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Whatever you decide about Hester's state of mind-whether you think she is being true to herself or false to something better- you should realize that the very next thing she does is to lie. And lie to her daughter, whom she loves, on a subject of great importance.
Pearl has, as usual, been thinking about the scarlet letter and incorporating it in her games. But this time, there is a special earnestness in her manner that makes Hester wonder whether Pearl has reached the age to be trusted with some of the truth. Holding her mother's hand and looking with unusual thoughtfulness into her mother's eyes, Pearl asks the two questions that have troubled her all her life: What does the scarlet letter mean? And why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?
Hester hesitates, tempted to tell her daughter something of the story of her sin. But at the last moment, she backs down. She gives the child a shamefully false and silly answer. Hester tells Pearl she wears the scarlet letter for decoration, for the "sake of its golden thread."
Pearl, of course, knows she has been lied to. The sympathy and earnestness vanish from her face. She becomes a total nuisance on the subject of the letter, never letting the matter drop.
Pearl repeats her questions day and night until Hester is driven half-mad. Plagued by these constant reminders of her cowardice she threatens to lock the child in a closet.
Hester's unaccustomed harshness suggests she regrets the lost opportunity. The moment of trust and closeness may not come again.
NOTE: Pearl's questions about the scarlet letter, though always on the tip of her tongue, are inspired in this chapter by a green letter A that she makes from seaweed found on the beach.
On this occasion Pearl seems to show a child's ignorance, rather than an imp's supernatural intelligence, on the subject of the letter. As Hester points out, the green A on Pearl's chest is essentially meaningless. It suggests freshness and innocence, rather than anything smacking of evil or experience.