In the Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, does Pearl have preternatural knowledge of the symbolism of the letter and what the characters truly represent?
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a novel about the guilt of sin in a Puritanical society and how sometimes it is better to face your mistakes and admit them than to hide them and suffer inside. The result of sin can often produce something beautiful. Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are the sinners in this book. They commit adultery and bring a child into the world. That child is Pearl. Pearl is a beautiful and stunning girl. Everywhere she goes the attention is on her. There is nothing sinful about her except that she was bred from sin. Puritan society considers adultery a serious charge. It was easy for Hester to be labelled as an adulterer because she was pregnant without a husband to be the father. However, Hester refused to reveal who the father was, so Dimmesdale dealt with his sin personally instead of publicly. What everyone does not know is that Hester’s husband, who was long forgotten and thought to be dead, is in Boston is manipulating Dimmesdale with evil and black magic. Pearl is the bright star in this miserable life that Hester has to deal with. Pearl encompasses the beauty and free-spirit that Hester once had. She is a wild, uncontained child who does not feel any of the pressures of Puritan society. There is something special about her, particularly in her behaviour. Throughout The Scarlet Letter, Pearl displays preternatural knowledge of subjects that she has never been informed about, like whom Dimmesdale and Chillingworth really are, and why Hester wears the scarlet letter.
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Reverend Dimmesdale keeps as much distance as possible from Hester and Pearl throughout most of the book. He is not with them alone until close to the end. Pearl does not really have any relationship with him, which is why her comments and actions towards him are uncanny and show that she knows more than she is given credit for. She shows affection toward him during their interactions that are more than it should be. She treats him like someone who should be in her life and means a lot to her. She has never been told who her father is, but it is evident that she has some knowledge that Dimmesdale is him. When Hester and Pearl go to the Governor’s mansion to plead for Hester to be allowed to keep Pearl, Dimmesdale argues in Hester’s favour. Pearl shows her first inexplicable action toward Dimmesdale on this occasion. Hawthorne writes, “Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him, and taking his hand in the grasp of both of her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive….” (Page 113). Pearl’s actions are described as those of love by Hawthorne. He wants us to know that Pearl loves Dimmesdale, even though he will not come forward and say it to her. We find out later on through more incidents that Pearl really does love Dimmesdale. This is clearly exemplified in Dimmesdale’s speech on the scaffold. Pearl goes over to him when he’s on his knees about to die and kisses him. This shows that Pearl had a connection with him that was internal and soulful, but always was there.
Pearl also knew something about Dimmesdale that no one else noticed. Dimmesdale always walked with his hand over his heart. He held it and looked to be in pain all the time. Pearl noticed this and was very curious about it. She seemed to know that it had something to do with Hester’s “A” that she always wore on her bosom. She often questioned her mother about Dimmesdale and Hester would occasionally question Pearl, just to find out how much Pearl actually knew about her and Dimmesdale. One day, Hester decided to ask Pearl why she wears the letter “A” all the time. Pearl responded, “Truly I do! It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart.”(Page 171) Then Hester decided to push further and ask why the minister keeping his hand over his heart and she wearing the letter on her bosom had anything to do with each other. This time, the little girl replied “Nay, Mother, I have told all I know. Ask yonder old man whom thou hast been talking with! It may be he can tell. But in good earnest now, Mother dear, what does this scarlet letter mean?–and why dost thou wear it on thy bosom?–and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?” (Page 171) This quote helps us to understand what Pearl really knows. She does not know everything, but the connections that she can make between things that she knows nothing about are remarkable and unnatural. Pearl and Dimmesdale share a bond that is not made public until the very end, but between the two of them, it is always there and always loving.
Another major character is the twisted Chillingworth, Hester’s husband. Chillingworth is not a kind soul and Pearl seems to know that. Pearl runs away from Chillingworth when she sees him because she is scared of his evilness and cynicism. A possibility that Pearl never takes to Chillingworth how she takes to Dimmesdale is that Chillingworth and Dimmesdale seem to be very opposite. Dimmesdale is a caring, kind, and understanding minister. Chillingworth is evil, manipulative, and a maniacal doctor. Pearl, being a sweet and sincere young girl, takes to the minister and loves him, while she runs away scared from Chillingworth and wants nothing to do with him. There is a scene when Hester and Pearl are picking flowers in a garden. Pearl runs off a little and sees in a window where Chillingworth and Dimmesdale are talking. She playfully throws a burr, which she had picked, at Dimmesdale. Then she runs back to Hester and says, “Come away, Mother! Come away, or yonder old Black Man will catch you! He hath got hold of the minister already. Come away, Mother or he will catch you! But he cannot catch little Pearl!”(Page 132) When Pearl talks about the “Black Man”, she is talking about Chillingworth and his black magic. She knows that he is doing bad, evil things to Dimmesdale. She says that bluntly when she is talking to Hester in that passage. She does not want to get caught by Chillingworth, but she also says that she cannot get caught. It is possible that by forcing her mother to leave immediately, she is trying to save her mother from Dimmesdale and his black magic. Pearl is right in this judgment because Chillingworth does want to get to Hester. Pearl feels that she cannot get caught, because if she can stay with her mother, nothing can happen to her.
Hester’s “A” has been a part of her since Pearl was born. Pearl has not known her mother without the “A” attached to her bosom. However, Pearl has always known that it means something important. From the time that she was a baby in her crib, she has known that the letter has meaning to it. When she was a baby, she reached up to her mother and went straight to the letter. This struck Hester as odd. The baby could not even speak, but she recognized the letter and grabbed at it. Hawthorne writes, “One day, as her mother stooped over the cradle, the infant’s eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter; and, putting up her little hand, she grasped at it, smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam, that gave her face the look of a much older child.” (Page 98) In a way, when the letter touched someone, it makes them grow up or mature. Hester was wild before she was punished with the letter. She matured in a sense and became more of an adult because of the letter. When Pearl touched the letter, she looked older. The letter is a sign of growth and maturity to whoever comes in contact with it.
Later on in the book, when Hester and Pearl are in the forest, Pearl reveals a little bit of ignorance and unknowing. She says to her mother, “It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!” Hester responds, “Nor ever will, my child, I hope.” Pearl becomes confused and says to Hester, “And why not, Mother? Will not it come of its own accord when I am a woman grown?” For the first time in the book, Pearl shows ignorance about the letter and her mother. Before this, she seems to understand the letter and that her mother wears it for a reason, not because it just formed there when she became a woman. However, in a way Pearl is correct, because when Hester became a mother, she became a woman, and also acquired the letter.
Pearl is a truly perceptive person. She was born with some preternatural knowledge and is a symbol of things that are good in life. She is the opposite of orthodox Puritanical society, and she has no problem with it. She is wild, free, and uncontrollable. She does not feel compelled to hold her tongue because she might say something to offend others. Pearl is an image of freedom that everyone saw and noticed but still shunned. Pearl shouldn’t have been shunned. She should have been celebrated and looked at as a model for people to follow. The people of her society refused to succumb to their hearts and accept this little girl as one of their own. It’s a shame that Hester’s life was spent so dismally, but the fact that Pearl grew up to be a beautiful woman in Europe with a supposed great life makes things better. It throws it back in the Puritan’s faces and shows them that there’s more to life than living by the rules. The only way to find that out, though, is to be thrown away from those rules and forced to live how you want, which is how Pearl lived her life every day, untainted and uncontrolled.
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