What question does Pearl ask her mother in chapter 15 of The Scarlet Letter?Nathaniel Hawthorne

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As a constant reminder of her sin of passion, Pearl is the living scarlet letter of Hester Pyrnne.  In Chapter XV of The Scarlet Letter, Hester returns after her interview with Roger Chillingworth; she reflects upon her encounter with this deformed figure and concludes that she hates the man.  But, she dismisses thoughts of the chill that this man has brought her heart and calls to her little Pearl who has been amusing herself nearby in a tidal pool.

Hearing her mother's call just as she has formed the letter A on her chest with eel-grass, freshly green, Pearl wonders if her mother will ask what her decoration means.  As Hester notices the eel-grass she tells Pearl,

My little Pearl...the green letter, and on thy childish bosom has no purport.  But does thou know, my child what this letter means which they mother is doomed to wear?" 

Pearl innocently answers that her mother wears the great letter A. Then, in order to determine whether Pearl attaches any symbolic meaning to the letter, her mother asks if Pearl knows why she wears it.  Ironically, Pearl replies that Hester wears the A for the same reason that the minister holds his hand over his heart. Smiling at the "absurd incongruity of the child's observation" at first, Hester quickly turns pale as she realizes the intuitive precocity of Pearl.  So, she then asks Pearl, "What has the letter to do with any heart save mine?"

Pearl replies that she knows not, but "yonder old man" with whom her mother has spoken may know.  Suddenly, Pearl asks her mother,

But in good earnest now; mother, dear, what does this scarlet letter mean?--and why dost thou wear it on they bosom?--and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart?

For the first time, Hester wonders if she can, after all, have more than "a doubtful tenderness" from her child; for, perhaps in this precocious child she may have a true friend of "unflinching courage" and a "sturdy pride."  Now, maybe, this child may be a help to Hester, soothing away the sorrow "that lay cold in her mother's breast." 

Nevertheless, Hester is not prepared to answer this question truthfully:  "No! If this is the price of the child's sympathy, I cannot pay it."  So, Hester tells Pearl that she wears the scarlet A for the sake of its gold thread.  When Pearl will not relinquish her question, Hester becomes angry and threatens to lock her in a closet. This incident of Pearl and her mother presages a later scene in which Pearl, the Reverend Dimmesdale, and Hester will all be together and the real family of the three will be formed.


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The Scarlet Letter

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