Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student
Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson
(courtesy of Greenwood Press)
In "A Literary Analysis of The Scarlet Letter" (pp. 4-6, 8), Johnson explores
how Pearl and her reactions to the scarlet letter clarify the meaning of the symbol.
"Creativity, passion, and joy" as well as nature, truth and honesty are elements
that embody the letter "A" as shown by Pearl's behavior, curiosity, and personality.
Unlike Pearl, the elders of the community see the letter as "red and devilish."
"Much of the meaning of the scarlet letter resides in Pearl because she is the result of Hester's adultery. Hester dresses the child in scarlet, presenting her as a little scarlet letter. Moreover, Pearl has a morbid obsession with the scarlet letter. The connection is first made in the chapter entitled 'The Governor's Hall,' where her red dress is described:
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! (103)
Pearl's obsession with the letter her mother wears on her breast begins in infancy as her eyes focus on it. Then as a tiny girl, Pearl evinces a fascination with the letter and continually touches it and throws wild flowers at it:
In the afternoon of a certain summer's day, after Pearl grew big enough to run about, she amused herself with gathering handfuls of wild-flowers and flinging them, one by one, at her mother's bosom, dancing up and down like a little elf whenever she hit the scarlet letter. (98, 99)
Later, she begins to pester her mother with questions about why she wears the letter and what it means. In the forest scene when Hester takes off the scarlet letter, Pearl becomes frantically disturbed and won't quiet down until Hester has it back on her dress, as if by discarding the letter Hester has discarded Pearl. Pearl even makes herself an "A' from green seaweed:
As the last touch to her mermaid's garb, Pearl took some eelgrass, and imitated
as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother's. A letter -- the letter "A" -- but freshly green, instead of scarlet! (171)
How does Pearl's connection with the scarlet letter bring us closer to its meanings? If she is identified with the scarlet letter, then the reader needs to consider her characteristics to determine some of the letter's meaning. First of all, Pearl is uncontrollable, subject to hyperactivity, bad temper, even behavior that could be classified as cruel. But for all her childish cruelty and hyperactivity, she is always depicted as nature's child. While the other children in the community play games taught by society and their parents, such as scourging Quakers and having prayer meetings, Pearl plays in the forest and by the seashore with living flora and fauna. The letter 'A' she makes for herself is not red, but green-nature's color. These observations lead to the conclusion that the 'A,' rather than being exotic and lurid, as the community sees it, is in fact natural, and that those things associated with it -- passion and sexuality in particular -- are natural to human nature, not scarlet and demonic, as the community sees both the letter and Pearl herself. This would explain why Hester, metaphorically speaking, sees an 'A' on many breasts other than her own: because passion exists as a natural part of human nature in every human being.
A second characteristic of Pearl shows that the scarlet letter means truth as well as nature. For all her faults, Pearl is the hardest truth-sayer in the novel. It is she who immediately recognizes Chillingworth as the 'Black Man,' or devil, in the community, telling Hester, 'Come away, Mother! Come away, or yonder old Black Man will catch you! He hath got hold of the minister already' (132). And it is she who suspects that Dimmesdale has a scarlet letter over his heart, asking Hester if she wears the scarlet letter for the same reason 'that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!' (171). She also knows intuitively that Hester is not telling her the truth about the letter. After Hester has lied about its meaning, Pearl will not let the matter drop.
Two or three times, as her mother and she went homeward, and as often at supper-time, and while Hester was putting her to bed, and once after she seemed to be fairly asleep, Pearl looked up, with mischief gleaming in her black eyes.
"Mother," said she, "What does the scarlet letter mean?" (174)
Not only does she speak the truth, but she pursues the truth in continually questioning Hester about the meaning of the symbol she wears and the reason why Dimmesdale keeps his hand over his heart. From this connection of Pearl to truth, it is obvious that the scarlet letter, which Pearl embodies, is also a totality of truth about human nature and relationships. That at the end of the novel Pearl leaves America never to return suggests that those aspects of human nature on which the cold Puritans frown -- in this case, creativity, passion, and joy -- will not be acknowledged in New England for many years to come" (4-6).