strength of Nathaniel Hawthorne as a writer - and the reason that his works still appeal to us today, even when the Puritan world that is so much a part of his stories is utterly gone - is his ability to write on two levels at once. The passage from his most famous work, the Scarlet Letter, that we are considering here is an excellent example: This section of Chapter 19 is simultaneously a straightforward description and also an elaborate weaving of metaphor and symbol. So skilled is his with this kind of double writing that we see both levels of description as perfectly natural and necessary; there is no sense that the literal description is too pedantic or that the symbolic description is contrived or overly elaborate.
This passage marks what is probably Hester Prynne's happiest moment in the book. In this tale of the strictures of Puritan morality upon women, Hawthorne presents us with the story of Prynne, who is condemned to wear upon her breast a scarlet letter a so that everyone she meets will be continually reminded of the act of adultery that has produced her daughter, the ill-named Pearl. Hester has refused to name the father of the child. But Hester's husband, who has come to America after her, is living in the village under the assumed name of Roger Chillingsworth and he correctly assumes that the father is Arthur Dimmesdale, whom he torments with hints that he knows the truth. Chillingsworth ruins all chances of enduring happiness for Hester and Arthur, but in the end Pearl escapes his terrible vindictiveness.
Just before we come to the passage under discussion, Hester has just asked Arthur to meet Pearl for the first time since he knows absolutely that she is his child. In Chapter 18 Hester insists that Pearl will love Arthur even as Hester loves their daughter, but the minister understands Pearl better than her mother does.
Thou must know Pearl!" said she. "Our little Pearl! Thou hast seen her, -- yes, I know it! -- but thou wilt see her now with other eyes. She is a strange child! I hardly comprehend her! But thou wilt love her dearly, as I do, and wilt advise me how to deal with her."
Dost thou think the child will be glad to know me?" asked the minister, somewhat uneasily. "I have long shrunk from children, because they often show a distrust, -- a backwardness to be familiar with me. I have even been afraid of little Pearl!"
Despite his fears as to what will happen, Arthur talks Pearl, but their first encounter after he has acknowledged to himself that he is indeed her father does not go as well as he and Hester hope, for Pearl is a strange child. Hester calls her a fairy and an elfin creature, and she is indeed, throughout this passage and throughout the book until the last chapter, a force that is not human. But nor is she part of the world of beautiful and innocent nature, a wish that Hester no doubt had when she named her Pearl.
Ironically both Hester and Arthur seem more innocent than does Pearl in this scene. The two adults become at least for a few moments - and this is especially true of Hester as she throws off her scarlet letter at least for a few moments and is seen for a brief time as the beautiful young woman that she is again - part of the gentle world of nature. But Pearl becomes a symbol of all that is wrong with Puritan society and of everything that should be absent from a glen in which there is only the purity of nature and a human family.
Rather than showing love to her mother, or any inclination to show her the courtesy of obedience that Puritan children owed their parents, Pearl acts like a creature possessed - perhaps by the sin of her parents, who now stand before her. In their presence, she becomes a symbol of the awful authority and censure of the Puritan theocracy. But she is throughout this scene literally two children: The stern Puritan force standing on the land pointing and also a beautiful child shimmering as a reflection in the water.
At length, assuming a singular air of authority, Pearl stretched out her hand, with…