In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, why does Dimmesdale feel that Pearl is mocking him—what does she tell him?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Chapter Twelve of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale has asked Hester who Chillingworth is, worried because he makes him feel so ill at ease; Dimmesdale is frightened of him and hates him. Hester, who has been sworn to secrecy by Chillingworth not to reveal his true identity, says nothing. Pearl, on the other hand, says she will tell Dimmesdale what he wants to know.

“Minister,” said little Pearl, “I can tell thee who he is!”

“Quickly, then, child!” said the minister, bending his ear close to her lips. “Quickly!—and as low as thou canst whisper.”

However, when she whispers in the Dimmesdale's ear, her words are little more than gibberish—spoken in English, but words that have no meaning. Dimmesdale asks the child if she is, in fact, mocking him, or making fun of him because she is talking this way. Pearl is (at this point in the story) a symbol. Even while her mother's "A" is symbolic of Hester's adultery, Pearl is the quintessential symbol of her mother's sin: the result of her indiscretion with Dimmesdale. Pearl is quick to remind her mother of how she should behave. (Later in the story, when Hester removes the "A" on her bodice as they relax in the forest, it is Pearl who insists she put it back on.)

In this case, Pearl is reminding Dimmesdale of his responsibility with regard to his sin: seven years before, when Hester was on the scaffold accused of adultery, she refused to name the man she had slept with. Dimmesdale remained silent then, and does still. His guilt is great, and his health seems to suffer for it. Earlier in the chapter, Pearl had asked Dimmesdale if he would join her and Hester on the scaffold the next day at noon, before the entire community, so the townspeople (we can infer) would understand the connection between the three. Even though he is haunted by his sinfulness, Dimmesdale refuses, stating they will stand together only on judgment day. So when the minister asks who Chillingworth is, her answer is not mocking him; we can assume she does not know who Chillingworth is any more than Dimmesdale does. But she is reminding Dimmesdale by her uncooperative behavior of his uncooperative behavior—of his refusal to face the consequences of his actions:

“Thou wast not bold!—thou wast not true!” answered the child. “Thou wouldst not promise to take my hand, and mother's hand, to-morrow noontide!”

Seemingly an "old soul"—a child intelligent beyond how a child of her years should be—Hawthorne uses Pearl to pinch Dimmesdale's conscience even more than he does himself, reminding him that to be right in his faith, he must confess his sin. And in this community—of Puritans—he must do it publically.

Read the study guide:
The Scarlet Letter

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