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Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:

Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson (courtesy of Greenwood Press)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 "Issues in the 1980's and 1990's," Johnson indicates that contrary to what powerful Puritanical authorities believe that Pearl "saves Hester from abandoning herself to the darkest elements of human nature."
CHILD CUSTODY
It had reached her cars[sp?] 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.... if the child ... 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.

The Scarlet Letter, 101

"The question of whether a child should remain with (or be returned to) its biological parent is no less a controversy in the twentieth century than it was for Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. The reasons for taking Pearl from Hester were several. The only one that would be considered valid today was that relocating the child was in Pearl's best interests. Hester, as a fallen woman, it was thought, would be a bad influence on Pearl. Furthermore, it was suspected that she was not providing the child with a proper religious education. The other two reasons were peculiar to Hester's Boston: the society would consider separating mother and child if it considered the arrangement to be bad for the community as a whole. It was also thought that -- good mother though Hester might be -- Pearl was interfering with Hester's rehabilitation, or penance: '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' (101). Though this is the initial reason given for taking Pearl from Hester, ironically, the opposite is true. Pearl is what saves Hester from abandoning herself to the darkest elements of human nature.

In the governor's mansion, a little impromptu custody hearing is conducted, the Reverend Wilson acting as a specialist in putting questions to Pearl, and Governor Bellingham acting as judge. The criterion they apply is not whether Hester is a good mother, but whether she is teaching Pearl the tenets of Puritanism. Pearl, being the contrary child that she is, refuses to cooperate, and the decision is initially rendered against Hester. At this point Hester is prepared to sacrifice her former lover, the Reverend Dimmesdale, if he does not act as a witness in her behalf. In short, she blackmails him - 'Look to it!' she says. In other words, if you don't step in to prevent these men from taking my child, I'll be forced to reveal that you are her father" (200-201).




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