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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, many of the characters suffer from the tolls of sin, but none as horribly as Hester’s daughter Pearl. She alone suffers from sin that is not hers, but rather that of her mother’s. From the day she is conceived, Pearl is portrayed as an offspring of vice. She is introduced into the discerning, pitiless domain of the Puritan religion from inside a jail; a place untouched by light, as is the depth of her mother’s sin. The austere Puritan ways punish Hester through banishment from the community and the church, simultaneously punishing Pearl in the process. This isolation leads to an unspoken detachment and animosity between her and the other Puritan children. Thus we see how Pearl is conceived through sin, and how she suffers when her mother and the community situate this deed upon her like the scarlet letter on her mother’s bosom.
Hester Prynne impresses her feelings of guilt onto Pearl, whom she sees as a reminder of her sin, especially since as an infant Pearl is acutely aware of the scarlet letter “A” on her mother’s chest. When still in her crib, Pearl reaches up and grasps the letter, causing “Hester Prynn [to] clutch the fatal token? so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl’s baby-hand” (Hawthorne 88). Hester feels implicitly guilty whenever she sees Pearl, a feeling she reflects onto her innocent child. She is therefore constantly questioning Pearl’s existence and purpose with questions: asking God, “what is this being which I have brought into the world!” or inquiring to Pearl, “Child, what art thou?” In this manner, Hester forces the child to become detached from society. Pearl becomes no more than a manifestation based entirely upon Hester and Dimmesdale’s original sin. She is described as “the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life” (93)! Due to Hester’s guilty view of her daughter, she is unable see the gracious innocence in her child.
Hester’s views toward Pearl change from merely questioning Pearl’s existence to perceiving Pearl as a demon sent to make her suffer. Hawthorne notes that at times Hester is feeling as if an “unutterable pain” (89) creates her penance. Hester even tries to deny that this “imp” is her child, “Thou art not my child! Thou art no Pearl of mine” (90)! It is small wonder that Pearl, who has been raised around sin, becomes little more than a reflection of her environment. Pearl is perceived to then be the walking, living scarlet letter. She is a constant reminder to Hester and the community of the “evil” that Hester has committed. Hester’s own sin leads her to believe that Pearl is an instrument of the devil, when in reality she is merely a curious child who cherishes her free nature and wants to be loved by her mother. She is not evil but is portrayed as such because of her mother’s actions.
Because of her own profound sin, Hester is always peering into Pearl’s burnt ochre eyes to try to discover some evil inside her daughter. “Day after day, she looked fearfully into the child’s ever expanding nature, ever dreading to detect some dark and wild peculiarity, that should correspond with the guiltiness to which she owed her being” (82). Pearl is more or less Hester’s conscience. That is why Pearl always asks her questions over and over again and why Hester cannot lie to her; you cannot lie to you conscience. Hester ultimately ends up fearing Pearl because of her inability to overcome her own guilty conscience, and thus fails to command the respect a mother needs from a child:
“After testing both smiles and frowns and proving that neither
mode of treatment possessed any calculable influence, Hester was
ultimately compelled to stand aside, and permit the child to be
swayed buy her own impulses?As to any other kind of discipline,
whether addressed to her mind or heart, little Pearl might or might
not be within its reach” (84).
Lacking any form of maternal guidance, Pearl pretty much does what she pleases; her creativity leads her to make up her own entertainment. Pearl’s lack of friends forces her to imagine the forest as her plaything. However, she is clearly upset about her banishment and resents the people in the town, whom she views as enemies. “The pine trees needed little to [become] Puritan elders [and] the ugliest weeds their children” (87). Pearl acts to use her environment as a basis for her manifestations: “She never created a friend, but seemed always to be sowing broadcast the dragon’s teeth, whence sprung a harvest of armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle. It was inexpressibly sad–then what depth of sorrow to a mother, who felt her own heart the cause” (88)!
Hester would have never been found guilty of adultery if Pearl had never been born, and thus never would have had to wear her burden upon her chest. Hester feels guilty because she truly believes in her heart that it is her sin causing Pearl to become aware of harsh realities of the world. Pearl responds to this harshness by defending her mother, sticking up for Hester against the Puritan children when they start to hurl mud at her. What stands out is Pearl’s love for her mother, and the way she spurns these “virtuous youths” who condemn her without even knowing the reason. Pearl is a very vivacious child whose love for her mother is deep even though she does not always show it.
By the end of the story, when Hester is finally able to release her sin, Pearl is no longer a creation of a clandestine passion but the daughter of a minister and a ravishing young woman. She is only from that moment onward able to live her without the weight of her mother’s vice. In fact, Hawthorne points out what is viewed as normal because of the burden lifted from her soul: “they [Pearl's tears] were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow” (233).
Pearl is an offspring of sin whose life revolves around the affair between her mother and Reverend Dimmesdale. Due to her mother’s intense guilt during her upbringing, she is not able to become more than a mirror image of her surroundings; like a chameleon, she mimics everything around her, and the changes that occur externally affect her internally. Pearl stands out as a radiant child implicated by the sin of her parents. Without a doubt, if Pearl hadn’t been born and such a burden had not been put upon Hester, she would have experienced a life without visible ridicule. It is only when the sin is publicly revealed that she is liberated by the truth.
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