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The Scarlet Letter

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Hester Prynne went, one day, to the mansion of Governor Bellingham, with a pair of gloves, which she had fringed and embroidered to his order, and which were to be worn on some great occasion of state; for, though the chances of a popular election had caused this former ruler to descend a step or two from the highest rank, he still held an honorable and influential place among the colonial magistracy. One day, Hester Prynne brought a pair of gloves to the mansion of Governor Bellingham. She had fringed and embroidered the gloves, as he had ordered, for some important official occasion. Although this former ruler had lost the last election, he still held a place of honor and influence in colonial society.
Another and far more important reason than the delivery of a pair of embroidered gloves impelled Hester, at this time, to seek an interview with a personage of so much power and activity in the affairs of the settlement. It had reached her ears, that there was a design on the part of some of the leading inhabitants, cherishing the more rigid order of principles in religion and government, to deprive her of her child. On the supposition that Pearl, as already hinted, was of demon origin, these good people not unreasonably argued that a Christian interest in the mother’s soul required them to remove such a stumbling-block from her path. If the child, on the other hand, were really capable of moral and religious growth, and possessed the elements of ultimate salvation, then, surely, it would enjoy all the fairer prospect of these advantages by being transferred to wiser and better guardianship than Hester Prynne’s. Among those who promoted the design, Governor Bellingham was said to be one of the most busy. It may appear singular, and, indeed, not a little ludicrous, that an affair of this kind, which, in later days, would have been referred to no higher jurisdiction than that of the selectmen of the town, should then have been a question publicly discussed, and on which statesmen of eminence took sides. At that epoch of pristine simplicity, however, matters of even slighter public interest, and of far less intrinsic weight than the welfare of Hester and her child, were strangely mixed up with the deliberations of legislators and acts of state. The period was hardly, if at all, earlier than that of our story, when a dispute concerning the right of property in a pig, not only caused a fierce and bitter contest in the legislative body of the colony, but resulted in an important modification of the framework itself of the legislature. There was another reason, more important than the delivery of his embroidered gloves, that Hester wanted to see this powerful man. She had learned that some of the leading townspeople, favoring stricter rules in religion and government, wanted to take Pearl away from her. These good people, believing Pearl to be demon child (and with good reason), argued that their concern for Hester’s soul required them to remove this obstacle from her path to salvation. On the other hand, if the child really were capable of spiritual growth, they reasoned that its soul should have a better guardian than Hester Prynne. Governor Bellingham was said to be among the more prominent supporters of this plan. It may seem odd, perhaps even absurd, that a personal matter like this—which in later days would have been handled by the city council—would have been subject to public debate, with leading politicians taking sides. In that simpler time, though, legislators and statesman involved themselves in the slightest matters, even ones much less important than the fate of Hester and her child. Not long before the time of our story, a dispute over the ownership of a pig caused not only a bitter debate within the legislature but also led to an important change in the structure of the legislative body.
Full of concern, therefore,—but so conscious of her own right, that it seemed scarcely an unequal match between the public, on the one side, and a lonely woman, backed by the sympathies of nature, on the other,—Hester Prynne set forth from her solitary cottage. Little Pearl, of course, was her companion. She was now of an age to run lightly along by her mother’s side, and, constantly in motion from morn till sunset, could have accomplished a much longer journey than that before her. Often, nevertheless, more from caprice than necessity, she demanded to be taken up in arms, but was soon as imperious to be set down again, and frisked onward before Hester on the grassy pathway, with many a harmless trip and tumble. We have spoken of Pearl’s rich and luxuriant beauty; a beauty that shone with deep and vivid tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown, and which, in after years, would be nearly akin to black. There was fire in her and throughout her; she seemed the unpremeditated offshoot of a passionate moment. Her mother, in contriving the child’s garb, had allowed the gorgeous tendencies of her imagination their full play; arraying her in a crimson velvet tunic, of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold thread. So much strength of coloring, which must have given a wan and pallid aspect to cheeks of a fainter bloom, was admirably adapted to Pearl’s beauty, and made her the very brightest little jet of flame that ever danced upon the earth. Hester was full of concern as she left her lonely cottage. And yet she was so confident of her own position that a match-up with the public on the one side and a single mother, backed by her maternal instincts, on the other almost seemed like an equal fight. Of course, little Pearl came along. She was now old enough to run along by her mother’s side, and, as energetic as she was, she could have easily gone much farther than they were going that day. But, out of whim more than necessity, Pearl would often demand to be carried, only to demand to be let down again to run, tripping and falling harmlessly, on the grassy path ahead of Hester. I have described Pearl’s rich, luxuriant beauty: vivid skin, a bright complexion, deep and lively eyes, and glossy brown hair that would look almost black in her later years. There was fire in and throughout her. She seemed like the unintended product of a passionate moment. In designing her child’s clothing, Hester had allowed her imagination to run free, dressing her daughter in an oddly cut red velvet tunic, richly embroidered with gold thread. Such bold color, which would have made a fainter beauty look pale, suited Pearl very well. It made her look like the brightest flame ever to dance upon the earth.
But it was a remarkable attribute of this garb, and, indeed, of the child’s whole appearance, that it irresistibly and inevitably reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom. It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life! The mother herself—as if the red ignominy were so deeply scorched into her brain, that all her conceptions assumed its form—had carefully wrought out the similitude; lavishing many hours of morbid ingenuity, to create an analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt and torture. But, in truth, Pearl was the one, as well as the other; and only in consequence of that identity had Hester contrived so perfectly to represent the scarlet letter in her appearance. But the strange effect of this outfit, and really of the child’s whole appearance, is that it inevitably reminded the viewer of the symbol Hester Prynne was condemned to wear on her breast. Pearl was the scarlet letter in another form: the scarlet letter come to life! Hester herself had carefully crafted this likeness, as if the red shame were so deeply burned into her brain that all of her work resembled it. She spent many long, dark hours working to bring about this connection between the object of her affection and the symbol of her guilt. Of course, Pearl was both of these things, and in recognition of that fact, Hester worked to perfectly represent the scarlet letter in Pearl’s appearance.

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