The Pearl and the Rose

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The Pearl and the Rose

Jackie O'Mara

Some consider the natural world to be a wild place. From a scientist's point of view, however, this wild world has become quantifiable and definable. Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter depicts a civilization in the early days of America. The city of Boston is a town on the edge of an untamed country. This strategic setting allows for the use of nature and the natural in an illustrative way throughout the novel. Pearl, for example, is surrounded by natural imagery in The Scarlet Letter, which emphasizes her wild spirit. The crucial scene between Hester, Dimmesdale, and Pearl in the forest is another example of Hawthorne taking advantage of nature to give even more depth to a text already full of meaning. A biologist's reading of The Scarlet Letter can uncover this depth, showing the way in which nature can often be a more accepting place than society. The wilderness is also a part of our natural history as a species, and this connection is still seen in a mirroring of human and natural qualities in The Scarlet Letter.

Aside from some very apparent themes in The Scarlet Letter religion, guilt, and social order, to name a few the presence of nature and the biological world lends an additional way of reading some of the scenes. The opening chapter of the novel, The Prison-Door, describes the town prison and a "wild rose-bush" near its entrance (Hawthorne, 45). Hawthorne presents some options as to why the rose bush has survived in that location as long as it has, and gives it a special importance by saying, "we could hardly do otherwise than to pluck one of its flowers and present it to the reader" (46). That very rose bush comes back to the reader later on in the story when Pearl declares "that she had not been made at all, but had been plucked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison-door" (99). Pearl equates herself to one of the roses from the bush that has survived since it was part of the New England wilderness. In doing so, Pearl presents a comparison between herself and a very tough and hearty group of organisms in the plant kingdom. Roses grow quite fast and are often found to grow where other plants cannot. The thorns on roses known technically as prickles (Swanson, 3-15-06) are thought to be both a defense mechanism and a way to grab on to other plants as the roses grow up over them (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose). These are interesting characteristics to keep in mind when considering the behavior of Pearl. In The Prison-Door, Hawthorne is presenting the reader with something strong and potentially painful but beautiful at the same time. Pearl herself is also simultaneously these things. She is angelic in her appearance but often harsh in her actions, and she is strong enough to survive in a difficult environment.

Hawthorne describes the naming of Pearl as a result of the "great price" that Hester, her mother, paid for her (Hawthorne, 80). Pearl possesses "nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be indicated by the comparison" (80). Upon closer reflection, however, Pearl has dark features, and is still very beautiful even at a young age (81). This picture of her leads to another comparison: not to a pearl that is white and pure, but to a black pearl. Black pearls are highly valued for their rarity. While all pearls are formed from an irritant inside the shell of a mollusk such as a particle of sand inside an oyster shell black pearls are rejected from the mollusk sooner than pearls of other colors (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl). Pearl is born rejected from society. There is no other child like her, and she is extremely valuable to her mother and to the course of the novel. Pearl's name is, in a way, quite accurate when her dark and mysterious behavior is considered.

The pivotal scene between Hester and Mr. Dimmesdale in the forest is saturated with natural imagery and symbolism. While Hester and Dimmesdale are talking, Pearl amuses herself by fluttering around the forest:
The mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a kindred wildness in the human child. (Hawthorne, 178)
Pearl is "gentler" in the forest than in town or at their cottage (178). In the wild she is no longer outcast, as she other places. This scene illustrates another side of the issue of social acceptance, which is one of the themes of the novel. Nature does not know when someone has sinned. It does not know what myriad possibilities a scarlet letter "A" could stand for; nor is it aware of the oddities of an equally scarlet-clad child in a Puritan settlement. Nature does not judge or discriminate in the way that the townspeople of The Scarlet Letter are wont to do every time they encounter Hester and Pearl. In this scene the reader sees acceptance of social outcasts. The sun shines on the three characters, and Pearl plays with the birds and flowers of the forest (177). By pairing the freedom and wildness of nature with this freeing scene, Hawthorne shows us that the rules of society are not necessarily the rules of the natural world.

The attitude of the individual facing nature can alter his experience of it:
"The great black forest stern as it showed itself to those who brought the guilt and troubles of the world into its bosom became the playmate of the lonely infant, as well as it knew how" (Hawthorne, 178).
Pearl was not brought up within the strict confines of Puritan society since "a great law had been broken" in the creation of her life (81). Her relationship with the world is one of disorder and wildness. It is only fitting, therefore, that the wilderness of New England is a comforting place to her, a place where she is welcome. The rest of the townsfolk do not see the wilderness in this way they stay out due to a fear of witches and the "Black Man" (161). Nature has its own laws, which can be a terrifying thought to those who thrive in a strict society but is a freeing realization for Pearl.

The biological meanings of the natural imagery in The Scarlet Letter may not be readily evident to all who read it. This is proof of the reader's opportunity to draw multiple interpretations from the events in The Scarlet Letter, and from Hawthorne's telling of Hester's story. Hawthorne's use of nature in various scenes is a subtle way of enhancing the complexity of his novel. One of the most crucial scenes in the novel occurs in a forest. The duality of the forest scene complex personal interactions mixed with the intricacies of the natural world suggests that nature can mirror human life.

Nature's mirroring capability is literally shown in the interaction between Pearl and a pool of water in the forest scene. Pearl finds herself standing apart from Hester, on the other side of a small brook in the forest. The brook has been "murmuring" along (Hawthorne, 163) until the place where Pearl happened to stand:
Just where she had paused the brook chanced to form a pool, so smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesqueness of her beauty, in its adornment of flowers and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality. (181)
The pool of water a biological barrier to many organisms that just "chanced to form" where she stood acts as a barrier between Pearl and her mother, or Pearl and the society that she has never been a part of, but that her mother would be a part of had she not had Pearl. One of the most important events in the evolutionary history of our world has been the colonization of land by plants and animals. The loss of a dependency on water was a very difficult obstacle to surmount, and the evolution of this can be seen in many areas of nature. Certain land species frogs and salamanders, for example need a water source to lay their eggs. The idea of water as a necessity for life and also a barrier to development of a house or a road, for example is almost intuitive. In that same way, the brook is a barrier between Pearl and her mother, as Mr. Dimmesdale says, "I have a strange fancy . . . that this brook is the boundary between two worlds . . . is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream" (182)? The ability of the water to reflect and enhance the image of a flower-covered Pearl can be interpreted as a link between the qualities of nature and those of her humanity.

We have all come from the "wilderness" so to speak. Our biological roots exist in the oceans as simple organisms. The strict Puritan society of The Scarlet Letter is, quite possibly, one of the furthest things from the natural origins of life on earth. By placing Hester and Pearl, the outcasts, in a wild, natural setting, Hawthorne shows how the natural world that we came from can be a more accepting place than the societies we find ourselves in now. Pearl is surrounded by and characterized by nature in many ways, even in her name. She shows how we in fact mirror nature in many ways, and how the societies we create, however strict they may be, still have ties to the biology of nature and the wilderness that we came from.


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