An Evaluation of Sin and Guilt in The Scarlet Letter

April 28, 2022 by Essay Writer

Close Reading: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

In this close textual analysis I will be focusing on two small sections of Chapter 8 from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short novel, The Scarlet Letter, published in 1850 and set in seventeenth century Puritan Boston, Massachusetts. The first section begins with “What little bird of scarlet plumage…” and ends with “I can teach my little girl what I have learned from this”, and the second section begins with “God gave me the child”, ending at the end of the chapter.

Hawthorne deftly handles major themes such as sin and guilt in this chapter, employing techniques such as the use of irony, paradox and juxtaposition to convey the different characters’ reactions to the situation. One of the best examples of Hawthorne’s use of irony is when Hester acknowledges that Pearl is the cause of the majority of suffering and pain in her life, yet she is also the only thing that can bring her great happiness: “She is my happiness! – She is my torture, none the less!” Whilst Hester is very much aware of the crime she committed by having a baby out of wedlock, and is reminded of it every time she lays eyes on her daughter, Pearl is also the only person who can provide her with constant companionship, support and unconditional love. This paragraph of The Scarlet Letter is the first moment in the novel when Hester truly realises what Pearl means to her, and what she would be losing if her daughter were removed from her care by the court. When Governor Bellingham suggests that Pearl be “taken out of thy [Hester’s] charge, and clad soberly, and disciplined strictly, and instructed in the truths of heaven and earth”, he implies that it is a necessary action as Hester can do nothing for Pearl and it would be best for her “temporal and eternal welfare”. It is Governor Bellingham pronouncing upon her daughter’s predicament that makes Hester outraged at the court’s narrow-mindedness, and prompts her to fight to keep custody of her child regardless of her societal situation. The statement of “Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me too!” is a clear example of Hester’s rationality and intelligence, and displays to the reader her character’s ability to see both the positives and negatives of her situation. It is also significant to note here that, like many other sentences spoken by Hester in this chapter, Hawthorne makes constant use of the exclamation mark. This use of punctuation makes all of Hester’s ideas seem more emotional and heart-felt, whilst still underlining the situation with a sense of fear and the sense of uncertainty over their predicament.

Another interesting paradoxical situation Hawthorne creates in this section of the novel is the parallel between Hester’s acknowledged sin of unmarried sex, and the presence in Chapter 8 of Mistress Hibbins. Mistress Hibbins is Governor Bellingham’s “bitter-tempered” sister, who is widely accepted by other characters as a witch and who would be executed for it only a few years later. Hawthorne sets up the situations these two women are in as a paradox, highlighting that whilst Hester is facing having her only child taken from her and forever being a social outcast because made a single mistake, Mistress Hibbins is allowed to live in an upstanding household, be protected and cared for whilst she is openly practising witchcraft. An example of these openly satanic ideas and practices is when Mistress Hibbins counteracts Hester’s refusal to go with her into the forest that evening with “We shall have thee there anon…”. It is also significant to with this situation that it is Pearl that enlightens her mother on the danger presenting itself to her with Mistress Hibbins: “even thus early had the child saved her from Satan’s snare.” Pearl shows Hester the disturbing images and is essentially a spiritual guide and a truth-giver for her mother. Hawthorne infers this when he describes Pearl escaping out of the window after feeling the sinister tone of the place. More importantly, Pearl pushes Wilson away from her, instead clinging on to Dimmesdale, overturning the rule of the magistrate and showing the deep insight she has, which seems somewhat out of place in a little girl described as a “wild and flighty little elf”, and by Governor Bellingham as being “ a little baggage [who] hath witchcraft in her”. This insight into who she should stay close to not only suggests that Pearl has been brought up by her mother to possess the intelligence to trust her instincts, but also that she has an understanding of the situation with her father. Wilson is representative of Pearl “heavenly father”, as described by the court, and Dimmesdale is her true father, and these natural instincts lead her toward the man who can provide her with instant care and love. She quickly senses that Wilson should not be trusted and that Dimmesdale is the person who will be loyal to her and her mother until the end, and acts upon those instincts.

The notion that Pearl is the embodiment of all things evil and the source of direct punishment for Hester is present throughout Chapter 8, and particularly at the start. It is important to note that Hester is only alive in both an emotional and bodily sense because Pearl is such a strong part of her life; Hester was saved from being hanged at the start of the novel because of Pearl and the child also acts as a lifeline for Hester on a day to day basis. However, in spite of this, Pearl is not an easy little girl to take care of and is also the cause of Hester being shunned. The four men in this scene, Bellingham, Wilson, Dimmesdale and Chillingworth are amongst the first characters to acknowledge Pearl for what she is, calling her names that reference Satan such as “imp of evil”. It is because of their recognition of Pearl as an embodiment of evil and a demon-like child that Hester has to fight even harder to convince the court that Pearl is capable of learning, and that she can therefore learn from her mother’s mistakes in life. When Wilson tries to test three-year old Pearl’s knowledge of their religion it emphasizes their doubt in her ability to lead a normal, good life in society as she grows up. Pearl’s refusal to answer the questions Wilson puts to her could be read as being due entirely to her instant dislike of him, but Hester takes her daughter’s insolence upon herself, giving herself yet more pain and suffering at the hands of Pearl. The irony in this situation is whilst Hester is distraught at her daughter’s refusal to comply and be polite to Wilson results in her exclaiming “What is this being which I have brought into the world!”, Pearl also brings joy into her life.

Another small passage particularly relevant to the contradictory nature of Pearl’s character is when Hester herself describes her daughter as the embodiment of evil: “See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a million-fold the power of retribution for my sin?” This is a very strong statement for a mother to make about her own child, suggesting the possibility that Hester is subconsciously using Pearl as an outlet for her guilt, and creating a physical embodiment of the blame laid upon her after the sin she committed, linking her directly to the scarlet letter. Hester’s decision to dress her daughter entirely in scarlet for the visit to the magistrate exemplifies this, but does not work entirely to make Pearl seem entirely at fault as she and the scarlet letter look beautiful. The rich material Pearl’s dress is made of is a stark contrast to the rules imposed on her and her mother by the strict Puritan society they are stuck in. The colour scarlet should be representative of punishment and shame, but by placing the colour on Pearl it gives it a youthful life, adding to Pearl’s contradictory character. It is also important to note here that whilst Hester holds the scarlet letter in relative contempt for all the shame it brings upon her, it is possible that she has developed a type of fondness for it because it is a constant thing in her life, like her daughter. This could be the reason behind Hester’s decision to dress Pearl in scarlet, and is also relevant to the crime she committed years before, in that there was contradiction in her decision to act both out of love and “evil”, as the magistrate stated. The respective similarities between Pearl and the scarlet letter also bear relevance for the men involved in the situation. Whilst they acknowledge the similarity between Pearl and the scarlet letter as both being physical embodiments of Hester’s sin, there is also the understanding that Pearl came from God and should not be removed from Hester’s care for that reason alone. Dimmesdale in particular states this point of view: “God gave her the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its nature and requirements…. which no other mortal can possess.”. It is significant to note that what Hawthorne is implying through Dimmesdale’s short speech on Hester’s behalf is that as Pearl was given to her by God, it is nobody’s place to take her away no matter what their societal standing may be, as nobody in a truly Puritanical society could claim to have any knowledge of God’s intentions.

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