Summary: Chapter 7: The Governor’s Hall
Hester pays a visit to Governor Bellingham’s mansion. She has two intentions: to deliver a pair of ornate gloves she has made for the governor, and to find out if there is any truth to the rumors that Pearl, now three, may be taken from her. Some of the townspeople, apparently including the governor, have come to suspect Pearl of being a sort of demon-child. The townspeople reason that if Pearl is a demon-child, she should be taken from Hester for Hester’s sake. And, they reason, if Pearl is indeed a human child, she should be taken away from her mother for her own sake and given to a “better” parent than Hester Prynne. On their way to see the governor, Hester and Pearl are attacked by a group of children, who try to fling mud at them. Pearl becomes angry and frightens the children off.
The governor’s mansion is stuffy and severe. It is built in the style of the English aristocracy, complete with family portraits and a suit of armor, which the governor has worn in battles with the Native Americans. Pearl is fascinated by the armor. When she points out her mother’s reflection in it, Hester is horrified to see that the scarlet letter dominates the reflection. Pearl begins to scream for a rose from the bush outside the window, but she is quieted by the entrance of a group of men.
Summary: Chapter 8: The Elf-Child and the Minister
Bellingham, Wilson, Chillingworth, and Dimmesdale enter the room. They notice Pearl and begin to tease her by calling her a bird and a demon-child. When the governor points out that Hester is also present, they ask her why she should be allowed to keep the child. She tells the men that she will be able to teach Pearl an important lesson—the lesson that she has learned from her shame. They are doubtful, and Wilson tries to test the three-year-old’s knowledge of religious subjects. Wilson resents Pearl’s seeming dislike of him, and Pearl’s refusal to answer even the simplest of questions does not bode well.
With nowhere else to turn, Hester begs Dimmesdale to speak for her and her child. He replies by reminding the men that God sent Pearl and that the child was seemingly meant to be both a blessing and a curse. Swayed by his eloquence, Bellingham and Wilson agree not to separate mother and child. Strangely, Pearl has taken well to Dimmesdale. She goes to him and presses his hand to her cheek. Vexed because Hester seems to have triumphed, Chillingworth presses the men to reopen their investigation into the identity of Hester’s lover, but they refuse, telling him that God will reveal the information when He deems it appropriate. As Hester leaves the governor’s mansion, Mistress Hibbins, the governor’s sister, pokes her head out of the window to invite Hester to a witches’ gathering. Hester tells her that if she had not been able to keep Pearl, she would have gone willingly. The narrator notes that it seems Pearl has saved her mother from Satan’s temptations.
Analysis: Chapters 7–8
These chapters link Pearl even more explicitly to the scarlet letter. Hester dresses her daughter in “a crimson velvet tunic of a peculiar cut, abundantly embroidered with fantasies and flourishes of gold thread.” Pearl and the embroidered letter are both beautiful in a rich, sensuous way that stands in contrast to the stiffness of Puritan society. Indeed, the narrator explicitly tells the reader that Pearl is “the scarlet letter endowed with life.” The narrator tells us that Hester has worked to create an “analogy between the object of [Hester’s] affection and the emblem of her guilt and torture.” This reinforces the contradictory nature of both the letter and Pearl, for just as Hester both loves and feels burdened by Pearl, her thoughts regarding the scarlet letter seem also to contain a touch of fondness. Certainly her attitude toward it is not one of uniform regret, and she may even harbor pleasant associations with the deeds that the letter symbolizes. The sin itself was both a guilty act and an act of affection, a problematic combination of love and “evil.”
The letter and the child also hold a dual meaning for the town fathers. They understand that both child and badge function as reminders of sin and as protections against further sin. Dimmesdale momentarily acknowledges this in his speech, but the purpose of his words is not to ponder ambiguities but rather to point to these ambiguities as proof of the futility of all interpretation. Pearl, he says, came from God, and therefore must be intended as Hester’s companion. According to Dimmesdale, any attempt to interpret her presence otherwise would be in vain because no one has knowledge of God’s intentions.
Governor Bellingham’s mansion is rich in symbolic detail. The narrator tells us that it replicates an English nobleman’s home, and Bellingham proudly displays his ancestors’ portraits. Puritans certainly didn’t seek to reject English culture as a whole, but it is nevertheless important that Bellingham has chosen to re-create a piece of the old world in the new. Bellingham’s ties to the world that the Puritans supposedly left behind suggest that he has brought with him the very things the Puritans sought to escape by leaving England: intolerance and a lack of freedom. The state of the governor’s garden implies that such translations of old into new may not be as seamless as the governor wishes. The garden, planted in the English ornamental style, is in a state of decay. The decorative plants have not taken root, and the garden’s creator appears to have given up. Cabbages, pumpkins, and a few rosebushes are all that has grown there. The English ornamental plants serve as symbols of the principles and ideals of the old world, which cannot be successfully transplanted to America.
The decaying garden can also be read in other ways. Its need of maintenance suggests that Bellingham is not capable of nurturing things—including the society he is supposed to govern. The fertility of the cabbages and the pumpkins hints at the fundamental incompatibility of ideals with the necessities of life. The garden was intended to provide a pleasing aesthetic experience, but it ends up serving only a practical purpose by growing food. The one aesthetic object that does grow in the garden is a rosebush, which explicitly links ideals to pain—every rose, after all, has its thorn.
The governor’s suit of armor is another meaningful item. It is suggestive of war and violence, but while describing the armor, the narrator takes the opportunity to mention that Bellingham trained as a lawyer. In the same way that war requires soldiers to leave their jobs and fight for their country, the “exigencies of this new country” led Bellingham to take on the roles of statesman and soldier. Such a comparison suggests that Bellingham may be incompetent in his newly adopted careers, or at least that he has overextended himself. The armor also functions as a distorting mirror, and Hester’s out-of-scale reflection signifies her unnatural place in society.
The final paradox of the governor’s house is Mistress Hibbins, the acknowledged witch who is Governor Bellingham’s sister. Something is clearly awry in a society that allows a woman who admittedly engages in satanic practices to remain a protected and acknowledged member of the community, while it forces Hester, who has erred but once, to live as an outcast and in danger of losing her child.
It is Pearl who points out many of these disturbing and significant images. In these scenes, she shows herself to be not only a spiritual help to her mother but also a kind of oracle of truth. Accurately sensing the sinister aura of the place, she tries to escape out a window. Most important, she shuns Wilson and clings to Dimmesdale, exhibiting what we will later understand as a profound subconscious insight: her instinct leads her away from the representative of her “heavenly father” and toward her true, “earthly” father. Her impulse also reflects on the relative characters of the two men. Wilson, as she senses, is not to be trusted, while Dimmesdale, although he refuses to acknowledge his guilt, will ultimately remain loyal to her and her mother.