Previous posts include: Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Moonstone, Dracula, East Lynne, Lady Audley's Secret, Wuthering Heights, and The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Today we will be reviewing covers of Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 book about Puritan America, The Scarlet Letter. For those of you who are only familiar with the 1995 film version, there are significantly fewer naked baths, witch covens, and ginger Gary Oldman full-frontals in the book than the film would lead you to believe.
My usual disclaimers:
1.) There will probably be swearing.
2.) I enjoyed the book, so my mocking tone has nothing to do with the quality of Hawthorne's writing.
3.) I have tried to pick only covers from official publishers, because it's hilarious to me that some of this cover art made it through actual board meetings and team reviews. I have tried very hard not to select any cover art that is fan-made. If a fan-made cover has managed to slip into my selection and I ridicule it, please don't take it personally: you are clearly talented enough to make this shit look professional, and probably shouldn't listen to any nonsense that my artistically-challenged ass has to say. It's not like I can draw anything any better.
With that out of the way, let's have a brief summary of the novel. CAUTION. SPOILERS BELOW.
It's 1642 in Boston. This chick named Hester Prynne is married, but her husband was lost at sea a long time ago, so people are understandably surprised when she has a baby. Hester's clearly been getting a little slap-and-tickle with someone on the side. PROBABLY SATAN.
The book opens with Hester and her super fine booty walking up a scaffold in the village square so people can jeer at her, and so everyone can demand to know who the father of her child is. She just chills, dignified as fuck, and is like, "I'm not saying a word. Snitches get stitches." And the town is enraged because she DARES to not be shamed by them. Puritans were real tight-asses like that.
Hester is also forced to embroider, in scarlet thread, a giant badge with the letter 'A' (for 'adultery') on it, and wear it at all times so people know she a 'ho. Like anyone could forget.
Then Hester sees her long-lost husband standing in the crowd. Uh oh. She's gonna have some 'splaining to do. Her husband is in disguise as a doctor named Roger Chillingworth. He forces Hester to keep his identity a secret and vows to find out who her baby-daddy is at all costs.
Years go by and Hester and her baby, Pearl, live a quiet life outside of town. As Pearl gets older, she turns into a total weirdo, by which I mean she's an unruly child with a slightly supernatural vibe. Is she demon-spawn? Maybe. The town elders debate taking Pearl away from Hester. Thankfully, the town reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale (who we KNOW must be the baby-daddy, because he's the only other major character in the book, and he's the only person who acts like a decent human being toward Hester) convinces people to calm their tits and just leave Hester and Pearl alone.
Dimmesdale's health starts to break down and he is attended to by Chillingworth, who grows suspicious that Dimmesdale's illness is psychosomatic. He can sniff out guilt like a fucking bloodhound. Of course, Dimmesdale isn't helping himself, since he's turned into an emo cutter and has branded his own chest with a letter A, which Chillingworth creepily pervs at one night when Dimmesdale is asleep.
Hester FINALLY tells Dimmsedale, "Oh, by the way, my long-dead husband is actually alive, and he is your doctor (I know, I can't believe I used to bang that creep), so don't act suspicious around him," and I'm like, "THREE DAMN YEARS TOO LATE FOR THAT WARNING, HESTER." She suggests they run away to Europe together where they can start life anew. Again, I say, "THREE DAMN YEARS TOO LATE." Dimmesdale agrees to run away.
The next Sunday, just before they plan to run off together, Dimmesdale confesses to his astonished congregation that he, in fact, lost his V-card to Hester and is the father of Pearl, and oh, by the way, is dying RIGHT NOW, for maximum sensation. Goddamn it, Dimmesdale. You couldn't hold your shit together for ONE MORE DAY so you guys could escape to France or something, where they're cool with that sort of thing?
Because of Dimmesdale's sacrifice, Chillingworth's heart grew three sizes that day. However, rapid heart growth is probably the sign of a serious medical condition, because Chillingworth dies soon after. He leaves all his money to Pearl. Hester continues to wear her scarlet A, and lives the same quiet life, and tends to the sick, and people forget that her A stands for 'adultery' and start thinking that it stands for 'angel'. She dies years later and is buried next to Dimmesdale.
The moral of the story is: being publicly shamed for having (what was almost assuredly) a mediocre one-night stand is great for your spiritual well-being, and also your kid will end up rich.
I'm inferring a lot here, but I think the sex was probably lame. In the 1995 film there is a lot of sensual face-making as they have sex on a sack of wheat or barley or something, but there is NO WAY book-Dimmesdale knew what he was doing. I think this is the most depressing part of the story for me. Poor Hester.
ON TO THE COVERS
I'd like to start out, as I do with so, so many of these posts, with covers that are LAZY.
I get that with a title like The Scarlet Letter you already have a big, dramatic visual cue that's going to clue your readers in to the narrative. It certainly makes an art department's job easy. But that doesn't mean that you can't be creative. The below covers are all perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with any given one of them. The problem is that after you've seen about 50 different ones that are all almost identical, you realize how many are just phoning it in.
The problem with these covers is that I have absolutely nothing to say about them. *yawn*
Then, of course, we get into Lazy Covers: The Embroidery Edition
Yep. Chicks sure did like to sew about their adultery.
Now, this is not to say that you are forever banned from using the 'A' imagery. But you have to use it in inventive ways. In fact, the very best cover I've seen uses this, and is NOT a professional cover:
I know I said I wasn't going to use any non-professional covers, but this one got it so right. Use the 'A' as a minimalist framing device for negative space? SO COOL. I found it on this site here, toward the bottom.
Another great cover using the 'A' effectively:
The 'A' is used so much, and covers the whole landscape, that its meaning is completely muddled--exactly how it is in the book. There is a great deal of discussion in the book about the meaning of Hester's letter and how it erodes over time, and how Dimmesdale sees it everywhere to the point where it colors everything in his vision and becomes oppressive, etc.
This one uses the same principle, but recalls the scene where Hester is on the scaffold in the middle of a crowd, and how everyone in the crowd is wearing an 'A' of their own, albeit a secret, personal one. No one is without sin, etc. etc.
Again, uses the same principle, where the 'A' is all we can see, but it starts to lose its meaning.
I like this one because the emphasis is on the fingers, not on the letter itself. Again, the letter and the circumstances around it are just a background for the real problem, which is judgement and shame.
Okay, so now we've looked at 2 sets of lazy covers and a set of admirable covers. Let's just get to the weird shit, because I know that's really the reason y'all are here.
I found a couple of perplexing covers, which I have entitled Hester's Looked Better. They are self explanatory.
is that supposed to be
no, surely not
maybe at the end of the book, though
Dimmesdale would never do you
Is this some sort of Dorian Gray crossover where the more Hester sins, the uglier her picture gets?
Then, of course, we have some interesting artists' renditions of Pearl, in the section I like to call Weirdo Baby.
We'll ignore the fact that Hester is dressed like one of the cast of Friends. Let's focus on the MAGNIFICENT side-eye Pearl is giving us, only overshadowed by a truly glorious head of hair that no toddler has ever grown in the history of toddlers. Also, is there any particular reason she's about to rip Hester's weave out?
I forgot the part where Pearl is a dandy highwayman.
Or a plucky young heroine from the 1920s. Loving the bob.
Speaking of the 1920s, let's move on to my favorite category, Wardrobe Malfunctions.
The Anne of Green Gables/Lord of the Rings crossover fic I never knew I never wanted.
Little Hester on the Prairie.
I never realized the difficulty people had in differentiating the 1640s from the late nineteenth century. Apparently it's a problem.
Okay, you're just fucking with me now.
I am taking it upon myself to fix this (in case the publishers already haven't): if you designed this cover, you are fired. You will be escorted from the building. You will not receive severance pay.
If you're unsure about the accuracy of your costumes, the solution is to get rid of costumes all together! Nudity never goes out of style!
I'm aware this book is about someone having illicit sex. but . . . thematic appropriateness, people.
"You think I'm a wanton woman? LOOK AT MA BOOBS. LOOK AT THEM! YOU CAN ONLY HOPE TO CONTAIN ME."
"Hester, we're looking at your inexplicable tattoo."
The hills are alive with the sound of social condemnation.
Now for the category called Sad Hester is Sad, which is an offshoot of my normal category Slap a Random Woman in Period Dress on the Cover and Call it a Day.
Your one-stop shopping for unrelenting misery, and some pretty dope capes.
Now some Random-Ass Shit:
Not many people know this, but The Scarlet Letter is actually the Blair Witch origin story.
SERIOUSLY. The Blair Witch origin story.
THE STREETS WILL RUN RED WITH PURITAN BLOOD.
Because nothing represents Puritan struggles like Victorian wallpaper.
I . . . I don't even know what this is supposed to be. Are those outlines of body parts? Is it some weird sensual Rorschach test?
Everything you need to know about the relationships in the book, summed up in one hideous image.
The Scarlet Letter: There's Probably a Door in it.
I would also like to point how how disconnected from the story this image is:
And now to end on a couple of good notes.
I can't tell if this first one is good or not, but I like it.
HOLY VAGINAL IMAGERY. That is one sexually awakened flower. There is even a Pearl coming out of it.
I love how isolated Hester is, and how the trees almost, but not quite, make an 'A'. An excellent example of 'less is more'.
And that's about all I can handle for today. If you know of any nineteenth-century novel that has some bat-shit insane covers, let me know and I'll see if I can wrangle a post out of it!