What is the significance of Pearl's challenge to Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter is a story of secrets and guilt, both hidden and exposed. Hester's guilt is displayed in front of the world, but Dimmesdale's guilt is eating at him (perhaps literally) from the inside. 

One night, in an attempt to seek some relief from his oppressive guilt, Arthur Dimmesdale climbs the scaffold. It is a false confession, of course, since there is no one there to see it, but it is something. As it turns out, three other people see him that night. 

Hester has been on an errand of mercy, and of course Pearl is with her. As they walk by the scaffold, Pearl sees Dimmesdale and rushes to join him. He will hold her hand here, but that is not enough for Pearl. Now she issues this challenge:

“But wilt thou promise,” asked Pearl, “to take my hand, and mother's hand, to-morrow noontide?”

“Not then, Pearl,” said the minister, “but another time!”

“And what other time?” persisted the child.

“At the great judgment day!” whispered the minister.

This is a significant challenge in several ways. First, it is clear that Pearl knows she and Dimmesdale are connected. Second, Dimmesdale acknowledges the connection. Third, Pearl wants him to do the right thing and claim her in a public way. While she may not know why this is important to Dimmesdale, she intuitively knows he should do it. Fourth, Arthur again displays his moral cowardice. 

Eventually Roger Chillingworth takes Dimmesdale back to his lodging, and we are left with yet another picture of this reverend's moral failing and personal weakness. 

Read the study guide:
The Scarlet Letter

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