Hawthorne’s “Witch-Baby” in The Scarlet Letter
A few moments before Reverend Dimmsdale professes his sin to the crowd of onlookers, Hester’s hopes of escape are dashed by the knowledge that Roger Chillingworth also booked a passage on the departing ship a ship that she prayed would give her and her beloved freedom from the curse of the Scarlet Letter. Little Pearl, however, relays the message to her mother that her trip has been spoilt by the addition of the evil Chillingworth. A well-meaning sailor tells Pearl, “So let thy mother take no thought, save for herself and thee. Wilt thou tell her this, thou witch-baby?” (224), implying that an additional passenger will be aboard the ship come departure. Hester, paling after hearing the news, watches her utopian plans fall to ruins as the minister breathes his last breath and she is once again left alone with Pearl, without escape from her bondage. The term “witch-baby,” though never repeated explicitly in other areas of The Scarlet Letter, demonstrates Hawthorne’s fascination with the language of witchery and its association with a child of the netherworld, Pearl.
Before the sailor’s intriguing comment to the “witch-baby,” Pearl is accosted by the strange Mistress Hibbins who asks, “They say, child, thou art of the lineage of the Prince of the Air! Wilt thou ride with me, some fine night to see thy father?” (222). From this question, Pearl’s witch-like characteristics acquire a negative connotation due to Hibbins’ insinuation that she could be associated with Satan. Pearl, however, rather than repulsed by the supposed witch’s question, repeats her phrase to the sailor after he calls her “witch-baby.” Pearl says, “Mistress Hibbins says my father is the Prince of the Air!” “If thou callest me that ill name, I will tell him of thee; and he will chase thy ship with a tempest!” (224). From these few examples, Hawthorne illustrates, through the language associated with Pearl, that otherworldly phrases will always follow the child. Even her own mother, Hester, continually looks upon the child as something associated with fantasy, witchery or ephemera. Hawthorne uses such words as “airy sprite,” “elf,” “fairy” and “imp” to denote Pearl’s actions and attitudes. Moreover, other characters in the novel illustrate the child through their own observations as that of another world inhabited by fairies and witches. Hester’s contemporaries cannot positively explain Pearl’s unusual sensibility and resort to that of her spirit of immortality.
Even the Reverend Dimmsdale shows a certain amount of confusion when describing the tiny child. Again, Hawthorne resorts to the language of mystery when the man says to Hester, “In Pearl’s young beauty, as in the wrinkled witch, it has a preternatural effect. Pacify her, if thou lovest me” (193). Mistress Hibbins, though aged and frightening, is again compared to the young child solely because they both share Hawthorne’s understanding of unknown, inhuman power. The idea of the “witch-baby” lives in almost every description of Pearl, even when Mr. Wilson sees her in the hallway of the Governor’s home and exclaims, “The little baggage hath witchcraft in her, I profess?She needs no old woman’s broomstick to fly withal!” (104). Bellingham comments as well that Pearl appears to be something from his old world in England?something hardly describable in such an environment as Puritan New England. He calls Pearl a “small apparition,” a child of the “Lord of Misrule” (98). Though much of Hawthorne’s description of Pearl revolves around the Prince of Air or the Lord of Misrule, the otherworldliness of Pearl does not have a terribly negative connotation rather, she seems steeped in another reality that is inaccessible by the puritans of Boston. The little girl tends to exist even outside the sphere of her outcast mother; Hawthorne, to prove the point of Pearl’s mysterious identity, associates her with the sprites, elves and imps of a world that no human knows intimately. His constant use of “witchery” language gives Pearl a certain character sense that implies her fate as a unknown resident of another land.
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