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Bad Sentences in Classic Literature: The Scarlet Letter

March 1, 2015

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?

  1. Lorraine permalink

    I think all that descriptive and sometimes wishy washy writing holds a lot of heartwarming charm!

    • I kind of agree with you as long as I can read each sentence leisurely, one at a time. But if I have to read the whole book within a few days, then these sentences can give me a headache.

  2. Haha impressive dissection into all the great ‘exceptions’ of our English literature. I think I was arrogant enough to first try to impersonate old English in my grade 6 essay and even more indignant to stand my ground and show my teacher the opening line which started with the ever forsaken ‘And..”, plus all the following run-on sentences thereafter. She told me, “Well..” and I have to say I don’t remember a thing she said.

    Lesson learned – they all got published and infamously famous as our English ancestors this way.

    I do have a fondness for the literature in Great Gatsby though. What would your writers group peers think of that?

    • I’m fond of run-on sentences and the ones starting with ‘and.’ The trick is to get away with with it.

    • My first “Bad Sentences in Classic Literature” was devoted to The Great Gatsby, but it’s buried somewhere in this blog.

      That’s one thing about blogs; if we don’t keep up with the categories, stuff gets buried after a while.

  3. I must agree on the indecisiveness of the similes. It’s like “here are two ideas, but instead of picking one, I’ll just put them both side by side” consequently making the sentence unnecessarily long and giving the reader a hard time. Classic Literature can be so dense, and an opening like that makes it hard to get into the story since you end up getting lost halfway through the first sentence. Completely agreed.

  4. Jin Okubo permalink

    Very good read. I myself never liked the whole concept of show me vs tell me. The story tells itself or shows as it goes in my opinion and for readers and reading groups and writers to say you’re telling you’re telling and getting upset about it trying to change your writing into the conformity I think its just wrong.

  5. Reblogged this on Charlotte Bronte Meets Modern World and commented:
    Great post for Hester Prynne fans!

  6. You might already know about this Monty Python skit – the Wide World of Novel Writing – but if you haven’t, you would probably like it:

    • Ha ha! That was pretty entertaining. Thanks for the laugh. Is there any footage or commentary of Dick Hercules writing poetry? I’d kind of like to see/hear that too.

  7. Great post–and so snarky :D. I think these “errors” are actually what make each writer unique. BUT I feel like you should know the rules before breaking them. I see value in not making perfect sentences all the time. It’s like you can just tell “that’s so Hawthorne” 😉

    • That would be a great new saying: “That’s so Hawthorne!” Maybe we can intentionally write mid-sentence simile replacements just so some other writer can say it.

    • Your point about knowing the rules before breaking them is spot on. However, we also have to realize that the rules were quite different in certain time periods. I’m pretty sure in my studies on classical rhetoric there was a name for using a chain of similes, which was a form of amplification and was actually considered a good way to get your point across. I’m not sure what kind of education Hawthorne had exactly, but I’m willing to bet he still knew a bit of Aristotle and Cicero and their cohorts.

  8. Love the way you hammer at Hawthorne’s sentences like a carpenter dismembering a coffin, or rather slice them as a surgeon standing over a patient’s chest during major heart surgery, or perhaps a gardener, pruning the withered blooms from his prize camellias…

    Seriously, love your incisive comments. It’s inspiring to crit classic literature. It shows the rest of us that something doesn’t have to be perfect to be great.

    • “Love the way you hammer at Hawthorne’s sentences like a carpenter dismembering a coffin, or rather slice them as a surgeon standing over a patient’s chest during major heart surgery, or perhaps a gardener, pruning the withered blooms from his prize camellias…”

      Thank you! And I love your usage of the mid-sentence simile replacement. That was so Hawthorne!

      Somebody else on this thread came up with the phrase “That’s so Hawthorne!” I’m just borrowing it.

  9. sparkyplants permalink

    When I first begin reading Hawthorne, I find I have to go over the sentences several times, because I guess my modern span of attention can’t retain the information through the sentence. It seems though, once you get into the rhythm of his writing it becomes easier. As far as the switch in the similes mid-sentence, I think it gives the writing more of an informal, story-telling vibe to it (like he was sitting in front of you telling the story).

  10. I read Hawthorn too long ago to remember the details but I was seriously impressed by the subject matter. You are very right in what you say about his style. I myself hate mixed metaphors, but we must make allowances for the times he wrote the novel in. I have not read any other contemporary novelists. Maybe it was the custom of the times. He is probably remembered for the way he handled such an important contemporary subject. Some writers could coast through purely on their style of writing. Jane Austen could, if need be, coast through purely on the strength of her beautifully constructed sentences. I know, you are looking at the novel from the point of view of a critic. I rather take a more gut reaction to my reading. If I like it whether for subject or style or purity of sentences, I am hooked. I am a fan of Raymond Chandler for the way he lets short his sentences set the scene. The general public in his times and throughout the ages probably overlooked or forgave his bad sentences. You have made me think. Thank you for your wonderful blog.

  11. Alastair Savage permalink

    Modern literature seems to be obsessed with the Hemingway approach of short, simple sentences that say directly what they mean. People are so hung up on this that they think that that is the only correct way of writing anything. Personally, I prefer the rich melodies of nineteenth century prose and I admire the writing of Hawthorne and his friend Herman Melville more than most modern authors.
    Take the first sentence that you give as an example of ‘bad’ writing: “A throng of bearded men…” at no point does the reader get lost in that description. In fact, it’s a crafty construction that works rather like a long tracking shot in a movie, with the camera moving all over the scene until it reaches its final focus point.
    One of the great things about reading older fiction is that it shows that the accepted norms of today are not written in stone and that there are other ways of doing things.

  12. cmbeagley permalink

    It seems unfair to judge old works of literature by our own standards – it all comes down to fashions, doesn’t it? No doubt in years to come future readers will find our current writers archaic in some way. Perhaps it’s true that we don’t have the same attention span as readers used to have.

    Having said all that I found the Scarlet Letter really dull and struggled to finish it. I’m not sure why I did finish it because I really found it torture to get through. In other words I agree entirely with every criticism you made of it.

  13. Reblogged this on The Mummy Files and commented:
    What a great read on a Sunday afternoon. Relax and read a good book. This provides a new perspective on classic literature. Read a short classic today!

  14. Nice job sticking it to the (old) man!

  15. Rajat permalink

    In my opinion, no sentence is bad or good, it’s just not well formed.
    A sentence is all about communicating your thoughts, and if a sentence fails to do so, then it is just not structured or designed properly.
    So, an author can always edit or try to structure the sentence, until, he is sure that the picture in his mind and the reader’s are same..

  16. ramonawray permalink

    I think it’s sacrilegious to call them “bad” 😉 But I had a professor once who used to say that reading the classics should force you to focus twice as hard and make you sweat, because that’s your toll – the fee you’re paying for the privilege. I always kind of accepted that…

  17. Read this in high school. Some parts were a hard read. Sentence structure? Maybe. But was it so for the era in which written? (See what I did there?)

  18. Maybe Mr. Hawthorne acquired some artistic license along the way to qualify him to break some rules and get away with it. In any case he must be doing/done something right for him to become what he is.

  19. Kate Conroy permalink

    I agree with you — they’re terrible sentences. Even though I’m an English major, I really hate most of the “classics”. Maybe they were good sentences back then, but they’re not good sentences now, and the present time is what’s really relevant. Those sentences are not good examples of how to write for today and for the future, and I don’t see any reason to care about how to write in the past, because none of us will ever be there.

  20. jtggodqos permalink

    I think it’s “good writing”, but not necessarily easy reading. it teaches you how to properly parse sentences and understand complex language. I, personally, am a fan. but I also am a fan of Tolkien. he too used very heavy sentence structure and descriptions which ultimately would often take a reader away from the story.

    so really, you have to consider what you’re looking for. with Tolkien, for example, many are looking to his writings for a great story. that’s why one reason the movies are so great. but he was heavy-handed with words, so reading was difficult. yet for people like me who appreciate the verbose, hiw writing style is great.

    meanwhile, if it’s something you want high schoolers to read, maybe not so much.

  21. I don’t know any adult who would choose to read this now. Why bother when you can simply allude to it when speaking of harlots who actually needs scarlet As branded upon them? Your examples were like biting into gristle and vomiting a bit in my mouth; or rather like a sexton moshing into a rave–awful writing indeed. In a world of Sister Wives and Teen Moms, do teens even know what adultery is? It has no value in a culture that has lost all sense of morality. Let’s burn this book in a bonfire of the vanities.

  22. This made me laugh. There is a beauty in breaking the rules, with different authors doing so in different ways, but no writer is perfect and sometimes the whole charade goes too far.

  23. Very good points. I also wondered about the confusing similes and long sentences.

  24. This is great, very Bulwer-Lytton-esque.

  25. Reblogged this on imaz78.

  26. Reblogged this on Word Shamble and commented:
    Have you noticed poor writing in a literary classic? Do you yearn to point out the flaws to your writing peers, but fear the scorn you’ll receive for daring to criticise one of the greats? Here’s the cure for your distress- a great article from Dysfunctional Literature.

  27. Reblogged on Word Shamble with the comment,
    ‘Have you noticed poor writing in a literary classic? Do you yearn to point out the flaws to your writing peers, but fear the scorn you’ll receive for daring to criticise one of the greats? Here’s the cure for your distress- a great article from Dysfunctional Literature.

  28. Lisa permalink

    I’m not sure it’s fair judging 19th C literature by 21st C standards. The style of writing in that period was different. Readers, for whatever reason, enjoyed this more – to us – bloated prose. It’s more romantic, I suppose, though I grant it can also be annoying sometimes. That I agree with! Having been a fan of Victorian literature most of my life (my B.A. is in English literature), that’s another period in which overblown prose was popular. They simply hadn’t “invented,” for want of a better word, a more minimalist style. We can be grateful the 21st C has graduated from the overly sentimental style!

  29. I hated reading it in high school, so I can’t defend it. Times change, but I suspect this book would win literary prizes but not best seller lists.

  30. Cheeky idea: (I heard of the book but didn’t read it. So I’m probably wrong.) Maybe this book was never in curriculum as an example for good writing style but because of a weird idea of telling students about social pressures and changing morals. I suspect that’s why (in Germany) we had to struggle through ‘Intrigue and Love’ by Schiller. Which is far off from today’s realities to be a real borer. But it’s from Schiller! So it must be worth something. Ah… Teachers look for a classic authorities to tell students about mating but wouldn’t go for the blunt stuff. Argument by authority, I guess.

  31. sirenaross permalink

    For me, ‘sad colored clothing’ is all I need for a visual. It’s more poetic than descriptive but conveys the idea well.

  32. hayleafs permalink

    and …. follow.

  33. Goodness gracious! I didn’t know that The Scarlet Letter was a “great” novel. I know this is probably tacky (“tacky” can be a volatile word from whence I hail) but how many novels were written in English in Hawthorne’s day? I thought the book was just put on everyone’s list because…well just because. Am I missing something? At the risk of repeating an earlier post, I should stop here.
    I really enjoy your blog…even when you are tacky.

  34. neonr4in permalink

    Reblogged this on

  35. Although I do thinly disagree, as one would disagree to a bad roll of the dice in a friendly game of monopoly, limited not only to the extent of your disfavor toward run-on sentences, but also with regard to the multiple similes described in the article, much like one would use to describe an inept attempt at humor by writing a ridiculously long sentence without revealing the embarrassing length of time one spent on the aforementioned implosion of failure and incredible waste of time for not only the writer, but reader as well.

  36. Reblogged this on Chaos In Light and commented:
    A classic, torn apart as it should have been when it was written. 🙂

  37. N@ncy permalink

    I’m not a writer and fall into the category ‘ too stupid to recognize a good sentence.’
    But I do grumble when I get entangled in a 20-30 + word sentence.
    What literary devices in classic novels do I usually notice?
    I read Scarlet Letter (July 2014) and Nostromo (Oct 2014) and notice symbolism and irony.
    I rarely see other bloggers enriching their review with examples of literary devices.
    Thank you for bring ‘ sentence construction’ to my attention.
    ps: I loved the ‘actually’ dead comment. Dead is dead.

  38. N@ncy permalink

    PPS: I ‘m still thinking about the most ridiculous description I read in
    The Goblin Emperor , pg 12:
    ‘eyes the color of rain’. What color is that?

  39. The problem isn’t really “classic literature”.

    It’s USUALLY American classical literature like Hawthorne and Poe.

    Terrible, terrible sense of sentence pacing and punctuation.

    I would, instead, recommend Jane Austen or, before her, Edward Gibbon, or Edmund Burke, for a sense of great pause and pulse for sentences.

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