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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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CHAPTER 6: PEARL

This chapter introduces us to the most problematic character in The Scarlet Letter. Pearl is half child, half literary symbol. And to many readers, she is no child at all.

You will have to decide for yourself how successful Pearl is as a literary creation. Does she seem to you a living, breathing being, or a cardboard figure, stiff and unreal?

One thing is certain. In appearance and temperament Pearl reflects her origin. The product of a broken rule, she will not obey rules herself. Born of a runaway passion, she has a wild and stormy nature.

Pearl's high coloring and warm complexion are the gifts of her mother. They also suggest the fiery state of Hester's emotions during her term of imprisonment.

To some extent, Pearl reflects the common folk wisdom that love-children are more beautiful and more passionate than the issue of a stale marriage bed. But the matter goes deeper than that.

Pearl's uncontrolled rages at her Puritan peers-priggish little brats that they are-and the hostile playmates she invents with her fertile imagination, express her sense of alienation, her recognition that she is an outcast's child.

With her outbursts of temper, Pearl is a constant reproach to Hester for bringing an innocent being into an adverse world. She is a reminder of the far-reaching, unthought-of consequences of sin. But nothing that Pearl does causes Hester so much anguish as the child's uncanny fascination with the scarlet letter.


The letter is the first object of Pearl's consciousness. As her infant hands reach for the threads of red and gold her face takes on a knowing smile, "a decided gleam." The letter is the subject of her play. She makes it a target for a barrage of flowers which she hurls at her mother, jumping up and down with glee, each time a missile hits home.

Does Pearl understand what she is doing? Does she realize what the letter means? Hawthorne doesn't say, though Hester half humorously, half despairingly, credits her child with preternatural (more than natural) intelligence.

The effect of Pearl's behavior, whatever the cause, is to keep Hester's sense of shame fresh and acute. The wound is not allowed to heal. Even in the privacy of her cottage, away from the prying eyes of the community, Hester is not for a moment safe.

NOTE: There are many suggestions in this chapter and the following ones, that Pearl is not a human child. Her light, eerie laughter reminds Hester of an elf. At times, an imp or a demon looks out of Pearl's eyes. Governor Bellingham will say that the child has witchcraft in her. And some people in the colony call Pearl the devil's offspring.

This method of characterization, by multiple suggestions, is used often in the novel. But Hawthorne is up to something rather special in Pearl's case.

He wants to take Pearl out of the ordinary human realm-the dark Puritan world of guilt and sorrow-and present the child to us against the rich and colorful backdrop of nature.

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