- “Emblem and Product of Sin”: The Poisoned Child in The Scarlet Letter and Domestic Advice Literature
When Hester Prynne is paraded before a solemn and censorious crowd of spectators with both emblems of her crime—the scarlet letter and her infant daughter—on display, she does not reveal the torment she experiences. While she “felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once,” she successfully conceals her suffering from the crowd. 1 She cannot, however, hide her feelings from her daughter. After spending the day with Hester on the scaffold, the infant Pearl becomes ill. Hawthorne explains that the child, having drawn “its sustenance from the maternal bosom, seemed to have drank in with it all the turmoil, the anguish, and despair, which pervaded the mother’s system” (64). The suffering that Hester suppresses in public is communicated directly to her child. As a result, the infant’s body, “writh[ing] in convulsions of pain,” becomes “a forcible type . . . of the moral agony which Hester Prynne had borne throughout the day” (64). Poisoned by her mother’s feelings, Pearl expresses, indeed typifies, Hester’s moral state.
Although Hawthorne tells us that Hester’s artistic embellishment of the relation between Pearl and the letter, intended to “create an analogy between the object of her affection, and the emblem of her guilt and torture,” is merely an elaboration of a prior, organic relation in which “Pearl was the one, as well as the other” (90–1), critics have accepted Hester’s mischievous elaboration of Pearl’s resemblance to the scarlet letter as Hawthorne’s own. Focusing their attentions on the letter itself, and regarding Pearl as its less articulate double, critics have overlooked Hawthorne’s consideration of the difference between the two. Pearl, described by Hawthorne as the “effluence of her mother’s lawless passion” (146), is the “living emblem” of Hester’s guilt not so much because she resembles the scarlet letter, but rather because she embodies what the letter can only represent—the very passions which motivate Hester’s transgression, and the sufferings that accompany her punishment.
An important strain in critical writing on The Scarlet Letter has focused on the letter itself and, by extension, “the nature of symbolic perception.” 2 According to these accounts, the “A” anatomizes the properties of the symbol: it [End Page 193] is interesting because it means many things at once and no one thing reliably. An emphasis on the scarlet letter as a form of representation—one that fosters a degree of referential uncertainty—entails an emphasis on the problem of interpretation; critics celebrate the letter’s ability to elicit varied responses and thus create diverse readings. According to Charles Feidelson, the novel elaborates the ways the symbol acquires meanings by reenacting the Custom House narrator’s original encounter with the letter from a series of vantage points. More recently Sacvan Bercovitch has argued that the novel uses the letter to school its readers in the interpretive procedures by which liberal culture transforms difference, or dissent, into consensus. 3 Whether considered from a formal or a cultural vantage point, the letter’s power lies in its referential latitude which allows it to accumulate and sustain a variety of readings under the rubric of its own simplicity. Its indeterminacy is indistinguishable from its inclusiveness, and both determine its critical stature. 4
This emphasis on the problematics of interpretation, implicit in the fluid and inclusive nature of the symbol, has allowed critics to underestimate Hawthorne’s critique of the letter as an agent of discipline. The complex, indeterminate relationship between sign and referent which has generated such critical delight in the letter “A” is, in the context of crime and reformation, an enormous problem, one which Hawthorne addresses with a degree of care and deliberation. Bercovitch can describe the Puritan community as the novel’s “interpretive hero” because, taking a lesson in the hermeneutics of liberalism, it keeps finding and embracing new meanings for the letter (Office, 47). The community makes a mistake, however, by believing that the...