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The Scarlet Letter

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We have as yet hardly spoken of the infant; that little creature, whose innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable decree of Providence, a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion. How strange it seemed to the sad woman, as she watched the growth, and the beauty that became every day more brilliant, and the intelligence that threw its quivering sunshine over the tiny features of this child! Her Pearl!—For so had Hester called her; not as a name expressive of her aspect, which had nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be indicated by the comparison. But she named the infant “Pearl,” as being of great price,—purchased with all she had,—her mother’s only treasure! How strange, indeed! Man had marked this woman’s sin by a scarlet letter, which had such potent and disastrous efficacy that no human sympathy could reach her, save it were sinful like herself. God, as a direct consequence of the sin which man thus punished, had given her a lovely child, whose place was on that same dishonored bosom, to connect her parent for ever with the race and descent of mortals, and to be finally a blessed soul in Heaven! Yet these thoughts affected Hester Prynne less with hope than apprehension. She knew that her deed had been evil; she could have no faith, therefore, that its result would be for good. Day after day, she looked fearfully into the child’s expanding nature; ever dreading to detect some dark arid wild peculiarity, that should correspond with the guiltiness to which she owed her being. We have hardly spoken about that innocent infant who happened to spring, like a beautiful, eternal flower, from the foul indulgence of her mother’s guilty passion. How strange it seemed to Hester, as she watched her daughter grow more beautiful and more intelligent every day! Her Pearl! That’s what Hester named her, not in reference to the child’s appearance—which was neither calm nor pale, like a true pearl—but because she had come at a great price. Hester bought the child by parting with the only treasure she had: her virtue! How strange, indeed! Society had marked this woman’s sin with a scarlet letter, which was so powerful that no human sympathy could reach her unless it was the sympathy of a fellow sinner. As the direct result of the sin that man had punished, God had given her a lovely child. Pearl’s place was on Hester’s dishonored bosom. She connected her mother to the rest of mankind, and she would eventually become a blessed soul in Heaven! Yet these thoughts gave Hester more fear than hope. She knew she had committed an evil act, so she had no faith that its result would be good. Day after day, she watched fearfully as the child grew, always dreading the emergence of some dark and wild trait derived from the guilt in which she was conceived.
Certainly, there was no physical defect. By its perfect shape, its vigor, and its natural dexterity in the use of all its untried limbs, the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden; worthy to have been left there, to be the plaything of the angels, after the world’s first parents were driven out. The child had a native grace which does not invariably coexist with faultless beauty; its attire, however simple, always impressed the beholder as if it were the very garb that precisely became it best. But little Pearl was not clad in rustic weeds. Her mother, with a morbid purpose that may be better understood hereafter, had bought the richest tissues that could be procured, and allowed her imaginative faculty its full play in the arrangement and decoration of the dresses which the child wore, before the public eye. So magnificent was the small figure, when thus arrayed, and such was the splendor of Pearl’s own proper beauty, shining through the gorgeous robes which might have extinguished a paler loveliness, that there was an absolute circle of radiance around her, on the darksome cottage-floor. And yet a russet gown, torn and soiled with the child’s rude play, made a picture of her just as perfect. Pearl’s aspect was imbued with a spell of infinite variety; in this one child there were many children, comprehending the full scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant-baby, and the pomp, in little, of an infant princess. Throughout all, however, there was a trait of passion, a certain depth of hue, which she never lost; and if, in any of her changes, she had grown fainter or paler, she would have ceased to be herself;—it would have been no longer Pearl! Certainly, Pearl had no physical defect. The child was so perfectly formed, energetic, and coordinated that she could have been born in the Garden of Eden. And if she had been left there after Adam and Eve had been driven out, she could have been the playmate of the angels. The child had a natural grace, which doesn’t always come with faultless beauty. Her clothes, no matter how simple, always seemed perfect. But little Pearl wasn’t dressed shabbily. Her mother—with a dark purpose that will become clearer as the story goes on—had bought the most luxurious material she could find and allowed her imagination to run wild when she designed the dresses Pearl wore in public. She looked so magnificent when dressed up—her natural beauty made more stunning—that a circle of radiance glowed around her on the cottage floor. A lesser beauty would have faded under such gorgeous garments. But a plain gown, torn and dirty from play, looked just as perfect on Pearl. Her features were ever-changing, as though enchanted. In this one child there were many children, ranging from the wild prettiness of a peasant baby to the miniature magnificence of an infant princess. Yet there was always a hint of passion, a certain color, which she never lost. If, in any of her changes, she had lost this color and grown paler, she would have ceased to be herself. She would no longer have been Pearl!
This outward mutability indicated, and did not more than fairly express, the various properties of her inner life. Her nature appeared to possess depth, too, as well as variety; but—or else Hester’s fears deceived her—it lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born. The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered. Hester could only account for the child’s character—and even then, most vaguely and imperfectly—by recalling what she herself had been, during that momentous period while Pearl was imbibing her soul from the spiritual world, and her bodily frame from its material of earth. The mother’s impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light, of the intervening substance. Above all, the warfare of Hester’s spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl. She could recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart. They were now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child’s disposition, but, later in the day of earthly existence, might be prolific of the storm and whirlwind. This outward changeability hinted at the nature of Pearl’s inner life. Her personality seemed to be both deep and varied, but—unless Hester’s fears fooled her—it was poorly adapted to the world she was born into. The child could not be made to follow rules. A great law had been broken to bring her into the world; the result was a creature whose traits were beautiful and brilliant but disordered. Or perhaps those traits had an order of their own, and one that was almost impossible to figure out. Hester could only make the vaguest sense of the child’s personality by remembering what state she herself had been in when Pearl was conceived. Hester’s passion had been passed on to the unborn infant. No matter how clean and clear Pearl’s moral life had originally been, it had been dyed crimson and gold, with a fiery luster, black shadows, and the intense light of Hester’s passion. Above all, the conflicted nature of Hester’s spirit at that time had been passed on to Pearl. Hester recognized in her child her own wild, desperate defiance, her quick temper, and even some of the melancholy that had brooded in her heart. Those clouds of sadness were now illuminated by the morning light of Pearl’s cheerful disposition, but later in her life they might produce a great storm.

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