The Stuff That Tragedy Is Made Of

From Chapter VIII: “The Elf-Child and the Minister” of The Scarlet Letter:

Governor Bellingham stepped through the window into the hall,
followed by his three guests.

“Hester Prynne,” said he, fixing his naturally stern regard on
the wearer of the scarlet letter, “there hath been much question
concerning thee of late. The point hath been weightily
discussed, whether we, that are of authority and influence, do
well discharge our consciences by trusting an immortal soul,
such as there is in yonder child, to the guidance of one who
hath stumbled and fallen amid the pitfalls of this world. Speak
thou, the child’s own mother! Were it not, thinkest thou, for
thy little one’s temporal and eternal welfare that she be taken
out of thy charge, and clad soberly, and disciplined strictly,
and instructed in the truths of heaven and earth? What canst
thou do for the child in this kind?”

“I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this!”
answered Hester Prynne, laying her finger on the red token.

“Woman, it is thy badge of shame!” replied the stern magistrate.
“It is because of the stain which that letter indicates that we
would transfer thy child to other hands.”

“Nevertheless,” said the mother, calmly, though growing more
pale, “this badge hath taught me–it daily teaches me–it is
teaching me at this moment–lessons whereof my child may be the
wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself.”

“We will judge warily,” said Bellingham, “and look well what we
are about to do. …

[Pearl capriciously refuses to cooperate with the theological examination of her ordered by Governer Bellingham, who becomes appalled at the apparent religous ignorance in which the child has been raised, not realizing that this is mere “perversity” on her part.]

Hester caught hold of Pearl, and drew her forcibly into her
arms, confronting the old Puritan magistrate with almost a
fierce expression. Alone in the world, cast off by it, and with
this sole treasure to keep her heart alive, she felt that she
possessed indefeasible rights against the world, and was ready
to defend them to the death.

“God gave me the child!” cried she. “He gave her in requital of
all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my
happiness–she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here
in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet
letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a
millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not
take her! I will die first!”

“My poor woman,” said the not unkind old minister, “the child
shall be well cared for–far better than thou canst do for it.”

“God gave her into my keeping!” repeated Hester Prynne, raising
her voice almost to a shriek. “I will not give her up!” And here
by a sudden impulse, she turned to the young clergyman, Mr.
Dimmesdale, at whom, up to this moment, she had seemed hardly so
much as once to direct her eyes. “Speak thou for me!” cried she.
“Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest
me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak
for me! Thou knowest–for thou hast sympathies which these men
lack–thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s
rights, and how much the stronger they are when that mother has
but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will
not lose the child! Look to it!”

At this wild and singular appeal, which indicated that Hester
Prynne’s situation had provoked her to little less than madness,
the young minister at once came forward, pale, and holding his
hand over his heart, as was his custom whenever his peculiarly
nervous temperament was thrown into agitation. He looked now
more careworn and emaciated than as we described him at the
scene of Hester’s public ignominy; and whether it were his
failing health, or whatever the cause might be, his large dark
eyes had a world of pain in their troubled and melancholy depth.

“There is truth in what she says,” began the minister, with a
voice sweet, tremulous, but powerful, insomuch that the hall
re-echoed and the hollow armour rang with it–“truth in what
Hester says, and in the feeling which inspires her! God gave her
the child, and gave her, too, an instinctive knowledge of its
nature and requirements–both seemingly so peculiar–which no
other mortal being can possess. And, moreover, is there not a
quality of awful sacredness in the relation between this mother
and this child?”

“Ay–how is that, good Master Dimmesdale?” interrupted the
Governor. “Make that plain, I pray you!”

“It must be even so,” resumed the minister. “For, if we deem it
otherwise, do we not thereby say that the Heavenly Father, the
creator of all flesh, hath lightly recognised a deed of sin, and
made of no account the distinction between unhallowed lust and
holy love? This child of its father’s guilt and its mother’s
shame has come from the hand of God, to work in many ways upon
her heart, who pleads so earnestly and with such bitterness of
spirit the right to keep her. It was meant for a blessing–for
the one blessing of her life! It was meant, doubtless, the
mother herself hath told us, for a retribution, too; a torture
to be felt at many an unthought-of moment; a pang, a sting, an
ever-recurring agony, in the midst of a troubled joy! Hath she
not expressed this thought in the garb of the poor child, so
forcibly reminding us of that red symbol which sears her bosom?”

“Well said again!” cried good Mr. Wilson. “I feared the woman
had no better thought than to make a mountebank of her child!”

“Oh, not so!–not so!” continued Mr. Dimmesdale. “She
recognises, believe me, the solemn miracle which God hath
wrought in the existence of that child. And may she feel,
too–what, methinks, is the very truth–that this boon was
meant, above all things else, to keep the mother’s soul alive,
and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan
might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for
this poor, sinful woman, that she hath an infant immortality, a
being capable of eternal joy or sorrow, confided to her care–to
be trained up by her to righteousness, to remind her, at every
moment, of her fall, but yet to teach her, as if it were by the
Creator’s sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven,
the child also will bring its parents thither! Herein is the
sinful mother happier than the sinful father. For Hester
Prynne’s sake, then, and no less for the poor child’s sake, let
us leave them as Providence hath seen fit to place them!”

“You speak, my friend, with a strange earnestness,” said old
Roger Chillingworth, smiling at him.

“And there is a weighty import in what my young brother hath
spoken,” added the Rev. Mr. Wilson.

“What say you, worshipful Master Bellingham? Hath he not
pleaded well for the poor woman?”

“Indeed hath he,” answered the magistrate; “and hath adduced
such arguments, that we will even leave the matter as it now
stands; so long, at least, as there shall be no further scandal
in the woman.

Hester may count herself lucky that her judges were soft-hearted Puritans, weak and irresolute in the face of sin. We would indeed have taken the child away from her, even if that meant placing it in foster care. Radvaz considers this so self-evident that he reprimands his correspondent for even asking such a question:


שאלת ממני אודיעך דעתי בראובן שגירש את אשתו ויש לו ממנה בת והרי היא בת שבעה והיא אצל אמה וזינתה אמה וילדה מזנות וכיון שראה ראובן כן רוצה לקחת את בתו מאצלה שלא תלמד מעשה אמה:


תשובה הדבר ברור שהדין עם ראובן דהא טעמא דאמרו רז”ל הבת אצל אמה משום דבצוותא דאמה ניחא לה והכא אנן סהדי דלא ניחא ליה בצוותא דאמה ואפילו תאמר אצל אמי אני רוצה אין שומעין לה דחיישינן שמא תהיה נגררת אחר אמה וכל שכן שכבר היא בת שבע1 וטועמת טעם ביאה.

וגדולה מזו אני אומר שאפילו לא היה ראובן אביה חי ובאים קרובים לקחת (אותם) [צ”ל אותה – י’] שומעין להם. ולא זו בלבד אלא אפילו אין שם קרובים בית דין אביהם של יתומים וחייבין להוציאה מעם אמה ולהפקידה בבית אחר מהכשרים כפי ראות עיניהם מקל וחומר מממונם ואם חייבין לפקח על ממונם כל שכן על עצמם שלא יצאו לתרבות רעה והדבר מוסכם אצל השכל כי מעשה אבות יעשו בנים וכאמה כן בתה כל שכן בעריות שהלב חומד אותם וקרובה להתהפך לדרך אמה, ולא היה כדאי לישאל עליו:2

Update: See here.

  1. We should note that Pearl is only three []
  2. שו”ת רדב”ז חלק א’ סימן רס”ג – קשר, הובא בפתחי תשובה אה”ע סימן פ”ב ס”ק ו []

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