“Child, what art thou?” implores an impassioned Hester Prynne to her daughter Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s gothic romance ‘The Scarlet Letter’ (1850).
Deceptively simplistic, the child’s response, “I am your little Pearl!” (68), becomes complicated when considering her accompanying bodily movements, for “while she said it, Pearl laughed and began to dance up and down, with the humor some gesticulations of a little imp, whose next freak might be to fly up the chimney” (66).
Teasing her mother’s ardent inquiry, three-year-old Pearl’s answer and exertions only heighten her mother’s distress. And sensing maternal upset, Pearl seeks to amplify Hester’s confusion.
Her mother’s earnest question and Pearl’s frank yet discomfiting answer gestures toward her position as one of the most estranging children in all of American literature. Consistently characterized as both devilish imp and innocent sprite, Hawthorne’s Pearl emblematizes the conflicting cultural impulses surrounding adult thinking on childhood.
This exchange between child and adult establishes Pearl’s peculiarity and discloses the unusual power dynamics between mother and child. Little Pearl, result of an illicit union, possesses a preternatural knowingness and capacity to provoke adult unease.
As an embodied product of sin and a furtive history, Pearl’s inauspicious origin troubles her mother. Hawthorne’s text focuses on the “narrative concerns of a secret history” (Reid xxix), but this history goes beyond the personal or familial and accumulates resonances on a national scale.
Rebecca Mark, in Ersatz History, suggests that as Hawthorne composes ‘The Scarlet Letter’, the meaning of the American nation is central in the writer’s mind. Further, these national concerns, Mark expresses, can be symbolized in Hester’s badge of sin, in that scrap of cloth, red-hot, for what it symbolizes –– “the alphabet of dead women, enslaved Africans, Indians deceived” (189).
In this way, familial dynamics function as a microcosm of national consciousness for these hidden crimes and “the guilt of America becomes the conventionalized guilt of one woman’s adultery” (Mark 189). Mark critiques Hawthorne’s failure to adequately expose or address these crimes, and at the same time gestures toward the text’s latent gothic potential to invoke these buried histories of oppression, these dark secrets repressed.
However, this potential, I argue, can be located most potently not through the “scrap of red cloth,” but through the actions of the curious child who functions in the text to demand attention, disclosure, and redress for these unseen crimes.
Indeed, Pearl emerges as an agent who forces culpability and prompts action – –she brings the truth to light. Pearl’s presence activates the novel’s gothic contours and unveils the suppressed realities subsumed in the process of building a coherent and harmonious story, both familial and national. And the problem of the child in ‘The Scarlet Letter’ speaks to these national concerns around familial dynamics that continue to trouble American writers well into the twentieth century.
In creating something entirely new, “a creature made afresh” (93), Hawthorne taps into the child’s import for thinking through cultural anxieties around generation, innocence, and futurity, thereby forging a precursor for the deep complexities of modernist representations of childhood to come, and initiating the trajectory of the gothic child in American literature.
Before delving into Pearl’s singularity, though, I would like to briefly establish context for the broader gothic tradition in which Hawthorne was operating.
In crafting ‘The Scarlet Letter’, Hawthorne builds upon the works of earlier novelists, predecessors such as Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur and Charles Brockden Brown, who concentrate on the specific contexts of American life while developing fictional innovations of narrative unreliability and psychic ambiguity.
Despite these writers’ differing formulations and responses to the gothic, they remain distinctly attuned to the nation’s history and the violence it tries to hide. It is true that American gothic texts often reveal and share a preoccupation with narrative instability, haunting, spectrality, madness, familial bloodlines and secrets, and wilderness spaces. Yet rather than frame the American gothic as a set of particular conventions, I would articulate it, as Eric Savoy does, as an impulse, a “fluid tendency [or movement] rather than a discrete literary mode.”
Teresa Goddu, too, aptly points to the difficulties of classifying the gothic, as it depends “less on the particular set of conventions it establishes than on those it disrupts”. Troubling the borders of generic classification and the boundaries between self and other, the American gothic relies on an expression of psychological states while it also reveals historical haunting.
This combination of the psychological and the historical allows for a model of gothic complexity, a malleability and plasticity of form that works to reveal cultural anxieties and bring repressed histories to light. Resisting positioning the gothic as an anti-historical or an escapist mode, I argue that the American gothic responds to historical trauma and exposes the dark impulses of a nation founded on ideals of ambition and accord.
Goddu elucidates that “gothic stories are intimately connected to the culture that produces them,” and like Goddu, I read the gothic narratives in my project as “an integral part of a network of historical representation,” fictions that are intensely engaged with historical concerns and which register their culture’s contradictions. Hawthorne, specifically, fully realized the possibilities of resonance between the gothic tradition and the American past, the darker notes of the nation’s optimistic surfaces.
However, Hawthorne seemingly denies the potential for uncovering imaginative material in his nation’s history. He writes in the ‘Preface to The Marble Faun’ (1860): “No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land […]. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens, and wallflowers need ruin to make them grow […]” (qtd. in Crow 10-11)
Yet Hawthorne’s words belie the inspiration he locates in America’s Puritan legacy, a tradition still exerting its effects on mid-nineteenth century American life, particularly through its harsh delineations between good and evil.
In ‘The Scarlet Letter’, set between 1642-1649, the legends of seventeenth-century witchcraft and the trials in Salem provide his spark, events which retain a personal resonance for the author.
Hawthorne resurrects this history, both national and personal, through the gothic trope of the Custom House frame narrative. The young narrator-as-Hawthorne discovers an old manuscript, along with the cloth A, a material artifact worn on the body, and experiences a burning need to make this story known.
As Crow proposes, “His pledge to tell Hester’s story is an act of defiance against his Puritan ancestors, the Salem witchcraft judges (John and William Hathorne), whose legacy apparently haunted the author all his life”.
In disclosing Hester’s tale, Hawthorne does not just engage with history, but also develops a heightened psychological intensity by exposing the Puritan culture’s larger systemic anxieties. In presenting them as the original haunted Americans, his approach eschews the gothic trope of the imprisoned structure, or castle, in favour of delineating how the Puritans create an internalizing prison within themselves.
It is amidst this Puritan context, and this careful attention to melding the psychological and the historical, the personal and the national, that Hawthorne situates his new gothic heroine –– a child who both embodies and resists the beliefs of her culture.
Pearl not only functions as embodied signifier of a secret familial history, but she also draws out the conflicts between the Puritan ideology of childhood and the Romantic view –– a tension occupying nineteenth-century America’s cultural imagination.
By the end of the eighteenth-century, and exerting their influence well into the nineteenth-century, Romantic conceptions of child innocence were matched by persisting evangelical declarations that the child was a creature of original sin (Shuttleworth 353).
Hawthorne taps into this contradictory impulse in his construction of Pearl. Hawthorne’s own son, Julian, in his review of ‘The Scarlet Letter in The Atlantic’ (April 1886) homes in on Pearl’s significance to Hawthorne’s writing: “the contrast or, perhaps it is more correct to say, mingling, of the opposite poles of being, sin and innocence, in Pearl’s nature is an extraordinary achievement” (qtd. in Schober 44).
Consistently in the novel adult perceptions of her vacillate, as Pearl becomes caught somewhere between mischievous and perverse imp or lovely and free child of nature. That Pearl bears out these “opposite poles of being” intensifies her inscrutability; yet attention to this convergence reveals her gothic agency.
Hawthorne’s Puritan community advances historically accurate views of the child; in the late-sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries, influenced by the Christian doctrine of original sin, Puritan ideology emphasized the child’s inherent wickedness, its need of restraint and correction.
For the Puritans, “discipline and education were a process of beating out the moral blackness in the child, breaking its will as it were, until it actively resisted its evil nature” (Schober 1).
Pearl, due to her dubious origins, emerges as even more of a threatening figure, as the Puritan community members believe she in league with the devil, claiming her a “demon offspring” (69) and determining “the little baggage hath witchcraft in her” (80).
The narrator, though, carefully delineates that this is how the Puritans perceive her, when he explains, “nor was Pearl the only child to whom this inauspicious origin was assigned, among the New England Puritans” (69), thereby pointing toward the propensity to ascribe witchcraft as a source of depravity. However, not only do the community members apprehend the child as dangerous, but her mother, too, cannot help but be influenced by this theology and almost seems to seek evil in Pearl.
Hester, peering in her child’s eyes, “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” (67).
To further compound Pearl’s complexity, her behaviour at times endorses these views of her as implicitly malevolent: “with other children “she resembled […] an infant pestilence […] whose mission was to punish the sins of the rising generation” (71).
Pearl seems to intuit that she incites adult foreboding and works to heighten their disquietude in her presence.