The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Standing as the incarnation, instead of the victim, of a sin, Pearl affords a unique opportunity for throwing light upon the inner nature of the sin itself. In availing himself of it, Hawthorne touches ground which, perhaps, he would not have ventured on, had he not first safeguarded himself against exaggeration and impiety by making his analysis accord (so to speak) with the definition of a child's personality. Pearl, as we are frequently reminded, is the scarlet letter made alive, capable of being loved, and so endowed with a manifold power of retribution for sin. The principle of her being is the freedom of a broken law; she is developed, "a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion," yet, herself, as irresponsible and independent as if distinctions of right and wrong did not exist to her. Like nature and animals, she is anterior to moral law; but, unlike them, she is human, too. She exhibits an unfailing vigor and vivacity of spirits joined to a precocious and almost preternatural intelligence, especially with reference to her mother's shameful badge. To this her interest constantly reverts, and always with a "peculiar smile and odd expression of the eyes," they almost suggesting acquaintance on her part with "the secret spell of her existence." The wayward, mirthful mockery with which the small creature always approaches this hateful theme, as if she deemed it a species of ghastly jest, is a terribly significant touch, and would almost warrant a confirmation of the mother's fear that she had brought a fiend into the world. Yet, physically, Pearl is "worthy to have been left in Eden, to be the plaything of the angels," and her aspect—as must needs be the case with a child who symbolized a sin that finds its way into all regions of human society—"was imbued with the spell of infinite variety: in this one child there were many children, comprehending the full scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant baby and the pomp, in little, of an infant princess." The plan of her nature, though possibly possessing an order of its own, was incompatible with the scheme of the rest of the universe; in other words, the child could never, apparently, come into harmony with her surroundings, unless the ruling destiny of the world should, from divine, become diabolic. "I have no Heavenly Father!" she exclaims, touching the scarlet letter on her mother's bosom with her small forefinger: and how, indeed, could the result of an evil deed be good? There is "fire in her and throughout her," as befits "the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment," and it is a fire that seems to have in it at least as much of an infernal as of a heavenly ardor; and in her grim little philosophy, the scarlet emblem is the heritage of the maturity of all her sex. "Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?" And yet she is a guiltless child, with all a child's freshness and spontaneity.

This contrast, or, perhaps it is more correct to say, mingling, of the opposite poles of being, sin and innocence, in Pearl's nature is an extraordinary achievement; enabling us, as it does, to recognize the intrinsic ugliness of sin. Pearl is like a beautiful but poisonous flower, rejoicing in its poison, and receiving it as the vital element of life. But the beauty makes the ugliness only the more impressive, because we feel it to be a magical or phantasmal beauty, enticing like the apples of Sodom, but full of bitterness within. It is the beauty which sin wears to the eyes of the tempted,—a beauty, therefore, which has no real existence, but is attributed by the insanity of lust. Now, if Pearl were a woman, this strong external charm of hers would perplex the reader, in much the same way that the allurements of sin bewilder its votaries. The difficulty is to distinguish between what is really and permanently good and what only appears so while the spell lasts. Pearl being a child, however, no such uncertainty can occur. She has not, as yet, what can in strictness be termed a character; she is without experience, and therefore devoid of either good or evil principles; she possesses a nature, and nothing more. The affection which she excites, consequently, is immediately perceived to be due neither to her beauty not to her intellectual acuteness; still less to the evil effluence which exhales from these, and is characteristic of them. These things all stand on one side; and the innocent, irresponsible infant soul stands on the other. Each defines and emphasizes the other: so that so far from one being led to confuse them, so far from being in danger of loving evil because we love Pearl, we love her just in proportion to our abhorrence of the evil which empoisons her manifestations. The same discrimination could not be so sharply made (if, indeed, it could be made at all) in the case of a Pearl who, under unchanged conditions, had attained maturity. For her character would then be formed, and the evil which came to her by inheritance would so have tinged and moulded her natural traits that we should inevitably draw in the poison and the perfume at a single breath, -- ascribe to evil the charm which derives from good, and pollute good with the lurid hues of evil. The history of the race abundantly demonstrates that a chief cause of moral perversity and false principle has been our assumption of absolute proprietorship in either the good or the evil of our actions. Pearl, still in the instinctive stage of development, shows us the way out of this labyrinth. As the pure sunlight vivifies noxious as well as beneficent forms of existence, so the evil proclivities of the child's nature are energized, though not constituted, by the divine source of her being.

It would be interesting (parenthetically) to draw a parallel between Pearl and Beatrice, in Rappaccini's Daughter. Both are studies in the same direction, though from different standpoints. Beatrice is nourished upon poisonous plants, until she becomes herself poisonous. Pearl, in the mysterious prenatal world, imbibes the poison of her parents' guilt. But, in either instance, behind this imported evil stands the personal soul: and the question is, Shall the soul become the victim of its involuntary circumstances? Hawthorne, in both cases, inclines to the brighter alternative. But the problem of Beatrice is more complicated than that of Pearl. She was not born in guilt; but she was brought up (to translate the symbolism) amidst guilty associations, so that they had come to be the very breath of her life. They turn out powerless, however, to vitiate her heart, and she is able to exclaim, at last, to her enraged lover, "Was there not, from the first, more poison in thy nature than in mine?" Although, for inscrutable purposes, God may see fit to incarnate us in evil, our souls shall not thereby suffer corruption; possibly, indeed, such evil incarnation may draw off harmlessly, because unconsciously, some deadlier evil lurking in the spirit, which would else have destroyed both soul and body. Pearl, on the other hand, has an unexceptionable moral environment: her evil is not, like Beatrice's, imbibed from without, but is manifested from within; and if "what cometh out of the mouth defileth a man," her predicament would seem hopeless. But, in truth, Pearl's demon was summoned into existence, not by her own acts, but by the act of others; and, unless with her own conscious consent, it cannot pollute her. Meanwhile, with that profound instinct of self-justification which antedates both reason and conscience in the human soul, the child is impelled on all occasions to assert and vindicate her cause, -- the cause of the scarlet letter. She will not consent to have it hidden or disavowed. She mocks and persecutes her mother, so long as the latter would disguise from her the true significance of the badge. When Hester casts it away, she stamps and cries with passion and will not be pacified till it is replaced. She distrusts the minister, save when, as in his plea for Hester in the governor's hall and his midnight vigil on the scaffold, he approaches an acknowledgment of his true position. His promise to appear with her mother and herself "at the great Judgment Day" excites her scorn. "Thou wast not bold, thou wast not true!" she cries. "Thou wouldst not promise to take my hand and mother's hand, to-morrow noontide!"—and she washes from her forehead the kiss he gives her during the interview in the forest. In a word, she will have truth in all things: without truth nothing is good; nor, with truth, can anything be evil. In the deepest sense, this is not only true, but it is the truth of the book. The perfectibility of man being infinite, the best man and the worst man alike must fall infinitely short of perfection: but every one can account honestly for such talents as he has; and it is always the motive, never the achievement, the sincerity, not the sound, that Divine Justice regards. A Thug, who should devoutly believe in the holiness of his mission, would fare better than an evangelist, who should lead a thousand souls to salvation, not for God's glory, but for his own. So when little Pearl would frankly unfold the banner of the scarlet letter, and openly fight beneath it, we feel that God will give her victory, not over her apparent enemies, but over herself.

She is so much alive as to live independently of her actual appearances in the story. The imagination which there bodies her forth has done its work so well as to have imparted somewhat of its own power to the reader; and we can picture Pearl in other scenes and at other epochs in her career, and can even argue of her fate, had the conditions been different for her. Suppose, for example, that Hester and the minister had made good their escape from Boston, or that the latter's confession had been delayed until Pearl had passed the age of puberty. In either of these or a dozen other possible alternatives, the progress of her growth would have had a new and important interest, conducting to fresh regions of speculation. But Hawthorne never allows the claims of a part to override the whole; the artist in him would permit nothing out of its due proportion; and Pearl, for all her untamable vitality, is kept strictly to her place and function in the story. Where she speaks one word for her personal, she speaks two for her representative, character. There seems to be no partiality on the author's part; nor, on the other hand, is there any indifference. The same quiet light of charity irradiates each figure in the tale; and he neither makes a pet of Pearl, nor a scapegoat of Roger Chillingworth.

Dramatically, the last-named personage plays perhaps the most important part of the four; he communicates to the plot whatever movement it exhibits. But what renders him chiefly remarkable is the fact that, although he stands as the injured husband, and therefore with the first claim to our sympathy and kindness, he in reality obtains neither, but appears more devoid of attraction than any other character in the tale. This would seem an unconventional and rather venturesome proceeding; for the average mind, in modern English fiction, finds itself under moral obligations to use every precaution, lest the reader fall into some mistake as to the legitimate objects of favor and of reprobation. Continental novelists, to be sure, have a sort of perverse pleasure in defying Anglo-Saxon taste in this particular, and do not shrink from making the lawful partner of the erring wife either odious or ridiculous. But it will be profitable to inquire in what respect the American romancer follows or diverges from these two methods of treatment.

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