The Foolish Puritans of The Scarlet Letter


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The Foolish Puritans of The Scarlet Letter

 

 

        "What is one man's poison is another's meat or drink," Beaumont and

Fletcher wrote in one of their plays. Almost everything in the world is

interpretable in at least two conflicting ways. In The Scarlet Letter, the

Puritan society shuns a character named Pearl, yet the author, who lived in

the Romantic period, views her with awe and reverence. Nathaniel

Hawthorne's use of nature imagery in The Scarlet Letter reflects Pearl's

wild, capricious character that serves as a constant reminder of Hester's

sin and whose romantically idealistic beauty frightens the Puritan society.

 

 

        In Hawthorne's descriptions of Pearl as an infant and toddler,

nature imagery emphasizes Pearl's startling beauty and unpredictable, yet

innocent, character. Pearl's beauty and innocence are apparent from the

time of her birth. Hawthorne describes Pearl's "innocent life [as] a lovely

and immortal flower"(Hawthorne 81). Even though Pearl is a product of the

"guilty passion"(81) between Hester and Dimmesdale, both her soul and her

body are untainted and flawless.  Hester notices that Pearl has no physical

defects, but Pearl's character has an unexplainable aspect of oddity and

unpredictability. When she plays near Hester's cottage, Pearl  "[smites]

down [and] uproot[s] most unmercifully [the] ugliest weeds"(87) which she

pretends are the Puritan children. Hester believes that Pearl is so

emotional and temperamental because the passion which Hester and

Dimmesdale experienced during their sinful act somehow transferred into

Pearl's soul. However, Pearl's antipathy for the Puritans is justified; the

children often torment her for no good reason. When Hester and Pearl go

into town, the Puritan children stop playing and either surround Pearl and

stare at her or prepare to hurl mud at the unfortunate pair. Both actions

by the Puritans result in a fit of outrage by Pearl. One reason that the

Puritans treat Pearl badly is because of her mother's sin. The Puritans

believe that since Pearl is the product of adultery, she is automatically

evil and depraved. The Puritan hatred for Pearl is also due to the fact

that she, like Hester's scarlet letter, is beautiful, and they are in a way

jealous of both. Supposedly, Hester's scarlet 'A' is a punishment, but she

embroiders it richly and wears it with subtle pride. When the Puritans

first see the 'A', they want to replace it with an 'A' made out of

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rheumatic cloth. The Puritans look at Pearl in the same way; they do not

think Hester deserves such a beautiful child. The Puritans like simple,

bland things and shun beauty because it is tempting. This view of the

Puritans appears again when the Reverend Mr. Wilson first sees Pearl in

Governor Bellingham's mansion. Mr. Wilson calls her a "little bird of

scarlet plumage"(100) and asks her "what has ailed [her] mother to bedizen

[her] in this strange fashion"(100). Mr. Wilson first compares Pearl to a

bird, something from nature, which the Puritans distrust, then implies that

something is wrong with Hester for tastelessly dressing Pearl in such

beautiful, striking clothing. In this instance, Mr. Wilson's comments are

hypocritical because Governor Bellingham, the leader of the Puritans,

decorates his mansion lavishly and enjoys many worldly pleasures. Hawthorne,

who lived in the Romantic period, included this passage to indicate that in

his eyes, Pearl is beautiful and the Puritans are wrong in thinking that

Pearl is wicked. When Pearl tells Mr. Wilson that her name is Pearl, he

answers ,"'Pearl?-Ruby, rather!- or Coral!-or Red Rose'"(101). Even though

Mr. Wilson disapproves of Pearl's attire, he still acknowledges her beauty

by comparing her to beautiful things in nature. At the same, time, he shows

his disapproval because he, like most Puritans, distrusts nature. Later on,

Mr. Wilson asks Pearl if she knows who made her. She replies by saying that

"she had not been made at all but had been plucked by her mother off the

bush of wild roses that [grows] by the prison-door"(103). Pearl's answer

tells the reader that she understands both her physical beauty and her

internal wildness because she compares herself to a wild rose. The answer's

creativity and unexpectedness  also reveal Pearl's unusual, whimsical

character. At this point in the novel, the reader can already discern

Pearl's fundamental character traits.

 

 

        As Pearl grows older, her isolation from the Puritans leads her to

spend more time with nature, and she continues to remind Hester of her sin.

When Hester goes to the seashore to talk to Chillingworth, she tells Pearl

to go "to the margin of the water and play with the shells and tangled sea-

weed"(154). In response, Pearl "[flies] away like a bird"(154) to the

margin of the sea. Pearl is eager to play with nature. She has grown used

to having nature as a playmate and finds playing with it enjoyable. Pearl

builds "boats out of birch-bark...seize[s] a live horseshoe [crab] by the

tail...catches several five-fingers...lays out a jelly-fish to melt in the warm

sun"(162), throws foam, and pelts sea-birds with pebbles. When Pearl thinks

that she actually hit a bird, however, she feels remorse for having "done

harm to a little being that was as wild as...herself"(163).

 

 

        While Pearl is wild and unpredictable at times, she has a kind

heart. Pearl's kinship with nature becomes apparent through the seashore

imagery. Pearl obviously is at ease with and delights in nature. She has

chosen nature as an ideal playmate because of her isolation from other

humans. The Puritan children treat her as an outcast and the only

interaction between them and Pearl is malicious. After she stops throwing

pebbles at birds, Pearl uses some eel-grass to make a "freshly green"(163)

letter 'A' on her bosom and runs back to Hester. When she sees Hester,

Pearl laughs and points to the 'A' on her bosom.  Pearl's A reminds Hester

of her sin, but the reader learns that Pearl does not make the 'A' to hurt

her mother. Instead, she does it because she is curious about the nature of

her mother's 'A'. Pearl has grown more mature and kind since her toddler

years. Nature has taught her to be sensitive and curious.

 

 

        Pearl's closeness to nature and her innocence develop further as

the novel approaches its conclusion. While Hester and Pearl stroll through

the forest on their way to meet Dimmesdale, Pearl observes that the

sunshine "'does not love [Hester]'"(168). The sunshine seems to "run away

and hide itself because it is afraid of something on [Hester's] bosom"(168).

Pearl, however, easily catches the sunshine because she "wears nothing on

her bosom yet"(168). As soon as Hester gets close to Pearl, the sunshine

vanishes and it appears as if Pearl absorbs the energy. Hawthorne uses the

sunshine as a judge of innocence. The sunshine, which is part of nature,

never graces Hester and even  avoids her because she is a sinner and has a

tainted soul. Pearl is the opposite. The sunshine loves her so much that it

plays enthusiastically with her. The mother and daughter soon come upon a

babbling brook. The brook sounds "kind, quiet, soothing, but

melancholy"(171), like an unhappy child or a person who knows only sadness.

Pearl calls the brook "foolish and tiresome"(171) and asks it why it is so

sad. Pearl is like the brook in some ways. She has been through hardships

in her life such as isolation and insults, but she is still too young to

understand how to be unhappy. Therefore, Pearl is actually quite different

from the brook. The brook has experienced many things and has existed long

enough to understand the world. Pearl, on the other hand, is young, naïve,

and innocent. She knows only how to be happy. Hester points out that if

Pearl "[had] a sorrow of [her] own, the brook might tell [her] of it even

as it is telling [Hester] of [hers]"(171). Hester comprehends the brook's

melancholy mood because she has been through hardships herself and has

enough experience to be sorrowful. When Dimmesdale arrives and Hester talks

to him, Pearl goes off on her own to play. Pearl is so close to nature that

a wolf comes up and "[smells] of Pearl's robe, and offers his savage head

to be patted by her hand"(188). Wolves can be as large as grown men and are

aggressive hunters. This image is effective because it accentuates the

kindred relationship between Pearl and nature. Pearl, like nature, is wild

and uncontrollable. The Puritans can not understand either one and

therefore equate both to evil and the Devil. These similarities bring Pearl

and nature closer and let them understand each other. Once again, Hawthorn

contrasts his Romantic view of nature with that of the Puritans. While the

Puritans see nature as wicked and tempting, Hawthorne sees it as something

benevolent and compassionate.

 

 

        In the end, Dimmesdale finally decides on the course of action that

he must take to free his, Hester's, and Pearl's souls. On the holiday to

welcome a new governor to his office, Dimmesdale makes his fateful decision.

He knows that he is going to die and will not be able to follow through on

the plans that he and Hester made. He also realizes that no matter where he

goes in the whole world, Chillingworth, his tormentor, will be able to

follow him, so the only place he can go is into the afterlife. After giving

his sermon, Dimmesdale asks Hester to support him. They and Pearl walk onto

the scaffold. After asking Dimmesdale to stand with her and her mother

numerous times, Pearl finally receives her wish. Dimmesdale confesses his

sin to the audience, then falls down. Before he dies, he asks Pearl to kiss

him, and she complies. At this point, a complete change in Pearl occurs.

She starts to cry, her first taste of human joy and sorrow. She does not

have to constantly struggle against society anymore, and her duty as a

messenger of anguish to Hester is also done. With her father's confession

and sacrifice of his life, Pearl is able to  begin a new existence.

 

 

        Hawthorne's utilization of nature imagery illustrates Pearl's

character, whose beauty excites fear in the Puritans and whose eccentricity

reminds Hester of her sin.

 

 

        The Puritans seem negative and ignorant. Everything that they can

not explain is evil to them. The Enlightenment caused people to think

rationally, so in Hawthorne's time, many things that the Puritans knew

nothing about were understood  and people were able to view the world more

optimistically. Pearl's character is a perfect example of something that is

completely different when seen from two points of view.

 

 

 


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