Scene from The Scarlet Letter

Tompkins Matteson (1813-1884) Artist
c. 1860 Date:
Oil on canvas Medium
29 H X 25 W Dimensions
Bequest of Judith G. McMullen Credit
2012.51 Accession number
The artist Tompkins Matteson painted this literary scene from chapter 9, "The Child at the Brookside," of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter (1850). Hester Prynne and her daughter Pearl are in a dark forest when Pearl goes off to play. While Hester is seated on a mossy stump, the minister Arthur Dimmesdale, father of Hester's illegitimate child, suddenly appears walking along a path toward her. They sit and talk about their feelings of guilt, shame, and Hester's quest for emotional and spiritual redemption. Pearl returns to the scene and is separated from her mother and the minister by a small stream. She is adorned with a garland of wildflowers and illuminated by a ray of sunshine. Just prior to Pearl's return, Hester removed the scarlet letter "A" from her chest, which causes Pearl to point and wonder what happened to the symbol she has come to identify with her mother:

By this time Pearl had reached the margin of the brook, and stood on the farther side, gazing silently at Hester and the clergyman, who still sat together on the mossy tree-trunk, waiting to receive her. 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. This image, so nearly identical with the living Pearl, seemed to communicate somewhat of its own shadowy and intangible quality to the child herself. It was strange, the way in which Pearl stood, looking so stedfastly at them through the dim medium of the forest-gloom; herself, meanwhile, all glorified with a ray of sunshine, that was attracted thitherward as by a certain sympathy. In the brook beneath stood another child,—another and the same,—with likewise its ray of golden light. Hester felt herself, in some indistinct and tantalizing manner, estranged from Pearl; as if the child, in her lonely ramble through the forest, had strayed out of the sphere in which she and her mother dwelt together, and was now vainly seeking to return to it.
There were both truth and error in the impression; the child and mother were estranged, but through Hester’s fault, not Pearl’s. Since the latter rambled from her side, another inmate had been admitted within the circle of the mother’s feelings, and so modified the aspect of them all, that Pearl, the returning wanderer, could not find her wonted place, and hardly knew where she was.
“I have a strange fancy,” observed the sensitive minister, “that this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again. Or is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream? Pray hasten her; for this delay has already imparted a tremor to my nerves.”
“Come, dearest child!” said Hester encouragingly, and stretching out both her arms. “How slow thou art! When hast thou been so sluggish before now? Here is a friend of mine, who must be thy friend also. Thou wilt have twice as much love, henceforward, as thy mother alone could give thee! Leap across the brook and come to us. Thou canst leap like a young deer!”
Pearl, without responding in any manner to these honey-sweet expressions, remained on the other side of the brook. Now she fixed her bright, wild eyes on her mother, now on the minister, and now included them both in the same glance; as if to detect and explain to herself the relation which they bore to one another. For some unaccountable reason, as Arthur Dimmesdale felt the child’s eyes upon himself, his hand—with that gesture so habitual as to have become involuntary—stole over his heart. At length, assuming a singular air of authority, Pearl stretched out her hand, with the small forefinger extended, and pointing evidently towards her mother’s breast. And beneath, in the mirror of the brook, there was the flower-girdled and sunny image of little Pearl, pointing her small forefinger too.
“Thou strange child, why dost thou not come to me?” exclaimed Hester.
Pearl still pointed with her forefinger; and a frown gathered on her brow; the more impressive from the childish, the almost baby-like aspect of the features that conveyed it. As her mother still kept beckoning to her, and arraying her face in a holiday suit of unaccustomed smiles, the child stamped her foot with a yet more imperious look and gesture. In the brook, again, was the fantastic beauty of the image, with its reflected frown, its pointed finger, and imperious gesture, giving emphasis to the aspect of little Pearl.
“Hasten, Pearl; or I shall be angry with thee!” cried Hester Prynne, who, however inured to such behaviour on the elf-child’s part at other seasons, was naturally anxious for a more seemly deportment now. “Leap across the brook, naughty child, and run hither! Else I must come to thee!”
But Pearl, not a whit startled at her mother’s threats, any more than mollified by her entreaties, now suddenly burst into a fit of passion, gesticulating violently, and throwing her small figure into the most extravagant contortions. She accompanied this wild outbreak with piercing shrieks, which the woods reverberated on all sides; so that, alone as she was in her childish and unreasonable wrath, it seemed as if a hidden multitude were lending her their sympathy and encouragement. Seen in the brook, once more, was the shadowy wrath of Pearl’s image, crowned and girdled with flowers, but stamping its foot, wildly gesticulating, and, in the midst of all, still pointing its small forefinger at Hester’s bosom!
"I see what ails the child," whispered Hester to the clergyman, and turning pale in spite of a strong effort to conceal her trouble and annoyance. "Children will not abide any, the slightest, change in the accustomed aspect of things that are daily before their eyes. Pearl misses something which she has always seen me wear!"
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