The Scarlet Letter: Study Guide

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Individual experience plays a major role in the interpretation of symbols. Other than adultery, what is the major sin committed by each of the three main characters? Use of Irony Discuss examples of irony in the novel. Verbal Irony — Dimmesdale refers to himself as the worst of sinners during his sermons.

The congregation believes it to be a sign of humility. Dimmesdale, however, speaks literal truth. Situational Irony — The scarlet letter was meant as a punishment and an object of scorn. Over time, however, it becomes a badge of honor. Dramatic Irony — By the middle of the novel, we all know Dimmesdale is guilty of adultery.

Dimmesdale places his hand over his heart in this scene. This gesture will reappear and grow in significance during the novel. In this chapter it is meant to show his distress in failing to confess his own part of the adulterous affair. At the same time, the gesture of the hand over the heart is the same one that Hester makes when she remembers the scarlet letter.

Hawthorne brilliantly connects Hester's openly displayed shame with Dimmesdale's secret shame by having both characters touch the spot where the scarlet letter is displayed. The Indian standing at the edge of the crowd introduces the division between the stark Puritanical world and the wilderness beyond. Inside the city of Boston, the laws are upheld and morals are kept intact.

But in the forest the laws no longer hold, and the Indian represents the savage and wild nature of the area outside of Boston. The Indian also foreshadows the dilemma facing Hester, who must find a way to simultaneously live with her immorality and coexist with the moral utopia within Boston.

Chapter Four: The Interview Summary After Hester returns to her prison cell, she remains agitated by the day's events. Pearl is also upset and starts crying. The jailer therefore allows a physician to enter and try to calm them down. Roger Chillingworth, pretending to be a physician, enters and mixes a potion for Pearl, who soon falls asleep. He also makes a drink for Hester, who is afraid that he is trying to kill her.

The Scarlet Letter Study Guide

Nevertheless, she drinks his potion and sits down on the bed. Chillingworth tells her that he forgives her, and he accepts the blame for having married her. She says, thou knowest that I was frank with thee. I felt no love, nor feigned any. He asks Hester who the father of Pearl is, but she refuses to tell him. Chillingworth then laughs and says, "He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart. She becomes afraid of Chillingworth's purpose, and she asks whether he has forced her into a bond that will ruin her soul.

He smiles and tells her, "Not thy soul No, not thine! In addition, Roger Chillingworth's relationship to Hester, namely, the fact that they are married, is revealed here. There are two moments of foreshadowing during this chapter which require further analysis. The first occurs when Chillingworth says, "Thou wilt not reveal his name? Not the less is he mine. He bears no letter of infamy wrought into his garment, as thou dost; but I shall read it on his heart. Thus the reader can infer that his heart will somehow reveal Dimmesdale's secret.

This does in fact occur, as a result of Chillingworth feeling Dimmesdale's heart while the reverend is sleeping. The second moment of foreshadowing occurs in the last few sentences. Hester is afraid she has made a bond that will "prove the ruin of [her] soul. This prediction also appears later in the novel and seems to be coming true with the death of Dimmesdale. It is difficult to establish what motivates Roger Chillingworth to remain and seek revenge. He is an educated man with superb skills in medicine and literature. Why then would he choose to remain in Boston and attempt to destroy Dimmesdale?

There are few good explanations for Chillingworth's behavior and desire to not be known.


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The most likely reasons are revenge and the challenge of solving the mystery. The motive of revenge is clear enough from Hesters infidelity and the damage that revealing himself would do to his reputation and future ability to marry. He also might seek vengeance on the true father for stealing his chance at a family. In that society, it would make sense to go after the father rather than Hester, and he admits in this chapter that he married Hester even though he knew she did not love him.

Even so, Chillingworth could have left town and tried to start a new family elsewhere.

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But there is still the mystery. Chillingworth's behavior is too sublimely cruel for that to be the only motivation, so it seems that he is motivated both by revenge and the mystery. A third possibility is that Chillingworth is also trying to remove the father from the scene in order to make a second attempt to win Hesters heart. This idea seems unlikely, but it goes hand-in-hand with the acts of revenge Chillingworth carries out in his parasitic attack on Dimmesdale, sucking the virility out of the man. As we continue our analysis, let us revisit these options to see whether the textual evidence supports them.

Chapters Chapter Five: Hester at Her Needle Summary Hester is released from prison and finds a cottage in the woods near the outskirts of the city, where she begins to set up her new life. She does not avail herself of the opportunity to escape to a new life without shame in some other city. The narrator remarks that people often are drawn irresistibly to live near the place where a great and marked event has occurred. He further comments that even if that is not the reason, Hester may have been inclined to remain in Boston because her secret lover still lived there.

Hester's skill at needlework, earlier shown in the fine way that she displayed the scarlet letter, allows her to maintain a fairly stable lifestyle. Still, her reputation as an outcast and loner causes a negative aura to be cast around her. Thus young children often creep up to her house to spy on her while she worked. In spite of her excellent needlework, she is never called upon to make a bridal gown due to her reputation. Hester spends time working on projects which bring income, and she devotes the remainder of her working time to creating garments for the poor.

She lives simply with the sole exception being that she creates amazing dresses of fine fabrics for Pearl. Hester's social life is virtually eliminated as a result of her shameful history.

She is treated so poorly that often preachers will stop in the street and start to deliver a lecture as she walks by. Hester also begins to hate children, who unconsciously realize there is something different about her and thus start to follow her with "shrill cries" through the city streets. One of the things which Hester starts to notice is that every once in a while she receives a sympathetic glance and feels like she has a companion in her sin.

As the narrator puts it, "it gave her a sympathetic knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts. Analysis Why would Hester stay in Boston rather than start her life anew somewhere else? The narrator argues that it is very difficult to leave the scene of a grave event because one feels the need to indulge in the feelings brought about by the setting. In other words, once Hester is made to stand on the scaffold, she unconsciously believes she must remain in Boston until she is somehow purged of the consequences of her action.

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To leave Boston out of anger or the desire to banish her past could leave her unsettled for the rest of her life. The scarlet letter itself becomes an even weightier symbol in these chapters. Whereas at first it represented Hester's adultery and her needlework skills, it now takes on two more meanings. First, the letter begins to represent the hidden shame of the community.

Preachers stop in the street and address their fiery words towards Hester, and she becomes a lightning rod for all sin, for all the latent build-up of repressed rage fomented by the strict morals and codes of the society. The more the community unloads its hatred and judgment upon Hester, the more it can use her as an example or deterrent in the name of eradicating sin.

Hester also can sense when people sympathize with her, perhaps because of their own secret sins. Thus the letter serves as a gateway into other people's secret crimes, and it acts : www.


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  • The letter thus can be interpreted as a symbol of shame shared by everyone rather than by Hester alone. The treatment of Hester worsens after she is displayed on the scaffolding. Her friends abandon her, and she must live in an isolated cottage on the outskirts of town. Even though Hester spends time helping to make clothes for the poor, they treat her badly in spite of her good intentions.

    She is not just an outcast, but also so low in the opinions of others that even children feel encouraged to make fun of her, even though they have not the faintest clue what she has done wrong probably they are too young to understand. That Hester chooses to live near the woods, on the border between forest and the town, is a clear and potent metaphor for her place in limbo between the spheres of the moral and immoral.

    Indeed, Hester seems to be trying to live in both worlds simultaneously, which results in her further degradation and the increasingly clear fact that she will have to make a choice. Either she must assimilate to Puritan tradition and follow their laws to the letter, or she can roam free and follow her passions and instincts while losing her connection to society. Her society barely tolerates someone living in the moral world while having an immoral action in ones past. Chapter Six: Pearl Summary Hester chose the name Pearl to represent something of great value, namely, the cost of her virtue and place in society see Matthew , where the pearl costs everything a person has, but it is worth the great price.

    Hester is afraid that nothing good can come from her sin, however, and thus she fears that Pearl will in some way be retribution for her sinful passion. Hester spends hours clothing Pearl in the richest garments she can find, even though it seems that Pearl would appear just as beautiful in any garment.

    Hester's passion exists in the child's demeanor in the form of "flightiness of temper Pearl has a particular mood where nothing Hester does can persuade the child to change her stance, so eventually Hester is "ultimately compelled to stand aside, and permit the child to be swayed by her own impulses. Having been scorned by the other Puritan families all her young life, Pearl is positively wrathful when other children approach her, going so far as to throw stones and scream at them. With toys, Pearl always plays games in which she destroys everything. The first thing Pearl saw in her infancy was the scarlet letter.

    As a baby she even reached up and touched the letter, causing her mother intense agony at the shame it generated in her. Pearl later played a game where she threw flowers at her mother and jumped around in glee every time she hit the scarlet letter. At one point Hester asks Pearl, "Child, what art thou? Pearl eventually asks who sent her to Hester, to which Hester replies that the Heavenly Father sent her. Pearl responds with, "He did not send me I have no Heavenly Father!

    Tell me! It is thou who must tell me! Analysis Pearl is the living embodiment of her mother's sin. She is a child of passion, wild and unfettered, and as a result she becomes mesmerized by the scarlet letter that her mother must wear. Even before she can speak, she is grasping for it, as if she knows that this holds the secret of her birth, and that its power led to her own creation.

    Hester does not have the ability to tame her daughter; she simply gives in to the child's inner nature. What is suggested, then, is that as long as Hester herself remains unsure about the moral consequences of her affair, so long as she lives in limbo between passion and duty, we could say, she will never be able to control Pearl. But once she makes peace with her sin, Pearl may truly become her child, a child of love. In the meantime, however, Pearl seems very much an embodiment of unfettered id. She has no interest in playing with other children and can be violent towards them.

    She is not protective of her mother either. Psychoanalysts might identify Pearl as a manifestation of rage, an expression of the repressed love and passion that are silenced by puritanical society. After all, if Dimmesdale and Hester still love each other, their love is quelled and silenced by law, while Hester's loveless marriage with Chillingworth is endorsed. Hester's main reason for going is to plead with Governor Bellingham to let her keep Pearl, whom the Governor thinks would be better raised in a more Christian household.

    Hester has decorated Pearl in a "crimson velvet tunic" embroidered with gold thread. The narrator comments that "the child's whole appearance Hester arrives at the Governor's mansion and enters. The mansion contains pictures of the Bellingham ancestors and a new suit of armor for the Governor himself. Pearl plays games by looking into the armor and then goes to look at the garden, from which she demands a red rose. When the Governor approaches, Pearl excitedly falls silent. Analysis This narrator does not go in for subtlety; he tends to state his themes quite plainly.

    In this chapter, particularly, we see the direct link between Pearl and the scarlet letter: "The child's whole appearance As long as Hester refuses to name her father, Pearl will remain a child not only of sin but literally of black magic. Notice, then, how Pearl is the one to renew the urgency of naming her father, even more than Chillingworth. Pearl has the most at stake to ensure that her father's identity is revealed. Inside the mansion, Pearl looks around and sees the shiny metal of the Governor's suit of armor.

    She then calls her mother's attention to the fact that the scarlet letter is grotesquely magnified by the convex shape of the armor, causing it to appear gigantic. It is a simple foretelling of the fact that in this house of law, this simple embroidered letter will be seen as the ultimate message of sin, perhaps so distorted in its significance that Pearl may lose her mother here after having lost her father. After all, Puritan laws have stripped her of her father, and now Bellingham will try to seize her from Hester as well. After Hester convinces Pearl to look at the garden, Pearl immediately demands a red rose.

    This scene hearkens directly back to the first chapter, where Pearl and the rose blossoms become connected for the first time. The rose blossom serves as a "moral blossom" within the story. Pearl demands it as though she sees a link between morality and passion, and she may be the only one to believe in a possibility of reconciling both. He first sees Pearl, dressed lavishly in her scarlet outfit, standing in front of him.

    Pearl introduces herself and tells them her name, at which point Wilson states, "Ruby, rather The men then see Hester Prynne in the background. Governor Bellingham tells her that he thinks it would be better for the child if Pearl were removed from her mother's care. Hester responds that she can teach the child what she has learned from the scarlet letter, at which point Bellingham sternly indicates that the letter is precisely the reason they want to remove Pearl from her care.

    As a test of Pearl's education, Wilson is asked to examine Pearl. He asks her who her maker is, to which Pearl replies that she was plucked off the rose bush that grows by the prison door. The Governor is so shocked by her reply that he is immediately prepared to take Pearl away from Hester. Hester grabs Pearl and screams that she will die before the men are allowed to take away her daughter. Finally, in desperation, she turns to Arthur Dimmesdale and pleads with him to speak on her behalf. He comes forward with his hand over his heart and argues that God has obviously given Pearl to Hester for some divine reason, and that it would meddle with the ways of the Lord to take Pearl away from her.

    He then indicates that Pearl is punishment for Hester as well, evidenced by the "garb of the poor child, so forcibly reminding us of that red symbol which sears [Hester's] bosom. Pearl then goes to Dimmesdale and presses her cheek against his hand, showing a tenderness which is unusual for her demeanor. Hester takes her and leaves. As Hester is walking home, the sister of Governor Bellingham, Mistress Hibbins, opens her window and calls out.

    Mistress Hibbins is apparently a witch who steals into the forest late at night to play with the Black Man. She asks Hester to accompany her, but Hester replies that she has to get Pearl home. She then adds that had they taken Pearl away from her, she would have been willing to go into the woods that night. Hibbins says, "We shall have thee there anon! Thus Pearl is called a "Red Rose" by Wilson when he first sees her.

    Even stronger is Pearl's response to Wilson's question concerning who made her, when she says that she was plucked off of the rose bush outside the prison door. For all its seeming flippancy and impertinence, Pearl's answer is remarkably astute, for if the bush represents the wildness of passion, then she was indeed plucked off of it as a result of her mother's affair with Dimmesdale.

    The question remains, however, how this rose can be the moral blossom that Hawthorne promises early in the novel. Hester's appeal to Arthur Dimmesdale marks a turning point in the novel. It is probably the first time she has relied on her relationship with the minister for support, and it makes : www. Dimmesdale steps forward with his hand over his heart, again hiding the scarlet letter which he feels upon his breast.

    This also is related to Chillingworth's comment that he will recognize Pearl's true father by "reading" his heart. Dimmesdale then correctly associates Pearl with the scarlet letter upon her mother's bosom, and he manages to keep the mother and daughter together. Pearl's response is unique at this juncture, taking the minister's hand and placing her cheek against it. This simple gesture is full of meaning, because it implies that Pearl recognizes Dimmesdale as being connected to her. Dimmesdale responds by kissing her on the forehead, in a sense claiming her as his own child.

    The scene in which Mistress Hibbins invites Hester into the woods to meet the Black Man largely acts to foreshadow events, emphasizing that the forest is an ungovernable, amoral wilderness. Thus, when Hester meets with Dimmesdale later in the story, and when both seek redemption, they return to the woods in the hope of finding truth outside the stringency of Puritan codes. After arriving at Boston and finding his wife in utter disgrace upon the pillory, he chooses to stay and live in the city.

    His uncommon intelligence and skill as a physician soon make him quite popular. Dimmesdale's poor health and Chillingworth's interest in the young man combine to make many of the church officials try to get them to live together. Dimmesdale declines at first, saying, "I need no medicine. The meeting immediately leads to the two men moving in together.

    The narrator comments that "A man burdened with a secret should especially avoid the intimacy of his physician. However, a few townspeople have more innate intuition and are skeptical of the physician's true motives. They sense that Chillingworth has undergone a profound change since arriving in Boston, going from a genial old man to an ugly and evil person. Thus, "it grew to be a widely diffused opinion that the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale Analysis : www. The use of the term "leech" to describe Chillingworth is at once appropriate and ironic.

    After all, he is a physician, and leeches at the time were used in order to facilitate bloodletting. At the same time, however, Hawthorne is obviously suggesting the parasitic relationship between Chillingworth and Dimmesdale. We return to our earlier postulation that Chillingworth goes after Dimmesdale not because he is a stock character or out of any sense of moral purpose, but rather in an effort to absorb the reverend's virility, to steal his life force and appropriate it as his own, both in vengeance and for his own sake.

    Chillingworth realizes that he is old, deformed, and unworthy of Hester, even though he is her husband. Yet, he seems to retain the unconscious desire that if he can somehow capture Dimmesdale's spirit, he will be able to gain Hester's love and allegiance. It is odd that some of the townspeople can sense that Chillingworth may be on the side of the devil. As a matter of morals, we would expect them to side with the cuckolded husband, if they knew his true identity.

    But for all their strict laws and overreaction to sin, these Puritans can sense the energy of injustice that is growing in Chillingworths psyche; they are attuned to it. Thus society is split in half over the man, some seeing him as a helper of Dimmesdale, others seeing him rightfully as the spawn of "The Black Man," having dangerous motives.

    He therefore expends a great deal of time and energy to make Dimmesdale reveal what is troubling him. Dimmesdale fails to realize that Chillingworth is in fact his enemy. He is so terrified of everyone in the town finding out his secret that he is blind to any enemy within his own home. Chillingworth engages the minister in a conversation about why men keep secrets in their hearts rather than revealing them immediately. Dimmesdale clutches his breast and struggles to avoid directly answering the questions Chillingworth poses.

    The two men are interrupted by Pearl and Hester walking through the cemetery outside. Pearl is jumping from gravestone to gravestone, and she finally starts dancing upon a large, flat stone. When Hester tries to make her stop, she takes several burrs and arranges them on the scarlet letter, to which they stick.

    Chillingworth observes that Pearl has no "discoverable principle of being" since she disregards all human ordinances and opinions. Dimmesdale then remarks that Pearl embodies "the freedom of a broken law. Pearl then shouts to her mother that they : www. Chillingworth then tells Dimmesdale that as his physician he cannot cure himhis ailment sees to come from his spiritual side.

    Chillingworth demands to be told what sort of secret Dimmesdale is hiding. The minister, upset by this, passionately cries out, "No! Soon after, Dimmesdale falls asleep while reading. Chillingworth takes the opportunity to place his hand over Dimmesdale's heart and then leaves before the minister can awaken. He is incredibly full of joy and wonderment after having felt Dimmesdale's heart. The narrator tells us that he acted "how Satan comports himself when a precious human soul is lost to heaven and won into his kingdom. Indeed, although the narrator proceeded no further than calling Chillingworth evil in motives and in deed, now Chillingworth's soul is attacked, and he is even compared to Satan, a thief of men's souls.

    Pearl perhaps senses this evil more than anyone, calling Chillingworth "the Black Man" and telling her mother that he already has captured Dimmesdale's soul. The end of the chapter brings to light some of what previous foreshadowing promised. Earlier, Chillingworth told Hester that he would be able to know her partner by reading his heart. In the final scene, he is in fact able to read Dimmesdale's heart and know the secret Dimmesdale is hiding. Hawthorne, however, indicates that Chillingworth is surprised by what he discovers, implying that Chillingworth never fully suspected Dimmesdale of being Pearl's father.

    Pearl herself seems to grow angrier and wilder the longer that everyone keeps the secret of her father's identity. She dances on graves, shuns all law, even attacks Dimmesdale now, all in a raging storm. She, in a sense, is our beacon in this story, a kind of lightning rod for everyone's repressed feelings. She impels action from under the surface, much as unconscious desires demand conscious action.

    It will not be until her desires are satiated, namely through confession and reconciliation among the adults who are tangled up in the adultery and her life, that she will be able to live in peace. Dimmesdale is the true father of Pearl, goes on a subtle campaign to hurt the minister as much as possible. Revenge consumes him to : www. Dimmesdale never figures out that his strongest enemy is the man whom he considers his only friend and physician. Dimmesdale is so overwhelmed with shame and remorse that he has started to become famous for his sermons.

    His ability as a speaker is enhanced by the fact that he feels far more sinful than many in his audience. He has even tried to tell his congregation about the sin he committed with Hester Prynne, but always in such a way that they think he is being modest. This causes Dimmesdale even more pain, for he believes that he is also lying to his people. Dimmesdale also has become a masochist, and he uses chains and whips to beat himself in his closet. In addition he undertakes extremely long fasts, refusing to eat or drink as penance.

    This fasting causes him to have hallucinations in which he sees his parents, friends, and even Pearl and Hester. One night he decides that there might be a way for him to overcome his anguish, and he softly leaves his house. Analysis Dimmesdale complements his emotional masochism with physical masochism. He fasts, flagellates himself, and keeps waking vigils so that he deprives himself of sleep, all in the hopes of banishing sin from his heart. Indeed, he still believes that he has done wrong, even when his feelings have not abated, and we sense that he cannot take public claim for Pearl's birth not only because he is afraid of the town's reaction, but also because he believes he can somehow atone for the sin enough to allow him to stay silent.

    That said, Dimmesdale tries several times to confess to his congregation, but each time he even suggests his own fallibility, his followers fail to grasp the significance of his confession. Dimmesdale will come to open confession, it seems, only of his own accord. It will not be found out or dragged out of him, no matter how much Chillingworth or the spawn of The Black Man try to suck out his soul. Dimmesdale will have to wear his own scarlet letter and reveal it to his masses, taking responsibility for his sin and its consequences.

    Chapter Twelve: The Minister's Vigil Summary Dimmesdale, having left his house, walks until he reaches the scaffold where Hester Prynne suffered her public humiliation several years ago. He climbs the stairs and imagines that he has a scarlet letter on his chest that all the world can see.

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    While in this state of mind, Dimmesdale screams aloud, and he is immediately terrified that the whole town has heard him. Instead, only Governor Bellingham briefly appears on his balcony before retiring to bed. Wilson approaches the scaffold holding a lantern, but only because he is returning from a late-night vigil. He fails to see Dimmesdale, who is standing on the scaffold.

    Dimmesdale waits a while longer and then bursts out laughing. Much to his surprise, the voice of Pearl answers him.

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    Hester and Pearl are at the scaffold because they have been at Governor Winthrop's deathbed taking measurements for a robe. Dimmesdale invites them to join him on the stand, which they do. All three hold hands and Pearl asks him, "Wilt thou stand here with Mother and me, tomorrow noontide? Looking upward, Dimmesdale believes that he sees a giant A in the sky.

    When he looks down again, Pearl is pointing to Roger Chillingworth, who is watching him from across the street. Chillingworth takes Dimmesdale home. The next day, after a sermon that the narrator describes as "the richest and most powerful," Dimmesdale is greeted by the sexton. The sexton hands him his glove, telling him that it was found on the scaffold where Satan must have left it. The man then tells Dimmesdale that last night, a large A was seen in the sky, which was interpreted to mean "Angel" in honor of Governor Winthrop's death.

    Analysis Dimmesdale begins to understand that he must himself embrace a figurative scarlet letter on his own breast. This realization comes with "a great horror of mind, as if the universe were gazing at a scarlet token on his naked breast, right over his heart. He simply cannot bear the weight of such guilt. As a result, Dimmesdale ventures to the scaffold at night, perhaps unconsciously seeking absolution. Perhaps he believes that if he stands in the same place Hester did, he can find some degree of peace without having to publicly confess. But it is not enough.

    Dimmesdale already knows of his own guilt and susceptibility to sin. What he cannot make peace with is the guilt of having preached all these years to a congregation he has betrayed with his own behavior. Whereas Hester wears a scarlet letter on her clothes and has not taken it to heart, Dimmesdale's scarlet letter is hidden, and it is slowly becoming inextricable from his flesh. Perhaps Pearl recognizes this, for she urges Dimmesdale to stand beside her and her mother at noontime the next day on the scaffold.

    Pearl senses that things have come to a head, that Dimmesdale will soon confess and that there will be a reckoning for him that will set them all free. Dimmesdale demurs, perhaps knowing that he cannot bear to make such a confession, and instead suggests that he and Hester will find freedom in the dark. It is then that the meteor streaks by, illuminating them in the whitest of light, foreshadowing Dimmesdale's revelation to the town and, more importantly, the absolution that will come with confession. Her devotion to serving the sick and needy has given her access into almost every home, and people now interpret the A as meaning "Able" rather than "Adultery.

    Rather than having her youthful good looks, she now seems more like a shell of a human being. Her "rich and luxuriant" hair either has been cut off or remains hidden under a cap. But she "might at any moment become a woman again, if there were only the magic touch to effect the transfiguration. Indeed, "had little Pearl never come to her from the spiritual world She has grown strong enough as a woman to see that her previous pact with Chillingworth, in which she promised not to reveal who he really is, was the wrong decision.

    She therefore decides to meet him, and soon thereafter she finds him in the woods collecting medicinal herbs. Request Catalog View Cart. Sign In. Quick Order. Quick Order by Number. Select a Grade. Pre-K -K- 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th 9th 10th 11th 12th. You must enable javascript in order to use this site. Seton Program Books Only:. Advanced Search.


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