When people call something “child’s play,” they usually mean that it is simple or basic. Pearl’s play in The Scarlet Letter, however, is neither simple nor basic. She first imagines enemies for herself, then breaks a bird’s wing and feels bad about it, and later is perfectly happy playing next to a fox and a wolf. This abnormal behavior is explainable when it is considered as a symbol for Hester’s changing emotions: like Pearl’s play, Hester’s state of mind starts off dismal, becomes conflicted, and eventually turns elated. Despite this general connection, however, Pearl does not remained tied to Hester’s emotions forever. In the antepenultimate chapter, Hester is distraught, while Pearl plays unperturbed. A reader might have expected the play of a child to be innocent recreation, but until almost the end of the book, Pearl’s play represents Hester’s changing emotions.
Starting in chapter five, Hester is separated from the Puritan society. Hester’s cottage stands at the “outskirts of the town … not in close vicinity of any other habitation” (68). She lives far enough away that no one else is even near her. In fact, she is so remote that her cottage is completely “out of the sphere of … social activity” (68). This separation would make it difficult for her to make friends: if she does not have any neighbors, she cannot be a friend with them.
Pearl’s play represents this solitude. When Pearl plays, she imagines that inanimate objects are adults and children. However, when she fabricates these people, she “never created a friend, but … always … enemies” (81). While an ordinary child might make an imaginary friend, Pearl only made enemies. Pearl’s play represents Hester’s physical inability to connect with other people.
In addition to being physically separated from her fellow Puritans, Hester is also emotionally separated from them. When describing Hester beginning to occupy her cottage, the narrator notes that she is in a “lonely … situation” and is “without a friend on earth who dared to show himself” (69). This—even more than the distance between Hester’s cottage and the village—shows the depths of Hester’s isolation. Not only is Hester unable to make friends because she lives far from anyone else, but any friends she could possibly make would be too afraid to show themselves. No one would “dare” to let it be known that he or she is friends with Hester. This taboo leaves Hester entirely alone.
Hester herself recognizes the connection between her feelings and Pearl’s play. Hester observes in Pearl’s activity that society is against them. Pearl’s play shows Hester “a constant recognition of an adverse world.” Moreover, Hester “felt in her own heart” this recognition (81). Thus, Hester believes that Pearl’s play represents Hester’s own recognition of an adverse world. Hester believes that the world is against her, and Pearl’s play symbolizes that feeling of antagonism.
In chapters fourteen and fifteen, Hester’s state of mind is more ambivalent....