The spell of life went forth from her ever creative spirit, and communicated itself to a thousand objects, as a torch kindles a flame wherever it may be applied.
Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Scarlet Letter
After five chapters of scene, setting, and character development, we find ourselves meeting Pearl, a most capricious, elf-like, and complex character in The Scarlet Letter. There is more to Pearl than her representation of sin and its consequences, and Hawthorne tucks symbolism into every encounter. Pearl is the bright, ethereal ribbon of romanticism woven through the dark themes of hidden sin, religious judgment, revenge — Puritanical legalism versus freedom, spontaneity set against rules and order, wide-eyed wonder compared to tunnel vision. Pearl is the rose amidst the thorns who gives the story contrast and depth. She is the imagination to complement the reason, which are both necessary to the story.
Hawthorne was deliberate in creating this child; Pearl is the physical embodiment of the secret sin of her parents and a constant reminder of their indiscretion. She’s ostracized because of her parents and like her mother becomes a target of the Puritan community “in the same circle of seclusion from human society.” To a degree, these responses are expected, especially in a community of judgmental Puritans. But the story, although it is dark and desperate, is consistently shot through by Pearl’s bright and unbridled nature that challenges us to look outside of our easy conclusions made on Hester, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, and the village.
Consider Hawthorne’s use of symbolism. Hester “named the infant ‘Pearl,’ as being of great price, — purchased with all she had, — her mother’s only treasure!” This is a direct, lovely reference to Matthew 13:45-46. Still, there are plenty of precious stones he could have chosen for a Biblical reference. For instance, Jeremiah 17:1 refers to a diamond. The Bible states, “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron; with a point of diamond it is engraved on the tablet of their heart, and on the horns of their altars.” This would easily line up with the image of the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom. But a diamond is pure and clear; a pearl has at its core an impure irritant — usually a sand grain — that the oyster covers with something beautiful. However, the ugly grain never goes away. At Pearl’s core, there is persistent origin in sin (courtesy of her parents), but Hester enrobed her daughter in beautiful clothes that she had sewn. But even dressed in simple gowns, Pearl had an “absolute circle of radiance around her”; however, the original sin that created her remains.
We find additional symbolism in the descriptive phrases used for Pearl. She is characterized as a spiritual being — airy sprite, little elf, little imp, but also an imp of evil, demon offspring, and a brat of hellish breed by the villagers. When she pursued her young tormentors, she was called an angel of judgment. The positive titles are associated with whimsy and fairy tales; the negative names are based on religious judgment. She changes in a turn to keep the reader guessing. When Hester cries out, “O Father in Heaven, — if Thou art still my Father, — what is this being which I have brought into the world?” Pearl “would turn her vivid and beautiful little face upon her mother, smile with sprite-like intelligence, and resume her play.” We can imagine that expression on a child, but what do we make of it? Her black eyes, sideway glances, and “ordinary freakishness” hinted at some otherworldly (and unsettling) knowledge. The reader is left to imagine what was behind the “peculiar smile and odd expression of the eyes.”
Hawthorne created Pearl as a natural contrast to the cast of characters. Although Hester and her daughter are treated as outcasts, Hester turns the other cheek, but Pearl fights back. Hawthorne tells us that
Hester could only account for the child’s character — and even then, most vaguely and imperfectly — by recalling what she herself had been, during that momentous period while Pearl was imbibing her soul from the spiritual world.” Hester passed her fiery personality, now latent, to her daughter and could see it manifest in the child, seeing “the warfare of Hester’s spirit, at the epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl.
The children in the village would play in a “grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at going to church or at scourging Quakers.” Their play was an extension of their very grey-toned lives.
On the other hand, Pearl imagined the forests were alive and could talk, weeds were children, and she was “always in a state of preternatural activity.” She was the bright contrast to the dour existence of the rest of the villagers. And when Pearl encountered them, she became an enchanting and often frightening creature who was judged as harshly as her mother. She was as wild and unpredictable as nature. But the question is, would they wish to be more like her if they had the chance?
Perhaps Pearl is the artist, actor, creator, and dreamer in each of us, even if we have just a glimmer of it. Hawthorne repeatedly mentions that there was a glow or a light emanating from her. This light can be interpreted in many ways — we remember that Pearl would “be finally a blessed soul in heaven!” If allowed, this transcendent glow could coax beauty and wonder out of darkness. Her community remained stoic and were worse for it. Imagine a life without Pearls in our midst.
What emotions does Pearl elicit while you read the book? Does she aggravate you or are you charmed by her ever-morphing nature?
How would the book change if Pearl was described as more rational? How does her spirit-like nature add to the story?
L E A R N M O R E
The Scarlet Letter
Author. Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864)
Date of first publication. 1850
Approximate number of pages. 250
Available editions. Probably no work of American literature is more widely available than this work; paperback editions include those by Bantam, Dover Thrift, Norton, Penguin, and Random House.
Genres. Romance novel (with the adjective romance here meaning that elements of the supernatural or marvelous are mingled with the prevailing realism of the story); historical fiction
Setting for the story. Boston in Puritan times (mid-seventeenth century)
Main characters. Arthur Dimmesdale, the Puritan minister of the town; Hester Prynne, a married woman with whom Dimmesdale produced an illegitimate daughter named Pearl, also a leading character; Roger Chillingworth, husband of Hester who arrives belatedly in the town and seeks to destroy Dimmesdale as an act of revenge; the Puritan community as a group. No one of these dominates the story more than the others, but inasmuch as Dimmesdale’s salvation on the scaffold resolves the action, by the story’s end he has emerged as the protagonist.
Storyline. The story opens with the public exposure of Hester Prynne, holding an infant daughter whose father she refuses to identify. In punishment, she is ostracized by the Puritan community and forced to wear a scarlet letter A on her bosom. The father of the girl is the town minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, who is too weak-willed to shoulder his share of responsibility for the sin of adultery. Eventually Hester’s husband, Roger Chillingworth, arrives in Boston and takes up residence with Dimmesdale. He inflames Dimmesdale’s sense of guilt, and Dimmesdale undergoes a long physical and mental decline. In the climax of the story, Dimmesdale, on the verge of death, mounts the scaffold and confesses his sin, experiencing God’s forgiveness as he does so.
Five misconceptions about The Scarlet Letter. (1) Hawthorne paints a historically accurate picture of the New England Puritans. Hawthorne’s portrayal of the Puritans is part of his satiric design, and writers of satire exaggerate to make their points. Hawthorne’s Puritans have little in common with the original Puritans of Old and New England, and nothing in common with the picture of the Puritans that emerges from their own writings. (2) The fact that Hawthorne portrays the Puritans negatively demonstrates his rejection of Christianity in this book. We need to make a distinction between the behavior of the Puritan community and their doctrine. The book ultimately affirms Christian and Puritan doctrine, while exposing the behavior of the religious community portrayed in the story. (3) This is a completely gloomy book. The spectacle of sin and guilt is, indeed, a sad one, but the story moves toward a celebration of Christian salvation, and the characters win other victories along the way. (4) Hawthorne really did run across a scarlet letter A while working in the local customhouse. The account that the narrator of The Scarlet Letter gives in the preface, entitled “The Custom-House,” of finding a scarlet letter is as fictional as the story that follows. Hawthorne never found such a letter. (5) The story is primarily about adultery. It isn’t. The word adultery does not even appear in the book. The adultery is a past event when the story begins. The focus is on the consequences of that past event. No adulterous passions or experiences are portrayed in the book. The story is not about adultery but about concealment of sin and the guilt it produces. It is also about consciousness of sin and guilt.
Cultural context. Hawthorne was a mid-nineteenth-century author. The dominant world view in the first half of that century was Romanticism, which elevated nature, feeling, freedom from restraints, and the autonomy of the individual to a position of primacy. Hester represents the Romantic worldview. The Christian worldview existed side by side with the Romantic. The central thematic conflict in The Scarlet Letter is the conflict between Romantic and Christian worldviews. We should note in passing that the book adds a third worldview to the mix—Puritan legalism, which elevates law and the moral code to the highest value.
Reception history. The Scarlet Letter is probably the signature book of American literature. Certainly no work of American literature is more famous. The book has been a cultural icon from the time of its first publication, when it was an instant best seller.
Tips for reading. (1) Settle down for a leisurely read. Hawthorne covers a relatively small amount of action, but what he does include is described in full detail. (2) Instead of reading for action, therefore, we need to relish characterization, relationships, settings, and interior psychological action (what is happening inside the minds of characters). (3) We need to keep revising our understandings and assessments of characters and worldviews. Through most of the story we would never guess that Dimmesdale and the Christian worldview that he represents would eclipse Hester and Romanticism as the view that Hawthorne endorsed. (4) A lot of what the book expresses about human experience is embodied in symbols.
The Author and His Faith
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) was born into a long-established New England family whose names dot the pages of American colonial history. An ancestor had been a judge at the Salem witchcraft trials, and Hawthorne spent a lifetime distancing himself from certain aspects of his Puritan heritage. Hawthorne was not part of the institutional or churchgoing scene in his day. When we speak in this guide of his faith, it is not a comment on his state of soul but on his belief system and (even more) the religious viewpoint embodied in his fiction.
The religious context. Two intellectual/religious systems of belief were candidates for Hawthorne’s allegiance. One was Transcendentalism, the American version of Romanticism. Hawthorne dabbled with it (even living briefly at a Transcendental commune called Brook Farm), but he did not share the optimism about human nature that Transcendentalism embraced. So he was left with Christianity as the belief system within which he operated. We can say unequivocally that Hawthorne was a theist with thorough familiarity with the Bible and Christian doctrine.
Hawthorne’s religion. Hawthorne’s notebooks are filled with references to God, leading a literary critic to say that Hawthorne was “innately religious” and “more than any other writer of his time . . . a God-centered writer” (Joseph Schwartz). His acquaintance with the Bible and reliance on it in his fiction were so thorough that his editor and publisher claimed that when he questioned Hawthorne about his use of a word, Hawthorne would almost always refer him to the Bible as his authority (James T. Fields). Selected Hawthorne scholars claim the following: as a writer Hawthorne was “freely at home in the Hebraic-Christian tradition” (Amos Wilder); Hawthorne’s theology was a “nameless and indisputatious” Calvinism or Puritanism, “arrived at by experience and insight” (Austin Warren); Hawthorne is a Protestant writer whose novel The Scarlet Letter is the nearest American equivalent to the Catholic novels of the French writer Francois Mauriac (Louis O. Rubin Jr.).
Religion in The Scarlet Letter. Any reader of Hawthorne’s best-known story can see at a glance that the entire frame of reference is Christian. The religious life of characters in the story revolves around practices like churchgoing, sermons, sin, confession, and catechism. Biblical allusions abound. Christian doctrines such as morality, sin, guilt, heaven, hell, and confession are the assumed frame of reference on virtually every page. It is indisputable that Hawthorne (a) knew Christianity well and (b) incorporated it into his fiction. The degree to which The Scarlet Letter moves beyond acquaintance to affirmation will be apparent in the commentary that follows.