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The Scarlet Letter

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The truth was, that the little Puritans, being of the most intolerant brood that ever lived, had got a vague idea of something outlandish, unearthly, or at variance with ordinary fashions, 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. These outbreaks of a fierce temper had a kind of value, and even comfort, for her mother; because there was at least an intelligible earnestness in the mood, instead of the fitful caprice that so often thwarted her in the child’s manifestations. It appalled her, nevertheless, to discern here, again, a shadowy reflection of the evil that had existed in herself. All this enmity and passion had Pearl inherited, by inalienable right, out of Hester’s heart. Mother and daughter stood together in the same circle of seclusion from human society; and in the nature of the child seemed to be perpetuated those unquiet elements that had distracted Hester Prynne before Pearl’s birth, but had since begun to be soothed away by the softening influences of maternity. In truth, the little Puritans—some of the least tolerant children who ever lived—had gotten a vague idea that there was something bizarre and unnatural about this mother and child. The children felt scorn in their hearts for the two and often mocked them out loud. Pearl felt their scorn and often repaid it with the bitterest hatred that a child can muster. These fierce outbursts gave Hester a strange comfort because at least she knew that her daughter was acting and speaking in earnest. So much of the time, Pearl’s moods were contrary and perverse and frustrated her mother. But even so, Hester was appalled to detect in her daughter a reflection of the evil that had existed in herself. Pearl had inherited all of this hatred and passion, as if by right, directly from Hester’s heart. Mother and daughter stood together, excluded from human society. Pearl exhibited the same wild nature that had distracted Hester Prynne before her daughter’s birth but that motherhood had begun to soften away.
At home, within and around her mother’s cottage, Pearl wanted not a wide and various circle of acquaintance. The spell of life went forth from her ever creative spirit, and communicated itself to a thousand objects, as a torch kindles a flame wherever it may be applied. The unlikeliest materials, a stick, a bunch of rags, a flower, were the puppets of Pearl’s witchcraft, and, without undergoing any outward change, became spiritually adapted to whatever drama occupied the stage of her inner world. Her one baby-voice served a multitude of imaginary personages, old and young, to talk withal. The pine-trees, aged, black, and solemn, and flinging groans and other melancholy utterances on the breeze, needed little transformation to figure as Puritan elders; the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children, whom Pearl smote down and uprooted, most unmercifully. It was wonderful, the vast variety of forms into which she threw her intellect, with no continuity, indeed, but darting up and dancing, always in a state of preternatural activity,—soon sinking down, as if exhausted by so rapid and feverish a tide of life,—and succeeded by other shapes of a similar wild energy. It was like nothing so much as the phantasmagoric play of the northern lights. In the mere exercise of the fancy, however, and the sportiveness of a growing mind, there might be little more than was observable in other children of bright faculties; except as Pearl, in the dearth of human playmates, was thrown more upon the visionary throng which she created. The singularity lay in the hostile feelings with which the child regarded all these offspring of her own heart and mind. She never created a friend, but seemed always to be sowing broadcast the dragon’s teeth, whence sprung a harvest of armed enemies, against whom she rushed to battle. It was inexpressibly sad—then what depth of sorrow to a mother, who felt in her own heart the cause!—to observe, in one so young, this constant recognition of an adverse world, and so fierce a training of the energies that were to make good her cause, in the contest that must ensue. At home, Pearl did not need a wide and varied circle of friends. The magic of life sprung out from her spirit, communicating with a thousand things around her like a torch igniting everything it touches. The most unlikely materials—a stick, a bunch of rags, a flower—became the objects of Pearl’s witchcraft. Without undergoing any visible change, the things around her became puppets in Pearl’s inner drama. Her single child’s voice created entire conversations with hosts of imaginary people, young and old. It took only the slightest bit of imagination to transform the pine trees—old, black, and serious, and groaning as the wind blew through their branches—into Puritan elders. The ugliest weeds of the garden were their children, and Pearl mercilessly cut them down and uprooted them. The wide variety of ways she used her imagination was remarkable and truly random. She was almost unnaturally active, jumping up and dancing about, then sinking down, exhausted by such rapid, fevered imaginings until others took their place. Watching her play was like seeing the ghostly play of the northern lights. In her playfulness, Pearl was not that different from other bright children. But Pearl, with no other children to play with, relied far more on the hordes she imagined. And the truly unique thing was the hostile way she regarded the creations of her own heart and mind. She never created an imaginary friend. Instead, she always seemed to be planting dragons’ teeth out of which would grow a crop of armed enemies for her to battle. It was unspeakably sad—and sadder still for the mother who blamed herself for it—to see the knowledge of the world’s cruelty in someone so young. Pearl already understood that she would need to be well trained if she were to win in her fight against the world.
Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynne often dropped her work upon her knees, and cried out, with an agony which she would fain have hidden, but which made utterance for itself, betwixt speech and a groan,—“O Father in Heaven,—if Thou art still my Father,—what is this being which I have brought into the world!” And Pearl, overhearing the ejaculation, or aware, through some more subtile channel, of those throbs of anguish, would turn her vivid and beautiful little face upon her mother, smile with sprite-like intelligence, and resume her play. Gazing at Pearl, Hester Prynne often let her needlework fall from her lap and cried out with an agony she would have rather hidden: “Oh Father in Heaven, if You are still my Father, who is this person I have brought into the world!” And Pearl, either overhearing her mother’s cries or somehow aware of them, would turn her rosy, beautiful little face to Hester, smile with fairylike intelligence, and resume her play.
One peculiarity of the child’s deportment remains yet to be told. The very first thing which she had noticed, in her life, was—what?—not the mother’s smile, responding to it, as other babies do, by that faint, embryo smile of the little mouth, remembered so doubtfully afterwards, and with such fond discussion whether it were indeed a smile. By no means! But that first object of which Pearl seemed to become aware was,—shall we say it?—the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom! One day, as her mother stooped over the cradle, the infant’s eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter; and, putting up her little hand, she grasped at it, smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam that gave her face the look of a much older child. Then, gasping for breath, did Hester Prynne clutch the fatal token, instinctively endeavouring to tear it away; so infinite was the torture inflicted by the intelligent touch of Pearl’s baby-hand. Again, as if her mother’s agonized gesture were meant only to make sport for her, did little Pearl look into her eyes, and smile! From that epoch, except when the child was asleep, Hester had never felt a moment’s safety; not a moment’s calm enjoyment of her. Weeks, it is true, would sometimes elapse, during which Pearl’s gaze might never once be fixed upon the scarlet letter; but then, again, it would come at unawares, like the stroke of sudden death, and always with that peculiar smile, and odd expression of the eyes. I have left out one odd aspect of the child’s personality. The very first thing she noticed in her life was not her mother’s smile, as it is for so many babies. Most babies return that smile with a faint smile in their little mouths, while their parents debate whether it was really a smile at all. But not Pearl. The first thing she noticed was the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom! One day, as her mother stooped over the cradle, the infant’s eyes seized upon the glimmering of the gold embroidery around the letter. Reaching up with her little hand, she grasped at it and smiled with a certain gleam that made her look like a much older child. Gasping for breath, Hester Prynne clutched the sinful symbol, instinctively trying to move it away. The seemingly knowing touch of Pearl’s baby hand was an incredible torture to her. Pearl looked into Hester’s eyes again and smiled, as if her mother’s agony were meant to amuse her. From that moment on, Hester never felt a moment of safety unless her child was asleep. She never enjoyed an instant of peace with her daughter. True, sometimes weeks would go by where Pearl didn’t look at the scarlet letter. But then her gaze would fix on it unexpectedly, like the stroke of sudden death, and always with that strange smile and odd expression in her eyes.

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