Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8 - The Elf-Child and the Minister
The group of men approaching Hester and Pearl include Governor Bellingham, the Reverend John Wilson, the Reverend Dimmesdale, and Roger Chillingworth, who, since the story's opening, has been living in Boston as Dimmesdale's friend and personal physician.
The governor, shocked at Pearl's vain and immodest costume, challenges Hester's fitness to raise the child in a Christian way. He asks Reverend Mr. Wilson to test Pearl's knowledge of the catechism. Pearl deliberately pretends ignorance. In answer to the very first question — "Who made thee?" — Pearl replies that she was not made, but that she was "plucked . . . off the bush of wild roses that grew by the prison door."
Horrified, the governor and Mr. Wilson are immediately ready to take Pearl away from Hester, who protests that God gave Pearl to her and that she will not give her up. Pearl is both her happiness and her torture, and she will die before she relinquishes her. She appeals to Dimmesdale to speak for her. Dimmesdale persuades Governor Bellingham and Mr. Wilson that Hester should be allowed to keep Pearl, whom God has given to her as both a blessing and a reminder of her sin, causing Chillingworth to remark, "You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness." Pearl, momentarily solemn, caresses Dimmesdale's hand and receives from the minister a furtive kiss on the head.
Leaving the mansion, Hester is approached by Mistress Hibbins, Governor Bellingham's sister. Hester refuses the woman's invitation to a midnight meeting of witches in the forest, saying she must take Pearl home, but she adds that, if she had lost Pearl, she would willingly have signed on with the devil.
This chapter brings back together the major characters from the first scaffold scene — Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, and Chillingworth — as well as representatives of the Church, the State, and the World of Darkness. Note, too, that underneath the surface action, Hawthorne offers several strong hints concerning the complex relationships of his characters. In Hester's appealing to Dimmesdale for help, in Pearl's solemnly caressing his hand, and in the minister's answering kiss lie solid hints that Dimmesdale is Pearl's father.
Hester calls on her inner strength in her attempt to keep Pearl. She argues quite eloquently that the scarlet letter is a badge of shame to teach her child wisdom and help her profit from Hester's sin. However, Pearl's refusal to answer the catechism question causes the decision of the Church and the State to go against her. Now Hester's only appeal is to Dimmesdale, the man whose reputation she could crush.
Pearl once again reveals her wild and passionate nature. In saying that her mother plucked her from the wild roses that grew by the prison door, she defies both Church and State. While such an answer seems precocious for a small child, the reader must remember that Hawthorne uses characters symbolically to present meaning. Pearl's action recalls Hester's defiance on the scaffold when she refuses to name the father of her child. The dual nature of Pearl's existence as both happiness and torture is restated in Hester's plea, and this point is taken up by Dimmesdale. The minister's weakened condition and his obvious nervousness suggest how terribly he has been suffering with his concealed guilt.
Nevertheless, Dimmesdale adds to Hester's plea when he states that Pearl is a "child of its father's guilt and its mother's shame" but still she has come from the "hand of God." As such, she should be considered a blessing. The minister argues that Pearl will keep Hester from the powers of darkness. And so she is allowed to keep her daughter. Those powers of darkness can be seen in both the strange conversation with Mistress Hibbins and also in the change in Chillingworth.
As if to prove that Hester will be kept from the darkness by Pearl, Hawthorne adds the scene with Mistress Hibbins. While Mr. Wilson says of Pearl, "that little baggage has witchcraft in her," Hester says she would willingly have gone with the Black Man except for Pearl.
These dark powers are also suggested by the fourth main character, Chillingworth. The change noted by Hester in Chillingworth's physical appearance, now more ugly and dark and misshapen, is a hint that in the scholar's desire for revenge, evil is winning the battle within him and is reflected in his outward appearance. That Chillingworth is Dimmesdale's personal physician :and supposed friend gives him the opportunity to apply psychological pressure on the minister. Chillingworth's comment on Dimmesdale's strange earnestness and his statement that he could make a "shrewd guess at the father" suggest that he may already have decided on Dimmesdale's guilt.
The battlefield has been marked: The forces of light and darkness are vying for human souls.
King James King James I (1603-1625) of England. He ordered the translation of the Bible, now called the King James Version.
John the Baptist the preacher who announced in the Bible the coming of Jesus. He was beheaded by Herod whom he accused of adultery.
John Wilson the Reverend John Wilson (1588-1667), a minster who was considered a great clergyman and teacher. He was a prosecutor of Anne Hutchinson.
physic [Archaic] medicine.
the Lord of Misrule a part acted out in court masques in England during the Christmas season. He was part of a pagan, not Christian, myth.
a pearl of great price see the story in Matthew 13:45-46, about a merchant who sold all his goods for one pearl of great worth, which represents the kingdom of heaven. Wilson is saying here that Pearl may find salvation.
New England Primer a book used to teach Puritan children their alphabet and reinforrce moral and spiritual lessons.
Westminster Catechism printed in 1648, it was used to teach Puritan religious lessons and the pillars of church doctrine.
tithing-men men who collect church taxes.