, but Long-Lost Hubby thwarts them by getting himself passage on the very same boat. Not to be outdone in dramatics, Minister Baby-Daddy gives the town one final (excellent) sermon, concluding with a confession of his great sin to the entire town, and then he dies (very dramatically) in Hester’s arms. Well, fuck, says Long-Lost Hubby: according to the conclusion, he brooded over being upstaged for about a year or so, before topping himself and leaving a considerable fortune to that little shit Pearl.

(Oh, yeah, the kid! “Pearl”. A nosy pain in the arse from the beginning. She wouldn’t stop asking questions and running amok, the absolute worst. Do not want.)

The themes of The Scarlet Letter are pretty common and timeless; it’s not hard to see why it’s been adapted for the stage and screen a few million times. It’s a good one to talk about at parties, but the way in which it’s written isn’t all that engaging (God, Hawthorne needed an editor to add a few full stops). I probably won’t read it again, but you should give it a go if you’re into an old-timey Gilmore Girls.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Scarlet Letter:

  • “Did this for school. It was awful. Luckily, I got it for free since it’s so old. But now that means I can’t burn it. That being said, I did like it as a digital download, and that really helped with reading since looking up words is so easy.” – Kyle
  • “I find Hawthorne descriptive to the point of tedious. I believe writers got paid by the word in his day, and it certainly seemed so in the beginning of the book…” – Cynthia D. Feeney
  • “Shipped on time and reads like a book” – Claude Womack

 

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