HOME SCHOOL BOOK REVIEW
Book: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: Christian Guides to the Classics
Author: Leland Ryken
Cover Illustrator: Howell Golson
Publisher: Crossway, 2013
Related website: http://www.crossway.org/ (publisher)
Language level: 1
(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)
Reading level: Teens and adults (say sixteen and up)
Rating: ***** 5 stars (EXCELLENT)
Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker
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Ryken, Leland. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: Christian Guides to the Classics (published in 2013 by Crossway, 1300 Crescent St., Wheaton, IL 60187, a division of Good News Publishers). Nearly every college-bound reading list for high school students contains The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Interestingly enough, I was never required to read it in either high school or college. I did read Hawthorne’s other great novel, The House of Seven Gables, for American Literature in my junior year of high school, but I decided to read The Scarlet Letter as an adult. Personally, I didn’t think all that much of it. In my review of it, I quoted a couple of friends. Dave Pratte wrote, “Classic story of a woman guilty of adultery and the torment she and others suffer as a result. Teaches the consequences of sin and the need for confession and forgiveness. Contains denominational error and uses difficult language and symbolism. Not for young children.” And Dale Smelser wrote, “Given the penchant of teachers for assigning The Scarlet Letter, we know that there is Trouble in River City. While [it] in the right circumstances may teach tempered judgment, in the milieu of today’s classroom it may simply make adultery seem less than bad.”
Therefore, parents who are trying to bring their children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord could use a guide to the book that discusses it from a Biblical worldview, if a young person is required to read the book, and that is exactly what Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter by Leland Ryken, who has a PhD, from the University of Oregon and served as professor of English at Wheaton College for over 43 years, intends to be. After some introductory matter about the nature and function of literature, why the classics matter, how to read a story, the book at a glance, and the author and his faith, every chapter in The Scarlet Letter has a corresponding chapter in the guide with a plot summary, commentary, and “For Reflection or Discussion” sections, along with other side notes. Ryken argues that the foundation of the book is the conflict between the Romantic worldview symbolized by adulteress Hester Prynne and the Christian worldview represented by her partner, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale. He says that the theme is not Hester’s adultery but “the progress of Dimmesdale toward salvation.”
Ryken concludes, “Upon reflection here at the end of the story, we cannot help but feel deeply that all the sadness portrayed in the book was the result of an adulterous encounter and/or relationship. As we reach the close of the story, we cannot help but feel great regret that Hester and Dimmesdale committed adultery.” Therefore, if teenagers, or even adults, are going to read The Scarlet Letter, this guide by Leland Ryken from Crossway should prove very helpful. Other books in the series include Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer’s The Odyssey, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and Dickens’s Great Expectations. I have one more comment. Ryken says, “The Scarlet Letter is probably the signature book of American literature.” I am sure that this is true, but while not wishing to negate anything Ryken says in the guide, I still believe that Christians should not necessarily feel any compulsion to read a book just because the people of this world consider it a “classic.”