The Scarlet Letter - Pt 5

Chapters 3 — 8

This post is all about Pearl, Hester’s illegitimate daughter, who grows up as a lawless symbol of the law that was broken. ‘The child could not be made amenable to rules.’ She is an ‘imp’ with ‘sprite-like intelligence’ — almost demonic, but without actually being evil.

She’s an unusual child. It’s hard to imagine a child like her existing in real life. She’s even more unlikely in the history of English literature — there are few other books with children as capricious as Pearl. I challenge you to find one!

Although this is a big generalisation, children don’t feature largely in English literature before the late eighteenth-century or early nineteenth-century. They are there, but not often central. Then the Romantic movement in Europe and Britain began to propagate the idea of original innocence, the notion that we come into the world perfect and only learn our bad manners and selfishness from watching others. This is still a common notion today — much to the astonishment of many new parents! In the early nineteenth-century, all of a sudden, children and childhood became a matter of great interest in literature.

This notion of original innocence is very visible in poets like Wordsworth and novelists like Dickens. Dickens rather idealises children (especially female children) as innocents, little angels, and so on. Transcendentalist writers in America tended to make similar assumptions about human nature and about children — ‘Infancy is the perpetual Messiah, which comes into the arms of fallen men, and pleads with them to return to paradise’, wrote Emerson, one of Hawthorne’s American contemporaries (Chapter 8 of Emerson’s essay Nature).

It seems to me that Hawthorne created Pearl partly to express a concern about such ideas. Hawthorne himself seems to have thrown away the Puritan (indeed Christian) idea of ‘original sin’ — Pearl isn’t really wicked deliberately — but he doesn’t embrace this new notion of original innocence either. Pearl shows us that if children are not originally bad, then they might not be good either — she’s not immoral, more a-moral. It’s not that she’s broken any laws, it’s that she’s never known them to exist. She’s literally ‘law-less’. Sometimes her actions turn out to be in line with the rules, sometimes they don’t — it’s entirely a matter of chance.

Chillingworth on the other hand, knows the rules, and breaks them — he is indeed evil. But that’s another story.