“A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life,—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation,—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!” Such are the compliments bandied between my great-grandsires and myself, across the gulf of time! And yet, let them scorn me as they will, strong traits of their nature have intertwined themselves with mine.
This passage comes from the introductory section of The Scarlet Letter, in which the narrator details how he decided to write his version of Hester Prynne’s story. Part of his interest in the story is personal—he is descended from the original Puritan settlers of Massachusetts. Like Hester, the narrator both affirms and resists Puritan values. He is driven to write, yet the Puritan in him sees the frivolity in such an endeavor: what good, after all, can come of writing this story? Yet in that very question lies the significance of this tale, which interrogates the conflict between individual impulses and systematized social codes. The narrator finds Hester Prynne compelling because she represents America’s past, but also because her experiences reflect his own dilemmas. Thus, for the narrator, the act of writing about Hester becomes not a trivial activity but a means of understanding himself and his social context.
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . . It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.
“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short. . . . “Will it not come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?”
This quote, taken from Chapter 16, “A Forest Walk,” is illustrative of the role Pearl plays in the text. It is also a meditation on the significance of the scarlet letter as a symbol and an exposition of the connection between sin and humanness—one of the novel’s most important themes.
Pearl is frequently aware of things that others do not see, and here she presciently identifies the scarlet letter on her mother’s bosom with the metaphorical (and in this case also literal) lack of sunshine in her mother’s life. Because she is just a child, Pearl often does not understand the ramifications of the things she sees. She frequently reveals truths only indirectly by asking pointed questions. These queries make her mother uncomfortable and contribute to the text’s suspense. Here Pearl is assuming, as children often do, that her mother is representative of all adults. Her question suggests that she thinks that all grown women wear a scarlet letter or its equivalent. Surely, Pearl has noticed that the other women in town don’t wear scarlet letters. But, on a more figurative level, her question suggests that sin—that which the scarlet letter is intended to represent—is an inevitable part of being a mature human being.
But Hester Prynne, with a mind of native courage and activity, and for so long a period not merely estranged, but outlawed, from society, had habituated herself to such latitude of speculation as was altogether foreign to the clergyman. She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness. . . . The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers,—stern and wild ones,—and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss.
These are the narrator’s reflections at the beginning of Chapter 18, “A Flood of Sunshine.” The quotation concerns the theme of sin and knowledge that is so central to The Scarlet Letter. Over the course of their first significant conversation in many years, Hester and Dimmesdale decide to run away to Europe together. The minister is still in a state of shock, but Hester accepts their decision with relative equanimity. One result of her “sin” has been her profound alienation from society—she has been forced into the role of philosopher. Although the narrator tries to claim that her speculations have led her “amiss,” it is clear from his tone that he admires her intellectual bravery. It is deeply ironic, too, that it is her punishment, which was intended to help her atone and to make her an example for the community, that has led her into a “moral wilderness” devoid of “rule or guidance.” Finally, this passage is a good example of the eloquent, high-flown yet measured style that the narrator frequently adopts when considering the moral or philosophical ramifications of a situation.
“Mother,” said [Pearl], “was that the same minister that kissed me by the brook?”
“Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!” whispered her mother. “We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.”
This conversation, which is described in Chapter 22, takes place a few days after Hester and Pearl’s encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest. It emphasizes the importance of physical settings in the novel and evokes the motif of civilization versus the wilderness. Dimmesdale has just walked by Hester and Pearl as part of the Election Day pageantry, and Pearl notices his changed appearance. Hester’s realization that different rules apply in the marketplace than in the forest has more significant consequences than she realizes, making this yet another ironic moment in the text. Hester primarily wishes Pearl to maintain a sense of decorum and not reveal her mother’s secret and the family’s plans to flee. On another level, though, Hester’s statement suggests that plans made in the forest will not withstand the public scrutiny of the marketplace. What is possible in the woods—a place of fantasy, possibility, and freedom—is not an option in the heart of the Puritan town, where order, prescription, and harsh punishment reign.
But there was a more real life for Hester Prynne here, in New England, than in that unknown region where Pearl had found a home. Here had been her sin; here, her sorrow; and here was yet to be her penitence. She had returned, therefore, and resumed,—of her own free will, for not the sternest magistrate of that iron period would have imposed it,—resumed the symbol of which we have related so dark a tale. Never afterwards did it quit her bosom. But . . . the scarlet letter ceased to be a stigma which attracted the world’s scorn and bitterness, and became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, and yet with reverence, too.
This passage, which appears in the novel’s final chapter, concludes the book’s examination of the theme of individual identity in the face of social judgments. After many years’ absence, Hester has just returned to her former home. She resumes wearing the scarlet letter because her past is an important part of her identity; it is not something that should be erased or denied because someone else has decided it is shameful. What Hester undergoes is more akin to reconciliation than penitence. She creates a life in which the scarlet letter is a symbol of adversity overcome and of knowledge gained rather than a sign of failure or condemnation. She assumes control of her own identity, and in so doing she becomes an example for others. She is not, however, the example of sin that she was once intended to be. Rather, she is an example of redemption and self-empowerment.