I read both The Scarlet Letter and Ethan Frome in high school, under that obligation. Both have New England as a setting in a dire way. SL’s setting seems primordial, a long distant past. EH sits later in time but far from contemporary.
SL was a tester for me because the lengthy Custom House section hardly makes clear what the story is about. I recognize it now as a delightful meditation by Hawthorne but I wasn't ready for that in high school. I saw it as a long grey patch of writing, required reading. The story itself lacks action and couldn't compete with the sci-fi I was reading, and certainly not Lord of the Rings.
I don't remember how either book was taught but reading for pleasure never seemed a priority among the teachers I had nor did I expect assigned reading to offer pleasure. One can think of all the books that one was lucky enough NOT to read in school.
EH is a more normal sort of novel. I believe stolidwas used to describe the New England archetype. This archetype accepts that New Englander’s are tight-lipped and emotionally withdrawn. I have had to consult the internet to remember the plot. The setting is the fictitious town of Starkville, so Edith Wharton was unafraid to push buttons.
EH came to my mind today because it culminates in the protagonist attempting to escape his circumstances for a less stolid life. SL does likewise with Hester and Arthur. I remember hoping for a successful escape of Ethan and Mattie as they try to leave Ethan’s wife behind for a new life together. Wharton presents such hopelessness in the circumstances. The ruinous sled ride that quashes all hope seems ridiculous now with its irony and almost gothic bleakness.
The escape for Hester and Arthur proves different. Hester, by virtue of her strength and character, had already defeated the Puritanism of 17th century Boston. She had defined herself outside the prevalent moral morass. Arthur, sickly and weak, was never going to escape, but he did manage to uphold his moral code, a sort of redemption for him. EH reads more like a soap opera. I don't remember Wharton's prose stylings but the plot follows a normative course so that the characters become chess pieces in her narrative game. Hawthorne's meditative prose suits the story of SL. Much of his writing resides in a place both historical and fantastical, Hawthorne's playground and battlefield.
I hadn’t intended a counterpoint between the two books. I took notice of a shared moral climate in both owing, one can posit, to New England’s Puritan foundation. It also occurred to me how students were served these weighty emanations of Puritanism, as if fortifying the regional obligation. SL ends on a high if tragic note whereas EH seems like utter chastisement. I don’t recall either book presented in terms of their artistry or any sort of reading pleasure. They were just dutiful requirements in the school year