The Scarlet Letter tells the story of a young women accused of adultery and her life with her child in Puritan New England. It was written by Nathanial Hawthorne who himself was born in July of 1804 in Salem Massachusetts. His father, who was a ship captain died in 1808 when Hawthorne was just four years old. Some years later his family relocated to Maine when in 1820 Hawthorne began to attend Bowdoin college and started to write fiction. After he was done with school, he relocated to Salem where he started to write fulltime. Here, he isolated himself by reading and writing, opposed to starting a profession. At his own expense, he wrote a novel which he subsequently destroyed every copy he could find. In 1842 he married Sophia Peabody and had his first daughter two years later. In all, he was a father to three children who was raised in a strong Puritan family. From Bloom’s brief biography of Nathaniel Hawthorne, it can be seen that Hawthorne was inspired to write based off of where he lived at the time. As he was someone who was fond of travel and new surroundings, he made his way to various states in America, France, Rome and Florence. At the time of his death in 1864, he left unpublished works of fiction that were later published in the late 19th century. His most famous work The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850 and had an everlasting effect on society and as one of the most famous books to be written.
Through this novel, Hester and her daughter Pearl are at the center of it all. They are living in isolation from the rest of the community as Hester is tasked with wearing the scarlet letter A on her chest as a sign of her adultery. Her daughter Pearl, is unfortunately dealt a bad hand being her daughter as she too is viewed as an outsider. Her name Pearl is significant because she is “of great price” to her mother as they are constant companions due to their exclusion (Hawthorne, 93). Hester attempts to make life for her daughter easier and more bearable than her own as she sews her extravagant dresses. However, Pearl is mischievous who shows disrespect for society due to her fiery passionate personality. This could be an outward expression of how Hester is actually feeling, and her possible wants to lash out and rebel against society is showing in her daughter. As The Scarlet Letter was written around the time Hawthorne was having kids of his own, Pearl can be interpreted as a child that Hawthorne did not wish for his kids to behave or become. Or even, how Hawthorne himself perceived his own upbringing in Puritan New England. Pearl is aggressive towards other children when she approaches them and does not seem to have any friends of her own. When she encounters other children she would say mean things to them and pelt them with whatever was around her at the time (Hawthorne, 97). Her mind is her friend. She uses her imagination to create games and enemies. It could be interpreted perhaps by other Puritans in the community that Pearl is exhibiting gestures of the devil. When Hester asks about the Heavenly Father, she laughs and denies this and creates enemies in her imagination of Puritans that she desires to destroy (Hawthorne, 116). Furthermore, Hawthorne writes that it is sad that Pearl does not create friends with her imagination, yet she would create images of dragon’s teeth and enemies whom she would go into battle with (Hawthorne, 99). This could be argued that it was a form of play, and any imagination was good because it meant that the child was able to create something out of nothing to have some play in their life.
Hawthorne uses the Scarlet Letter so show the opposite of what Puritan childhood was actually like. He portrays the Puritan childhood in a null light in which the children would play going to church or scare each other with imitative witchcraft (Hawthorne, 97). Hester quickly learns that she should not try and control Pearl, but this comes back to hurt her. Once Hester is released from prison, years late Hester is made aware that people of author are thinking of taking Pearl away due to her behaviour which is seen as demonic like and Hester is not safe with her. This could perhaps be because those of authority feared out what Pearl could do. Not in terms of physical harm, but making her mother realize that the world around them is corrupt. Additionally, as Pearl was a child of sin, it is easy to see that Hawthorne would portray her as a rebellious child. As the common perception of Puritan children is that they spend majority of their childhood trying to rid themselves of original sin, Pearl almost has to try twice as hard because of the nature of her birth. Hawthorne makes a unique parallel to Pearl’s physical extremities and her personality. He identifies that she has no physical defects and “that the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden… the child had a native grace…” (Hawthorne, 93). He continues on in describing her external beauty, yet this was affected due to how she became existed. A great law had been broken with her birth and Pearl’s defiant behaviour could be a sign from God as to her being born in sin. A child who was born not only with original sin, but also sin from birth such as Pearl, Hawthorne points to a more difficult life that would have been led with a lack of childhood over all. On the contrary though was this true. When reflecting back on the 1800s and the Puritans, the crude lack of fun thoughts we have on them is far from the truth. It needs to be kept in mind that this was a different time when in comparison to today, therefore they had different ideas and views on childhood. What appears to be lack of fun and education perhaps was actually invigorating to the children at the time. Yes, they sang songs about God, but they were not only enlightening, but also a form of play and fun for the children. Hawthorne in chapter 7 mentions Pearl as of demon origin. However, good people felt that a “Christian interest in the mother’s soul required them to remove such as stumbling block from her path” (Hawthorne, 103). Here, he is referencing that Pearl is of some sort of danger to her mother and even herself if she should continue with her mischievous behaviour. It was thought that Pearl would be better off under guardianship in which she would be more capable of religious and moral growth. This adds to the common perception of lack of childhood within the Puritan community. Again, it sent the concept that the Puritans were purely focused on religion and bettering themselves and ridding themselves of original sin.
In The Duties to Their Parents by Cotton Mather, he is speaking to children about their duties and expectations towards their parents. Mather is telling the children that they are to treat their parents with kindness and respect and to use not is treating “them with any ungodly contempt”. Once again, this could be interpreted as strict rules that children must obey their parents, but being respectful is important for life. When children grow up and move own to careers and create their own families, understanding and respect for others is of utmost importance.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne makes reference to Puritan children other than Pearl when he writes “the children looked up from their play” but does not go onto detail as to what that is (Hawthorne 105). It has been said that Puritans did not regard childhood as sentimental or consider childhood a time for play and leisure as they did not deserve indulgence due to original sin. The Puritans wanted to ensure that they prepared their children for salvation and adult life and introduced work as early as possible. This however does not mean that Puritan children were not children. They were not mini adults as this points to. Puritan parents were aware of children’s special place in the world as it was imperative that their children retain some values. When they arrived in New England, a way for them to distance themselves from their British roots was in how they raised their children. The Puritans seemingly cold nature towards children can be seen in the novel in the way Hawthorne speaks about Pearl’s demonic features in regards to her personality. In reality, the Puritans were some of the first to think about children’s nature and how childhood develops. They felt that it was not just the families responsibility but the community as a whole to help raise a child. A big part of this was establishing schools and criminating abuse.
The importance of education can be seen through the New England Primer. When we think of Puritan childhood, it is a common conception to think of them being obsessed with eternal salvation. This is not to say that it is not true, however not to the degree that we commonly think. Of course religion was important to childhood but so to was education. This can be seen by examining the New England Primer. This is how Puritan children were educated, through religion. They learned the alphabet but with religious undertones through it with the use of bible names and specific symbols. They also were educated through songs. It an initial glance, this can come across as dull and not something that would be fun and stimulating for children due to the heavy religiousness to it. But, it was the complete opposite. This was fun for children. Learning the bible was a way to become literate and educated so that they could have a bright future. It is because it does not explicitly say that they are running around and playing games that we commonly think that they lived a strict isolated life. This is seen in The Scarlet Letter as Pearl is isolated from other children, although may not be her direct fault, this adds to the usual perception of Puritan children at this time.
In Benjamin Wadsworth Well-Ordered Family, he describes the duties of parents in the raising of their children. Wadsworth was a colonial American and educator. As previously mentioned, religion was a big part of Puritan childhood and can be seen in the novel. All aspects of Pearl’s life were influenced by religion. However, also due to Pearl’s exclusion from society and other children, it can be perceived as though she acts out when she sees others. When she sees other children she threw things at them, or screamed from excitement when others approached (110). We could argue that this was due to lack of play but even without play children did still have a childhood. Wadsworth writes that parents are to teach their children worship so that children can strive to understand the truths and duties of religion and to set good examples before them. It is arguable that Hester was a good example to her child. While it is easier to argue against it due to the circumstances of which Pearl was born, looking at it from a different perspective is important to understand Puritan childhood. Punishment for being found guilty of adultery was for Hester to wear the scarlet letter A. She is then required to face public humiliation for hours, however this humiliation lasted the entirety of her life. This relates to Wadsworth as he says parents are to set examples for their children because even through Hester committed a crime, her commitment until the end of staying silent for her child is admirable. She is also aware that Pearl may have been better off under the guardianship of others which shows that she loves her child so much to even consider this possibility.
Chapters seven and eight seem to have more focus on Pearl’s attempts to save her mother. Like Hester has for majority of the novel protected Pearl, the situation has seemed to be reversed in a way. Hester and Pearl contrast the stiffness of the Puritan society as they are the opposite of what a Puritan should be and live. It appears as though that Hawthorne is creating the picture of what a puritan child would look like if they acted out. But, at the same time maybe he put his own feelings a previous puritan child into Pearl. There does not seem to be much background of Hawthorne’s own experience as a child, other than that he moved around a bit. Painting Pearl as a mischievous Satan-like child could be depicting how children were viewed if they deviant from the norm of society in an attempt to create and have childhood. There is no doubt that children lived different lives in the 1800s in terms of having lifelong religious morals instilled in them from infancy and the burden that was placed on them as many were told they were born with original sin. The fascination with saving souls was critical during childhood and Puritans wanted their children to be aware of sin. Additionally, the thought of play also came with fear for many parents. Play meant that the child was to have an imagination and allowed them to be rambunctious, however child mortality was fever high in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it instilled fear in many parents and increased the want for their children to stay safe . This was done through education and religion.
It is the importance of the child that is important as well. Pearl had the ability to make her mother fearful and delusion as one could argue as it was written that
“…while Hester was looking at her own image in them (Pearls eyes), as mothers are fond of doing; and, suddenly – for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions, -- she fancied that she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl’s eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well…it was as if an evil spirit possessed the child…” (Hawthorne, 100).
This quote speaks to the importance that Pearl has on mother. As mentioned before she is a constant reminder of the act that she committed, yet she still cares for her very much as a mother would. New concepts of childhood during this time challenged institutions and created reactions towards them as well. Overall, there are not many historical works on Puritan childhood which can pose a problem while arguing that children did in fact have a childhood. Some historians such as Gordon Taylor have argued that because Puritans were drawn to a child vulnerability, it created trouble when adults reflected back on their own childhood and their attempt to protect their children from what the world had to offer at the time. There was a fear of pleasure that was the view of many Puritan communities and this can be seen in novel in regards to Pearl’s imagination. As well, in the article Death and the Puritan Child it makes reference to children as being a man but in smaller form. This was a view amoung those in England that transferred over to New England, even though the Puritans were attempting to distance themselves from the British. People did recognize that children are different and that they are not fully grown adults yet as they are stubborn which comes from natural pride however this was to be dismantled immediately. As the quest for God’s salvation was at the core of how the Puritans choose to live their life, this was intertwined with children’s upbringing. It was a different time in colonial America and the life of a child may appear to be cruel in ways but there was a genuine love and care for the children as parents were wanting to protect them yet educate them at the same time. Their spiritual health was just as important as having a childhood. But the definition of a child was different. At this time there was no recess in school because school and church were fun itself. In reference again to the New England primer, the children were happy. They were able to go to school where they could make friends and interact with others. The broader picture needs to be looked at when thinking about the positivity of a Puritan child.While Hawthorne does allude to some fun in his novel, the bulk of it focuses on the devilishness that is seen in Pearl, which one cannot help but think may be his common perception of all Puritan children at the time.
In conclusion, the Puritan child that Nathaniel Hawthorne portrays in Pearl emphasizes the lack of childhood and negativity of the Puritan child in this era. Pearl is a constant reminder of her mother’s adulterous act which influences their lives tremendously. Pearl is a symbol of this act and keeps Hester aware of this through her mischievous acts. As Pearl is one of the only children discussed in the novel, it paints Puritan childhood as non-existent. There are some realties such as the importance of religion and education, however play and fun was had through the use of biblical songs and activities as seen in the New England primer. It can also be viewed as though Pearl is the extremities of Hester’s own thoughts and opinions towards the community as she tended to keep a level head throughout the story. This piece of work serves as a look into Puritan life through a Puritan such as Nathaniel Hawthorne. It can be regarded that his own life may have been of influence in the telling of this story, and in particular perhaps his own views on the Puritan child.