The Scarlet Letter is not one of them. Yet even though it is not beautifully written, it is a compelling and powerful novel.
Most people are familiar with the story. Hester Prynne is punished for adultery by being forced to wear an embroidered letter "A" on her clothing, "to be a living sermon against sin." She refuses to divulge the name of her lover to the governing body of the Puritan community and alone suffers public humiliation and ostracization for her iniquity. The unrevealed lover suffers his own private agony because of unconfessed sin.
Even though I read it in college, I could not remember why it was considered the great American novel. So I was glad to find a study guide from my library to remind me. The guide helped a little, but emphasized the book's ambiguity more than anything.
What struck me most was that Hester calmly and coldly accepted her punishment, but never really seemed to repent. In fact, the book emphasizes that the more she withdrew from society, the more she "wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness." The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers - stern and wild ones - and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss. (111) This leaves the reader to wonder if it was Hester's fault or the community's. If they had embraced her instead of shunned her, could she have been redeemed?
Here comes the ambiguity. In all her shame and loneliness, Hester visits the sick and the poor. The scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on the nun's bosom. It imparted to the wearer a kind of sacredness... (p. 91) She is even compared to the Madonna and child as she stands with her baby outside the prison.
How I wished I could go back in time and listen to my professor at Asbury explain this book to me. Freedom vs. authority, the wages of sin, and the role of community in regulating morality are just a few of the themes which Hawthorne offers as fascinating fodder for thought.