Hawthorne's novel is also an outstanding example of the writing of the Romantic period in American literature. Romanticism focuses on human emotion, the power of nature on the human spirit, and imagination, among other things. This novel delves into those topics. The writing is heavy on description, and Hawthorne's use of symbols creates an excellent example of allegory. It is a masterful and complex work, worthy of being read through the ages.
As post #2 has remarked, The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is canonical. Recognized as the greatest truly American novel in history, Hawthorne's use of symbolism is masterful. This use of symbol by Hawthorne has caused The Scarlet Letter to become a prototype for many, many American symbolists. In addition, Hawthorne's examination of the psychological effects of sin is equal to masters such as Dostovesky.
Yes, it is true that the Scarlet Letter reveals timeless truths about the trials and tribulations of the human heart. However, one may look at its status as a classic from a different angle. The novel as a genre rose to popularity with the advent of the Nation-State during the eighteenth century. Novels (literature in general, for that matter) are cultural artifacts that tell us much about the author's concerns at the time of its creation. One might ask then what was happening in America at the time of its creation and why Hawthorne chose the distant past as his subject rather than the present. Concern with the distant past is usually a characteristic we find in Romanticism, which in turn is a response to the scientific rationalization that was essential to the spread of monopoly Capitalism. The 1850s in America witnessed the debate over slavery ( Uncle Tom's cabin e.g. was published in 1852 and Frederick Douglass' "Narrative in 1845) and the resettlement of Native American's ( see Yellow Bird's "Joaquin Murieta of 1854 e.g).
It is not my aim to provide an answer but rather to offer an impulse for different conceptual framework for its interpretation. Writing is a form of participation in the civic discourse, and even though I agree with everything that was said previously, I want to add that writing does not originate in a vacuum, but more in response to something. It is thus Hawthorne's notion of America that also makes this work a classic.
Why is "The Scarlet Letter" considered a "classic"?
Why is "The Scarlet Letter" considered a "classic"?
One central theme in The Scarlet Letter concerns suffering, surely a timeless and universal human experience. Each of the major characters suffers tremendously—in different ways for different reasons.
Their tribulations are well known. Dimmesdale is consumed by guilt and shame; Hester is not broken by guilt or shame, but must endure loneliness throughout her life. Chillingworth is poisoned by his own obsession, and Pearl—the most innocent of all—lives a childhood characterized by an unrelenting internal storm of conflicting emotions.
All suffer indeed. In the conclusion of his novel, however, Hawthorne leaves us with an important truth to inform our own lives. Suffering can have value: It can make us strong; it can lead us to moral integrity and spiritual grace.
The story is timeless. First, the story of Hester and Dimmesdale and the mystery of Pearl's father still resonates today. In a nation still plagued with unwanted pregnancies, Hester's plight and the judgment she incurs seem like they could have been written yesterday. Then the idea of hidden sin committed by someone who holds a high place in society is as fresh as the headlines in today's newspaper. How many politicians and others have we recently discovered had some kind of secret life? I won't mention any names because I'm sure there will be more in the upcoming weeks and months. We can also understand the betrayal Chillingworth feels and see the effects that seeking revenge have on him. We can see that his obsession with revenge really hurts him more than anyone else.
Anyone who has every been teased when they were a child or had parents who withheld important information can sympathize with Pearl.And it's so gratifying to learn that her childhood was not permanently damaging and she ends up with Chillingworth's money and living "happily ever after". Finally, the idea of redemption through good deeds is enormously satisfying. It gives those of us who have blundered hope that we can learn and grow from our mistakes just as Hester does. Perhaps people don't think of us very highly now, but someday people will forget our past mistakes and maybe come to regard us as highly as Hester.
Classics of literature are often referred to as being "canonical". "Canon" is the Greek word for "rule" or "measure". A canon is the rule or standard that we use to measure the greatness of a work. Most anthologies of literature contain what we call the "cannon of literature". Usually works that are canonical are exceptional examples of their time. Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter" reveals unchanging human truths in a new (for the time) and dangerous way.
Because it continues to be read! The reasons for it still being read are many--like most excellent novels, character, environmental, and cultural descriptions are rich in detail, and further the concepts established in the plot, and most importantly, move the plot of the story along. The many different threads within the plot intersect interestingly and weave a tale of much broader tapestry; not only is it about a couple committing adultery, but the needling impact on them and the larger Puritan culture. It resonates in today's culture, as it did when it was written, because it is both an historical (What happened in Puritan times) and psychological tale, containing passion, revenge, loss, grief, hope, and redemption, to name a few. The deepest reason it's a classic is it reflects these elements, these deep themes that keep expressing themselves in people, and in their literature, throughout time. A "Timeless Classic" .....but that phrase is redundant.