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The Scarlet Letter

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The discipline of the family, in those days, was of a far more rigid kind than now. The frown, the harsh rebuke, the frequent application of the rod, enjoined by Scriptural authority, were used, not merely in the way of punishment for actual offences, but as a wholesome regimen for the growth and promotion of all childish virtues. Hester Prynne, nevertheless, the lonely mother of this one child, ran little risk of erring on the side of undue severity. Mindful, however, of her own errors and misfortunes, she early sought to impose a tender, but strict, control over the infant immortality that was committed to her charge. But the task was beyond her skill. 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 the child to be swayed by her own impulses. Physical compulsion or restraint was effectual, of course, while it lasted. As to any other kind of discipline, whether addressed to her mind or heart, little Pearl might or might not be within its reach, in accordance with the caprice that ruled the moment. Her mother, while Pearl was yet an infant, grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that warned her when it would be labor thrown away to insist, persuade, or plead. It was a look so intelligent, yet inexplicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl was a human child. She seemed rather an airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports for a little while upon the cottage-floor, would flit away with a mocking smile. Whenever that look appeared in her wild, bright, deeply black eyes, it invested her with a strange remoteness and intangibility; it was as if she were hovering in the air and might vanish, like a glimmering light that comes we know not whence, and goes we know not whither. Beholding it, Hester was constrained to rush towards the child,—to pursue the little elf in the flight which she invariably began,—to snatch her to her bosom, with a close pressure and earnest kisses,—not so much from overflowing love, as to assure herself that Pearl was flesh and blood, and not utterly delusive. But Pearl’s laugh, when she was caught, though full of merriment and music, made her mother more doubtful than before. Parents disciplined their children much more harshly then than they do now. The Bible seemed to require frowns, harsh words, and beatings, and these techniques were used both to punish actual offenses and simply to promote the development of virtue. But Hester Prynne, the loving mother of this only child, was in no danger of being too harsh. Fully aware of her own errors and misdeeds, she tried from the first to impose a tender but firm control over the soul of her daughter. But that task was more than she could manage. After trying both smiles and frowns, and finding that neither had any real effect, Hester was forced to stand aside and let the child do as she pleased. She could physically handle her daughter, of course. As to any other kind of discipline, however, little Pearl might obey—or she might not. It depended on her whims at that moment. Since the time Pearl was a baby, Hester came to recognize a certain odd look that warned her when the child simply would not be persuaded. It was a strange but intelligent look: contrary, sometimes malicious, but generally accompanied by high spirits. At such moments, Hester could not help but wonder whether Pearl were really human. She seemed like a fairy that, after playing its tricks for a while on the cottage floor, would flit away with a mocking smile. Whenever that look appeared in Pearl’s wild, bright, deeply black eyes, it made her seem remote and elusive. It was as though she were hovering in the air and might vanish at any moment, like a glimmering light from out of nowhere. Seeing that look, Hester felt compelled to rush over to her child, hold her tightly to her chest, and kiss her earnestly. She did this not from an excess of love so much as to assure herself that Pearl was flesh and blood and not a delusion. But when she was caught, Pearl’s laugh, though full of joy and music, made her mother more doubtful than before.
Heart-smitten at this bewildering and baffling spell, that so often came between herself and her sole treasure, whom she had bought so dear, and who was all her world, Hester sometimes burst into passionate tears. Then, perhaps,—for there was no foreseeing how it might affect her,—Pearl would frown, and clench her little fist, and harden her small features into a stern, unsympathizing look of discontent. Not seldom, she would laugh anew, and louder than before, like a thing incapable and unintelligent of human sorrow. Or—but this more rarely happened—she would be convulsed with a rage of grief, and sob out her love for her mother, in broken words, and seem intent on proving that she had a heart, by breaking it. Yet Hester was hardly safe in confiding herself to that gusty tenderness; it passed, as suddenly as it came. Brooding over all these matters, the mother felt like one who has evoked a spirit, but, by some irregularity in the process of conjuration, has failed to win the master-word that should control this new and incomprehensible intelligence. Her only real comfort was when the child lay in the placidity of sleep. Then she was sure of her, and tasted hours of quiet, sad, delicious happiness; until—perhaps with that perverse expression glimmering from beneath her opening lids—little Pearl awoke! Sometimes Hester burst into tears when swept up by this strange spell that so often came between herself and her one treasure, paid for at such a cost. Sometimes Pearl would frown and clench her fists and harden her tiny features into a stern and unhappy expression. Often she would laugh again, louder than before, as if she were incapable of understanding or feeling human sorrow. Sometimes—though this happened less often—Pearl would be overcome with grief and cry out in broken words with love for her mother, as though to prove she had a heart by breaking it. But Hester could not trust in that stormy show of affection: It passed as quickly as it came. Hester dwelled on all of this and felt like someone who has conjured up a spirit but, by some defect in the spell, couldn’t control it. Her only real comfort came when the child lay peacefully asleep. Then she enjoyed hours of quiet, sad, delicious happiness, until (perhaps with that perverse expression glowing in her opening eyes) little Pearl woke up!
How soon—with what strange rapidity, indeed!—did Pearl arrive at an age that was capable of social intercourse, beyond the mother’s ever-ready smile and nonsense-words! And then what a happiness would it have been, could Hester Prynne have heard her clear, bird-like voice mingling with the uproar of other childish voices, and have distinguished and unravelled her own darling’s tones, amid all the entangled outcry of a group of sportive children! But this could never be. Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness; the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her; the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children. Never, since her release from prison, had Hester met the public gaze without her. In all her walks about the town, Pearl, too, was there; first as the babe in arms, and afterwards as the little girl, small companion of her mother, holding a forefinger with her whole grasp, and tripping along at the rate of three or four footsteps to one of Hester’s. She saw the children of the settlement, on the grassy margin of the street, or at the domestic thresholds, disporting themselves in such grim fashion as the Puritanic nurture would permit; playing at going to church, perchance; or at scourging Quakers; or taking scalps in a sham-fight with the Indians; or scaring one another with freaks of imitative witchcraft. Pearl saw, and gazed intently, but never sought to make acquaintance. If spoken to, she would not speak again. If the children gathered about her, as they sometimes did, Pearl would grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up stones to fling at them, with shrill, incoherent exclamations that made her mother tremble, because they had so much the sound of a witch’s anathemas in some unknown tongue. Pearl learned to speak at a very young age, moving quickly beyond her mother’s loving nonsense words. It would have made Hester Prynne so happy to hear her daughter’s clear, birdlike voice mixing with the voices of other children at play—untangling her daughter’s voice from the energetic group. But this could never be! Pearl was born an outcast from that world. As an evil sprite, a symbol and product of sin, she was not allowed to mingle with the baptized children. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinctual way Pearl seemed to understand her place among other children. Since the time Hester had been released from prison, she had never walked in public without Pearl. Pearl was with her on every trip into town: first as a babe in her mother’s arms, and later as her mother’s tiny companion, holding onto a forefinger with her entire hand and taking three or four steps for every one of Hester’s. She saw the town’s children in the grass by the street or in the doorways of houses. They played whatever dull games their Puritan upbringing allowed: pretending to go to church, taunting Quakers, taking scalps in an imaginary fight against the Indians, or scaring one another with make-believe witchcraft. Pearl stared intently at them, but she never tried to introduce herself. She would not reply if spoken to. And if the children gathered around her, as they sometimes did, Pearl would become absolutely terrifying in her puny wrath. She would pick up stones to throw at them and make incomprehensible shrieks that made her mother tremble because they sounded like the curses of some alien witch.

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