The Scarlet Letter

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Summary

Chapters 5–6

Summary Chapters 5–6

It is fitting that Pearl is fascinated by the scarlet letter, as the child and the emblem are read similarly by society. Like Pearl, the letter inspires a mixture of contempt and strange enchantment. Both also invite contemplation: people—even the narrator, some two hundred years later—feel compelled to tell the story behind the two relics.

The children of the townspeople are as cruel as their parents in their treatment of Hester and Pearl. In their “play,” the underlying attitudes of the community are revealed. The Puritans-in-training make believe they are scalping Native Americans, they mimic the gestures of going to church, and they pretend to engage in witchcraft. They mirror the true preoccupations of their parents, just as Pearl reflects the complex state of her exiled mother. Indeed, Hester frequently uses Pearl as a mirror, watching her own reflection in the child’s eyes.

It is in these chapters that the book’s romance atmosphere emerges. (The term “romance” here refers to an emphasis on the supernatural, the unrealistic, or the magical in order to explore alternatives to the “reality” of human existence.) Hester’s cottage on the edge of the forest functions as a space where the mores of the town do not wield as much authority. As we will see later, the forest itself represents even greater freedom. Pearl seems to be a kind of changeling—a surreal, elfin creature who challenges reality and thrives on fantasy and strangeness. This world of near-magic is, of course, utterly un-Puritan. At times it seems almost un-human. Yet the genius of Hawthorne’s technique here is that he uses the “un-human” elements of Hester and Pearl’s life together to emphasize their very humanness. The text suggests that being fully human means not denying one’s human nature. By indulging in dream, imagination, beauty, and passion, one accesses a world that is more magically transcendent.