The Scarlet Letter- Examining Pop Culture’s Love of a Classic

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter  is an undisputed classic. For generations, the text has been nothing short of required reading.

This leads me to ask myself the question, “What is pop culture’s obsession with The Scarlet Letter?” A reader may not realize they are pleasantly bombarded by today’s modern entertainment industry with references to this classic text. Some of these references are subtly slipped into dialogues of television shows and lyrics of hit songs. Others are more blatant as these references are plots for entire films.

By exploring these references, I believe I found an answer as to why pop culture’s obsession with The Scarlet Letter continues.

Starting with a nuanced reference, a few weeks ago if you were one of the more than a million people to buy Taylor Swift’s new album 1989, you might have noticed the song “New Romantics” (Hawthorne himself was consider part of the Romantic Movement of literature) contains the lyric, “We show off our different scarlet letters. Trust me mine is better.”

This particular lyric happens to be one of the most recent mentions of The Scarlet Letter in music. Although, I am positive many other songs from various artists have lyrics referencing Hawthorne’s novel, this reference stands out as a positive representation of individuals competing to have the best scarlet letter.

Another recent understated allusion to The Scarlet Letter comes from the dialogue of the popular television show Castle. A section of dialogue from the episode entitled “Little Girl Lost,” which if you have read The Scarlet Letter, can be viewed as an ode to Pearl herself.

The dialogue reads as follows: ALEXIS: My AP test is tomorrow. I was having nightmares about Hester Prynne. CASTLE: Ahh, the irony for you is not getting an “A” would cause you shame.

After this reference, the episode continues as if no mention of the novel has been made. In short, The Scarlet Letter  is not the focus of the television episode. The reference to Hester Prynne paired with the name of the episode, “Little Girl Lost,” is an elusive gift to bookworms as a veiled reference to Hawthorne’s text.

If a reader was looking forward to more obvious modes of referencing The Scarlet Letter, they should look no further than Emma Stone’s cult classic movie, Easy A.

The movie is loosely based and I use this term liberally, upon Hawthorne’s text. Throughout the entire movie, Emma Stone’s character, high school student Olive Penderghast, feels ostracized by her high school community. In an attempt to fit in, Olive draws inspiration from Hawthorne’s novel and stitches a Scarlet “A” on her clothes. For Olive, trying to fit in backfires.

Olive is a visual representation of what The Scarlet Letter stands for: risking what others think of us in an attempt to find ourselves and stand up for what we believe.

In addition to the above references, there is also the completely inaccurate movie The Scarlet Letter. The movie teams with historical inaccuracies, ignorance of the novel’s original plot structure and Demi Moore bathing more than the average Puritan without modern plumbing.

All jokes aside, the movie, although dreadfully adapted, was filmed in 1995 helping propel pop culture’s love of The Scarlet Letter.

Using these subtle and more obvious odes to The Scarlet Letter, “Why is pop culture obsessed with this text?”

The answer seems to be The Scarlet Letter is rooted in our colonial past. Hawthorne himself was both horrified and fascinated by the fact that he is a descendant of a Salem Witch Trial judge.

As a society, we, like Hawthorne, are also caught in the delicate cycle of embracing our past no matter how conflicted it may be, while forging our own future.

The text is centered on the fragile line we all walk. We all strive to stand out, to be unique and to stand-up for what we believe in but how far dare we go? How many lines can we cross without being viewed as an outcast such as Hester Prynne and branding ourselves with our own scarlet letter?

The Scarlet Letter  is everything we hope for and everything we fear, all wrapped into one classic piece of literature.