Pearl: “witch baby” or confused child? – The Scarlet Letter Essay
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, tells the tragic tale of Hester Prynne, a beautiful, righteous Puritan of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who
becomes a social outcast following the birth of her
illegitimate daughter Pearl. The strict Puritan society punishes Hester by forcing her to forever wear a scarlet “A” and banishing her from the community; thus simultaneously punishing Pearl, and leading her into a confused childhood. Because of Pearl’s odd attributes and the fact that she had no father, the Puritan community began to wonder if Pearl was a “witch-baby” fathered by the Devil. However, it is much more probable, considering Pearl’s situation, that this was not the case; but rather that Pearl was simply a confused child living in difficult circumstances.
Throughout the novel Pearl is referred to as “the scarlet letter endowed with life (103),” because she is Hester’s constant reminder of her sin. Because of this, Hester’s view of Pearl is obstructed by her own guilty conscience, and thus, Hester’s own sin leads her to believe, along with the Puritan community, that Pearl might be a “witch-baby.” Sadly, because Hester is a single mother, and because she feels so guilty about her sin, she is not able to raise Pearl to be an obedient Puritan child. “After testing both smiles and frowns, and proving that neither mode of treatment possessed any calculable influence, Hester was ultimately compelled to stand aside, and permit [Pearl] to be swayed by her own impulses (94).” Consequently, when Reverend Wilson asks Pearl “Canst thou tell me, my child, who made thee? (111)” Pearl responds, out of defiance, that she was “plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison door (111).” While this causes Mr. Wilson to think that Pearl does not believe in God, in fact, Pearl’s response was suggested by a rose bush outside the window and conjured up as a result of her insolence.
Sadly, because of Hester’s sin, Pearl was isolated from the other Puritan children, and “was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants (95).” Since Pearl could not associate with other children, she created her own imaginary world in nature. Also, due to Hester and Pearl’s strange isolation “the little Puritans . . . had got a vague idea of something outlandish . . . in the mother and child; and therefore scorned them in their hearts, and not unfrequently reviled them with their tongues. Pearl felt the sentiment, and requited it with the bitterest hatred that can be supposed to rankle in a childish bosom (96).” Thus, she would “[snatch] up stones to fling at [the Puritan children] with shrill, incoherent exclamations (96)” whenever they gathered around her. Pearl’s fierce temper was not inherited from the Devil, as believed by the Puritans, but rather it was forced upon her by the Puritan society, which isolated her and prevented her from having a normal childhood.
While Pearl is viewed by the Puritan society as being a sinful, wicked child, in fact, she is one of the most innocent characters in the novel. For example, when Pearl washes off Reverend Dimmesdale’s kiss in the forest, it is not because she feels she cannot love the Reverend since he is connected to God, but rather because she knows he is keeping a secret from her, as well as from the Puritan community, and refuses to be kind to him until he reveals the truth. Also, Pearl’s odd fascination with the scarlet letter is a result of her connection with it. Throughout the novel, Pearl is identified with the scarlet letter, and is a constant reminder to her parents of their sin. When Hester casts off the letter in the forest, Pearl refuses to be pacified until Hester returns the letter to her bosom, thus ensuring that she will not forget her sin.
Considering Pearl’s isolation from Puritan society and her inferior upbringing, it is much more likely that Pearl was not a “witch-baby,” as believed by Hester and the Puritan society in The Scarlet Letter, but rather, simply a confused child. Luckily, as the story ends and Reverend Dimmesdale reveals his sin on the scaffold, Pearl is able to live a normal life because the burden of her parents’ sin was lifted from her soul. “Pearl kissed [Reverend Dimmesdale’s] lips. A spell was broken . . . and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow (238).”