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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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Pearl. She is Hester's treasure, the pearl of great price, purchased with her mother's peace of mind and position in society.

Pearl. She is no treasure to the critics. She has caused many a reader to recommend murder as the only way to deal with such a maddening character.

What is it about Pearl that gets normally sober men and women so riled up? The character presents problems because we can never relax and enjoy her as a normal child. We must always be on the alert for what she means.

Pearl is a fascinating experiment, an attempt by Hawthorne to yolk a symbol to a human being and make them live comfortably together in one body. Sometimes the experiment is successful. Sometimes it's a flop. Let's look at two scenes in The Scarlet Letter that represent the two ends of the spectrum. Where does Pearl "work"?

She works particularly well in the forest scene in the chapter called "The Child at the Brook-Side." If you look at Pearl's actions here, they are perfectly understandable without any symbolic interpretation.

She cries, she stamps her feet in the resentment any child would feel at seeing a proper and decorous mother suddenly blossom into sexuality. Little girls don't like sexy mothers suddenly thrust upon them. Nor do they welcome brand-new and unexpected fathers. Pearl is saying what any petted, spoiled child would say under the circumstances: either you love him (that strange, sad man over there), or you love me.

In the forest scene, the real child can carry the symbol, because Pearl's narrative meaning and her symbolic meaning so neatly coincide. The child points an accusing finger at Hester, and so does fate. The child says, go and pick your own letter up. And fate echoes, the scarlet letter is your burden to carry and yours alone. We feel the magic of the double role, but not the strain.

Now let's look at a more gruesome incident, Pearl's first appearance in her tunic of crimson and gold. We know, because Hawthorne has told us, that Puritan children just don't run around dressed that way.

Admittedly, Pearl is no run-of-the-mill Puritan child. She is the daughter of an outcast, a renegade. But whatever Hester is, she loves her daughter and wants to keep her. And in order to keep Pearl, Hester has to prove her conformity to the grimmest and sternest of Puritan magistrates. It is hardly proof of conformity to arrive at the Governor's mansion, where everyone will be dressed in black, with a little girl outrageously decked out in scarlet. (Suppose Dimmesdale hadn't been around to explain?)

There is a tug-of-war going on here between Pearl's symbolic function and the psychological demands of the story. Unless we make a great imaginative effort, we simply don't believe what is going on. We are distracted, so to speak, by the creaking of the symbolic machinery.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes

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