Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: The Scarlet Letter
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne has a lot going for it as a classic novel. It’s relatively short, and most modern readers would rather read a short classic novel than a long one. The Scarlet Letter deals with an interesting subject matter, and the symbolism involved is stuff that a literal guy like me can understand. But like a lot of classic literature, the sentences can be tough to get through.
Different people have different standards for bad sentences. If a sentence would have gotten me red-marked for writing it back when I was a kid or lectured at by my writers groups as an adult, then I consider it a bad sentence. The sentences in The Scarlet Letter aren’t as long and ponderous as those in some classic literature, but there are plenty of other issues. For example, in Chapter I, “The Prison Door,” Hawthorne starts the book with the following opener:
“A throng of bearded men, in sad colored garments, and gray, steeple-crowned hats, intermixed with women, some wearing hoods and others bareheaded, was assembled in front of a wooden edifice, the door of which was heavily timbered with oak, and studded with iron spikes.”
That’s the first sentence? That’s the hook? First of all, I lost track of what the sentence was even talking about. If you cut out all of the prepositional phrases and other interrupters, you have “A throng was assembled.” There are over 20 words between the subject and the verb. If I had ever written a sentence with 20 words between the subject and the verb, my English teacher would have red-lined it and pinned my essay on the Wall of Shame bulletin board.
And if I had used the phrase “sad colored garments,” my writers group peers would have criticized me for telling, not showing. “What colors are sad in the 1600s New England culture?” they would have demanded. And then the phrase “… the door of which…” is clumsy. Just say “… with a heavily-timbered oak door studded with spikes.”
At least that’s what my writers group peers would have suggested. I’d never dare to edit Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Long sentences aren’t always the cause of bad sentences. Sometimes Hawthorne can’t make up his mind what to say. For example, in the first paragraph of Chapter X:” The Leech and his Patient” Hawthorne writes:
“He now dug into the poor clergyman’s heart, like a miner searching for gold; or, rather, like a sexton delving into a grave, possibly in quest of a jewel that had been buried on the dead man’s bosom, but likely to find nothing save mortality and corruption.”
Every once in a while an author might put two similes in the same sentence. I respect that. But I’m not wild about authors changing their minds about a simile in mid-sentence. First, Old Roger Chillingworth was like a miner searching for gold, and then…No, he, old Roger Chillingworth, was NOT like a miner searching for gold after all. He was more like a sexton delving into a grave. Possibly this sexton was looking for a jewel buried on the dead man’s bosom. Or possibly not. Maybe the sexton was looking for something else on the dead man. We just don’t know.
Maybe this sentence wasn’t so bad. Maybe mid-sentence simile replacement is a widely respected literary device and I just don’t know about it. I know I have astonishing gaps in my knowledge. Maybe this is one of those gaps.
Hawthorne uses mid-sentence simile replacement several times in The Scarlet Letter. For example, at the beginning of Chapter XXI “The New England Holiday,” Hawthorne writes:
“It (Hester’s face) was like a mask; or, rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features; owing this dreary resemblance to the fact that Hester was actually dead, in respect to any claim of sympathy, and had departed out of the world with which she still seemed to mingle.”
Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Hawthorne should have combined the two similes, maybe comparing her face to a mask of a dead woman. Also, use of the word “actually” is a misuse of the word, because in no way was she “actually” dead. She might have been near-death in social status. She might have been on the bottom rung of the social ladder, but she was not “actually” dead. And I wouldn’t have cared how many words Hawthorne used to explain how Hester was metaphorically dead if he hadn’t used the word “actually.”
That’s not true. I still would have thought he used too many words to make his point.
Maybe it’s not fair to judge classic literature by today’s standards, but I’ve struggled through a lot of classic novels, and I’m supposed to be one of the good readers. If I have to concentrate really hard to read something like The Scarlet Letter, then I feel for a struggling reader who is forced to get through a book like this for school. At least now we know specifically what makes a book like this tough to read for some people: 20 words between the subject and the verb, and mid-sentence simile replacements, and too many words to make a simple point.
And I don’t think these aren’t fake reasons for struggling. In my opinion, these are “actually” good reasons to think The Scarlet Letter has some bad sentences.
What do you think? Are these sentences bad sentences? Or are these sentences actually good sentences but I’m too stupid to recognize them as good sentences? Is mid-sentence simile replacement a great writing technique that I simply don’t know about? What literary devices in classic novels do you usually notice? Is it fair to judge classic literature by today’s writing standards?
I probably have some bad sentences in my own book, but at least my sentences are short and I don’t use simile replacement!