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In The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne takes great care in describing Pearl’s appearance. In most cases, it is with an eye toward her striking natural beauty. There is an important irony here—Pearl, conceived in a sin that altered the lives of her mother and the Reverend Dimmesdale while destroying the obsessed Roger Chillingworth, is something extraordinary to look at—a true physical marvel.
Hawthorne devotes chapter six to Pearl, and expresses the ideas above in metaphorical terms in the chapter’s first sentence:
. . . that little creature, whose innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable decree of Providence, a lovely and immoral flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion.
Hawthorne loves the ambiguity he has created with the beautiful child that came from sin, and in the next quotation he goes so far as to compare her to something that belongs, ironically, to mankind’s home when mankind was still innocent and sinless:
Certainly, there was no physical defect. By its perfect shape, its vigor, and its natural dexterity in the use of all its untried limbs, the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden.
Hester plays her part with a willful purpose. Just as she decorates her letter “A” to make it a thing of beauty, much to the disapproval of the townsfolk, she also makes a display of Pearl. Pearl does not slouch about town in shame. Instead, Hester sees to it that she is radiant, a living scarlet letter that will make itself seen and known:
Her mother, with a morbid purpose that may be better understood hereafter, had bought the richest tissues that could be procured, and allowed her imaginative faculty its full play in the arrangement and decoration of the dresses which the child wore before the public eye.
Hawthorne uses both the scarlet letter and Pearl as a way to show Hester’s defiance. She has been cast out and marked, and for the most part she bears her punishment dutifully, but the embroidering of the letter and the dressing up of Pearl allow her to make a silent protest, and it is one that her neighbors tolerate. Perhaps this is Hawthorne’s way of demonstrating that the American Puritans might not have been as narrow minded and self-assured as we see them in hindsight.
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