Scarlet Letter Characters Essay

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Analysis of Pearl in Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"


One of the most significant writers of the romantic period in American
literature was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote stories that opposed the
ideas of Transcendentalism. Since he had ancestors of Puritan belief, Hawthorne
wrote many stories about Puritan New England. His most famous story is the
Scarlet Letter. This novel tells of the punishment of a woman, Hester Prynne,
who committed adultery and gave birth to Pearl. A minister of Boston, Arthur
Dimmesdale, had an affair with Hester while believing that her husband, Roger
Chillingworth, had died. However, Chillingworth did not die and appears during
the early stages of Hester's punishment.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze the character of Pearl in the
Scarlet Letter. Her whole life had many difficulties while living in Puritan
New England. Furthermore, Pearl displays much parallelism to the scarlet letter
that Hester must wear. Finally, Pearl's birth intensified the conflicts in the
novel. Clearly, Pearl becomes the symbol of all the other major characters'
tragedies.

Chronology

The character of Pearl in the Scarlet Letter lived a very difficult life.
Before the novel begins, Hester Prynne gives birth to Pearl after having an
affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, a Puritan minister. Pearl's birth proves that
Hester cheated on her husband Roger Chillingworth provoking the stories action.
The novel opens with the people of Boston staring and laughing at Hester holding
Pearl while standing on the town's scaffold. At this time, Pearl is three
months old. Years later Hester gets released from jail and lives with Pearl in
the outskirts of town. Since Hester becomes alienated from Boston, Pearl turns
into "her mother's only treasure!" (Hawthorne 76). Hester makes bright red
clothes for Pearl that parallel the scarlet "A." At age three, Pearl endures
many laughs and jokes from other Puritan children but chases them away with
stones. Since Pearl's birth resulted from broken rules, she does not feel the
obligation to follow rules. Although her life is an outcast of Puritan society,
Pearl's language shows a high level of intelligence. Later, Hester receives
word that the magistrates want to take Pearl away from her. Hester takes Pearl
to the governor's house where the child meets her father, Arthur Dimmesdale.
After Dimmesdale persuades the governors to allow Hester to keep Pearl, he gives
the child a kiss on the forehead. This kiss hints that Dimmesdale is Pearl's
father.
When Hester and Pearl return from Governor Winthrop's death bed, they join
Dimmesdale standing on the town's scaffold. Pearl asks Dimmesdale "Wilt thou
stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide?" (Hawthorne 131) twice.
Realizing that Arthur is her father, Pearl wants him to confess his sin so that
the three of them can live peacefully. Next, Hester takes Pearl for a walk in
the woods to meet Dimmesdale. While the two lovers talk and come up with plans
to leave for England, Pearl goes off and plays in the woods. After Hester and
Dimmesdale finish talking, Pearl returns and finds that her mother has removed
the scarlet letter. Pearl, who has grown attached to the "A," throws a temper
tantrum until Hester puts the letter back on her dress. Later, Dimmesdale
kisses Pearl, who then runs to a brook and washes off the kiss. Pearl does not
accept Dimmesdale as her father. At the end of the novel, Hester and Pearl go
to England, but Hester returns and dies in Boston. Hawthorne never tells
exactly what happened to Pearl. The people of Boston have many different ideas
about Pearl's fate. For example, some believe that she died or that she married
and received money from Chillingworth's will. The character of Pearl portrayed
a large role in the plot of the Scarlet Letter.


Significance

Nathaniel Hawthorne develops Pearl into the most obvious central symbol of
the novel, the scarlet letter. First, Pearl's birth resulted from the sin of
adultery, the meaning of the "A." Since she came from a broken rule, Pearl does
not feel that she has to follow rules. Hawthorne expresses that "The child could
not be made amendable to rules" (Hawthorne 91). Next, Pearl exhibits the same
characteristics as the scarlet letter. For example, the letter contains scarlet
fabric. Hester makes red clothes for Pearl to wear, making her an outcast of
Puritan society. Likewise, wearing the scarlet letter has made Hester an outcast
of society. Furthermore, Pearl grows just as Hester continues to enlarge the
letter by adding golden thread. During infancy, "The letter is the first
object that Pearl becomes aware of" (Baym 57). Throughout her life, Pearl
became very attached to the scarlet letter that was on Hester's bosom. When
Hester removed it in the forest, Pearl became detached from her mother. Finally,
at the end of the novel Hester, still wearing the scarlet letter, returns to
Boston without Pearl. Although Hawthorne does not tell what happened to Pearl,
the reader learns about the death of Hester. Before Hester died, she continued
to wear the scarlet letter. While all alone in Boston, one can reason that
Hester wore the letter to keep Pearl a part of herself. Since Pearl symbolized
the scarlet letter, she held a large role in the plot of the Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne's character of Pearl is the most significant object in developing
the plot of the Scarlet Letter. To start, Pearl's birth proved Hester's sin of
adultery. Subsequently, the people of Boston forced Hester to wear the scarlet
letter. The letter turns Hester into an outcast of society. Next, when
Chillingworth found out that Hester gave birth to Pearl, he became determined to
find the father of the child. Chillingworth thinks that Dimmesdale had the
affair with Hester, but he cannot prove it. While caring for Dimmesdale,
Chillingworth commits many cruel deeds against the minister. Pearl helped to
create the conflict between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. Furthermore, Pearl's
birth reminded Dimmesdale of his sin of having an affair with Hester. Because of
his cowardly personality, Dimmesdale tries to fast and whip the sin from his
body plus "confessing his sin as he faces his Sunday congregation" (Leavitt 74).
The birth of Pearl ignited the conflict within Dimmesdale. Finally, the
conflict between Pearl and the children of Boston surfaces. Pearl's red
clothing becomes a target of other children's jokes. If the affair had never
produced a child, then the novel's major conflicts most likely would be less
intense. Therefore, every major conflict has its roots with Pearl's birth.
In Hawthorne's novel the Scarlet Letter, Pearl represents the anguish in
the lives of the other major characters. Life in Puritan New England presented
many difficulties for Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl. Next, Pearl becomes a
scarlet letter as the novel progresses. Finally, the most significant part of
the Scarlet Letter's plot was the birth and life of Pearl. The purpose of this
essay was to analyze the character Pearl from the Scarlet Letter.
Most of her characteristics show that Pearl could be a real child. For
example, Pearl's language expresses a sign of a child prodigy with a good parent
teacher. Pearl's behavior could also mean that she feels rebellious to all of
the hardships that she acquires from society. Finally, Pearl compares with a
real child in that she constantly tries throughout the novel to find out what
takes place around her. Overall, Nathaniel Hawthorne developed Pearl
successfully and made her one of the most significant and memorable characters
in the Scarlet Letter.

 

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Since its publication in 1850, The Scarlet Letter has never been out of print, nor indeed out of favor with literary critics. It is inevitably included in listings of the five or ten greatest American novels, and it is considered the best of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writings. It may also be the most typical of his work, the strongest statement of his recurrent themes, and an excellent example of his craftsmanship.

The main theme in The Scarlet Letter, as in most of Hawthorne’s work, is that of sin and its effects both on the individual and on society. It is frequently noted that Hawthorne’s preoccupation with sin springs from the Puritan-rooted culture in which he lived and from his knowledge of two of his own ancestors who presided over bloody persecutions during the Salem witchcraft trials. It is difficult for readers from later times to comprehend the grave importance that seventeenth century New Englanders placed on transgression of the moral code. As Yvor Winters has pointed out, the Puritans, believing in predestination, viewed the commission of any sin as evidence of the sinner’s corruption and preordained damnation. The harsh determinism and moralism of those early years softened somewhat by Hawthorne’s day, and during the twelve years he spent in contemplation and semi-isolation, he worked out his own notions about human will and human nature. In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne proves to be closer to Paul Tillich than to Cotton Mather or Jonathan Edwards. Like Tillich, Hawthorne saw sin not as an act but as a state—what existentialists refer to as alienation and what Tillich describes as a threefold separation from God, other humans, and self. Such alienation needs no fire and brimstone as consequence; it is in itself a hell.

There is a certain irony in the way in which this concept is worked out in The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne’s pregnancy forces her sin into public view, and she is compelled to wear the scarlet A as a symbol of her adultery. Yet, although she is apparently isolated from normal association with “decent” folk, Hester, having come to terms with her sin, is inwardly reconciled to God and self; she ministers to the needy among her townspeople, reconciling herself with others until some observe that her A now stands for “Able.” Arthur Dimmesdale, her secret lover, and Roger Chillingworth, her secret husband, move much more freely in society than she can and even enjoy prestige: Dimmesdale as a beloved pastor, Chillingworth as a respected physician. However, Dimmesdale’s secret guilt gnaws so deeply inside him that he is unable to make his peace with God or to feel at ease with his fellow citizens. For his part, Chillingworth permits vengeance to permeate his spirit so much that his alienation is absolute; he refers to himself as a “fiend,” unable to impart forgiveness or to change his profoundly evil path. His is the unpardonable sin—unpardonable not because God will not pardon, but because his own nature has become so depraved that he cannot repent or accept forgiveness.

Hawthorne clearly distinguishes between sins of passion and those of principle. Even Dimmesdale, traditional Puritan though he is, finally becomes aware of the difference. We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so.

Always more concerned with the consequences than with the cause of sin, Hawthorne to a remarkable extent anticipated Sigmund Freud’s theories of the effects of guilt. Hester, whose guilt is openly known, grows through her suffering into an extraordinarily compassionate and understanding woman, a complete person who is able to come to terms with all of life, including sin. Dimmesdale, who yearns for the relief of confession but hides his guilt to safeguard his role as pastor, is devoured internally. Again like Freud, Hawthorne recognized that spiritual turmoil may produce physical distress. Dimmesdale’s health fails and eventually he dies from no apparent cause other than guilt.

The characters in The Scarlet Letter are reminiscent of a number of Hawthorne’s shorter works. Dimmesdale bears similarities to Young Goodman Brown who, having once glimpsed the darker nature of humankind, must forevermore view humanity as corrupt and hypocritical. There are also resemblances between Dimmesdale and Parson Hooper in “The Minister’s Black Veil,” who continues to perform the duties of his calling with eloquence and compassion but is permanently separated from the company of men by the veil that he wears as a symbol of secret sin. Chillingworth shows resemblances to Ethan Brand, the limeburner who finds the unpardonable sin in his own heart: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its mighty claims!”

Hawthorne’s craftsmanship is splendidly demonstrated in The Scarlet Letter. The structure is carefully unified, with three crucial scenes—at the beginning, the middle, and the end of the action—taking place on the scaffold. The scarlet A itself is repeatedly entwined into the narrative as a symbol of sin and shame, as a reminder of Hester’s ability with the needle and her capability with people, and in Dimmesdale’s case, as evidence of the searing effects of secret guilt. Hawthorne often anticipates later developments with hints or forewarnings: There is, for example, the suggestion that Pearl lacks complete humanity, perhaps because she has never known great sorrow, but at the end of the story when Dimmesdale dies, Hawthorne writes, “as [Pearl’s] tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.”

Hawthorne’s skill as a symbolist is fully in evidence. As one critic has noted, there is hardly a concrete object in the book that does not do double duty as a symbol, among them the scarlet letter, the sunlight that eludes Hester, the scaffold of public notice, the armor in which Hester’s shame and Pearl’s selfishness are distorted and magnified. The four main characters themselves serve as central symbols in this, the greatest allegory of a master allegorist.

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