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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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To independent spirits like Hester Prynne's, the wilderness sings a siren's song: "Throw off the shackles of law and religion. What good have they done you anyway? Look at you, a young and vibrant woman, grown old before your time. And no wonder, hemmed in, as you are, on every side by prohibitions. Why, you can hardly walk without tripping over one commandment or another. Come to me, and be masterless."

Hester will soon respond to that wild note of the forest. But she gives no sign of hearing it yet.

In the meantime, we discover, Pearl has heard more than a general tale of devils and witches from that old crone in the chimney corner. She has heard a very specific reference in the story to her mother. Is it true, Pearl asks, that the scarlet letter is the Black Man's mark? And does it glow red at night when Hester meets him in the forest?

Hester responds to Pearl's question with one of her own: Has Pearl ever awakened at night and found her mother gone from the cottage?


It is possible that Hester is being evasive, answering one question with another. But more likely, she is claiming simple justice from her daughter. We remember that Hester has, in fact, been invited to the forest by Mistress Hibbins. And she declined the invitation, choosing instead to stay at home with Pearl.

In any case, Pearl will not be put off, she repeats her questions. And this time, Hester does not lie to her daughter. She answers with something at least like the truth. "'Once in my life I met the Black Man!... The scarlet letter is his mark!'"

Does Hester believe what she is saying? Or is she only agreeing to this version of her story because it is an explanation that Pearl can understand? Hester will have a different tale to tell in the next chapter, one we will have to measure against this.

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FREE Barron's Booknotes-The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne-Free Notes
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