Summary: Chapter 15: Hester and Pearl
As Chillingworth walks away, Hester goes to find Pearl. She realizes that, although it is a sin to do so, she hates her husband. If she once thought she was happy with him, it was only self-delusion. Pearl has been playing in the tide pools down on the beach. Pretending to be a mermaid, she puts eelgrass on her chest in the shape of an “A,” one that is “freshly green, instead of scarlet.” Pearl hopes that her mother will ask her about the letter, and Hester does inquire whether Pearl understands the meaning of the symbol on her mother’s chest. They proceed to discuss the meaning of the scarlet letter. Pearl connects the letter to Dimmesdale’s frequent habit of clutching his hand over his heart, and Hester is unnerved by her daughter’s perceptiveness. She realizes the child is too young to know the truth and decides not to explain the significance of the letter to her. Pearl is persistent, though, and for the next several days she harangues her mother about the letter and about the minister’s habit of reaching for his heart.
Summary: Chapter 16: A Forest Walk
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . It will not flee from me; for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
Intent upon telling Dimmesdale the truth about Chillingworth’s identity, Hester waits for the minister in the forest, because she has heard that he will be passing through on the way back from visiting a Native American settlement. Pearl accompanies her mother and romps in the sunshine along the way. Curiously, the sunshine seems to shun Hester. As they wait for Dimmesdale by a brook, Pearl asks Hester to tell her about the “Black Man” and his connection to the scarlet letter. She has overheard an old woman discussing the midnight excursions of Mistress Hibbins and others, and the woman mentioned that Hester’s scarlet letter is the mark of the “Black Man.”
When Pearl sees Dimmesdale’s figure emerging from the wood, she asks whether the approaching person is the “Black Man.” Hester, wanting privacy, tries to hurry Pearl off into the woods to play, but Pearl, both scared of and curious about the “Black Man,” wants to stay. Exasperated, Hester exclaims, “It is no Black Man! . . . It is the minister!” Pearl scurries off, but not before wondering aloud whether the minister clutches his heart because the “Black Man” has left a mark there too.
Analysis: Chapters 15-16
These chapters return the reader to the romance world of preternaturally aware children and enchanted forests. Pearl has cleverly discerned the relationship between her mother’s mark of shame and the minister’s ailment, which share one obvious characteristic—their physical location upon the body. None of the townspeople has made the connection that Pearl now makes because they would never suspect their pastor to be capable of such a sin. Again, we see the problem with the Puritan “reading” of the world: intent on preserving the functional aspects of their society (i.e., the minister as an icon of purity), the people of Boston refuse to make what would seem to be an obvious set of connections between Hester’s situation and the minister’s mysterious torments. Pearl is too young to understand sex, adultery, or shame, but she is not blind, and she has intuitively understood the link between Hester and Dimmesdale for some time. She devises her green “A” as a deliberate test of her mother because she does not know why her mother is shunned and wants an explanation.
The best explanation Hester has for her daughter is to tell her that she has indeed met the “Black Man” and that the scarlet letter is his mark, as the old woman has said. The discussions in the last four chapters of the identity of the “Black Man” suggest a profound confusion among the characters about the nature of evil, the definition of which is an important theme in this book. Hester comes to a realization that her sins have resulted partially from the sins of others. For example, Chillingworth’s willingness to manipulate a young and naïve Hester into marriage has led to the present hardness of her heart. Sin breeds sin, but not in the way the Puritan divines would have it. Sin is not a contamination but, at least in Hester’s case, a response to hurt, loneliness, and the selfishness of others. Thus, the sources of evil are many and varied, as Pearl demonstrates in her identification of both Chillingworth and Dimmesdale as potential incarnations of the “Black Man.”
The figure of Mistress Hibbins further complicates the picture of sin and evil in these chapters. As a witch participating in midnight rituals that directly invoke the “Black Man,” one would expect her to be the very embodiment of sin. But it is possible that Mistress Hibbins is representative not so much of pure evil but of the society she initially appears to be subverting: although she knows she will eventually be executed as a witch, at this point Mistress Hibbins is reaping the benefits of Puritan society’s hypocrisy.
It is notable that she appears in the background of each of the scenes in which Hester faces some sort of crisis. She symbolizes this society’s tolerance of, and even need for, malevolence. We are meant to see that her transgressions are simply more extreme versions of the evils done by men like her brother and Reverend Wilson. The fact that her behavior goes unpunished forces the reader to question whether it is Hester’s lovemaking or the deeds of figures like Mistress Hibbins that really constitutes the greater threat to social stability.
Both Mistress Hibbins’s late-night activities and Hester’s and Pearl’s soul-searching are set in the forest, a place that surrounds and yet stands in opposition to the town. The woods are wild and natural, unbound by any man-made rules or codes. Additionally, the forest is a place of privacy and intimacy, which contrasts markedly to the public spaces of the town. For these reasons, it is appropriate that Hester chooses to meet Dimmesdale in the woods, through which he will pass in transition between two human extremes—the repressed, codified Puritan town and the comparatively “wild” and “natural” Indian settlement.
As an intermediary between the two, the forest serves as a space between repression and chaos, between condemnation and total liberty. It should provide a balance that is ideal for a reasoned exchange between the former lovers. Nature itself, however, seems to be signaling that what is to take place will not be a simple illumination of truth. The sunlight seems to be avoiding Hester deliberately as she and Pearl walk through the forest. If, as it frequently does, light symbolizes truth, then this strange natural phenomenon appears to be suggesting that Hester is avoiding, or will not find, the “truth” that she seeks to convey to Dimmesdale. Indeed, the next chapters will show this to be the case.