Pearl, The Changeling Child

Changeling Children by Alan Lee

There are old legends about how Faeries used to steal human children and replace them with a child of their own. You could tell if the child you had been raising was truly a Faerie because of a sudden change in their behavior. They might not be particularly emotional, or they might cry without reason. They might not like physical affection, and they might seem oddly intelligent for their age. They will probably be seen as badly behaved. As an Autistic person, quite a bit of this sounds familiar.

In “The Scarlet Letter”, it is strongly implied that Pearl is some kind of Faerie child, or at least, heavily suspected to be by the Puritan community that surrounded her. Even the narrator refers to her as an Elf-Child. In this context, an elf should be interpreted as the same thing as a faerie. Pearl seems to be coded as Autistic, though Nathaniel Hawthorne would not have had the word for it.

One trait that stands out to me is Pearl’s aversion to touch. Pearl hates being touched, and is seen as not being particularly affectionate because of this, to the point where it shocks Hester when she initiates contact with Dimmesdale in Chapter 8: “Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him, and, taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself — ‘Is that my Pearl?’” (107). The physical affection is seen as out of the ordinary for Pearl. Autistic people are often touch-adverse. It’s a sensory thing, the sensory processing issues that come hand-in-hand with Autism can make touch incredibly uncomfortable for us. It makes sense that a supposed Faerie child like Pearl wouldn’t be particularly fond of affection.

Pearl’s disregard for authority and rules in general could be interpreted as a lack of understanding of social norms, also common among us Autistic folks. The narrator and Hester see this as a willing choice on Pearl’s part. She simply does not wish to comply with any sort of instruction or discipline. The Puritan society that surrounds Pearl sees it as a failure on the part of Hester. Blaming the mother for the presence of Autistic traits is as old as the diagnosis of Autism itself, in fact, it was originally believed that Autism was caused by cold and distant mothers. It seems clear that it was neither a choice on Pearl’s part or the fault of Hester, as Pearl remains resistant to the norm even after discipline from Hester: “As to any other kind of discipline, whether addressed to her mind or heart, little Pearl might or might not be within its reach, in accordance with the caprice that ruled the moment” (86). The effect of any discipline is only temporary. Pearl clearly never quite gets the message of “If I repeat this behavior, I will be punished for it”. It is not a sign of stupidity or malice — it is simply a sign of not understanding.

So far in “The Scarlet Letter”, Pearl is demonized by just about everyone, and her behavior is often viewed as the result of her mother’s sin. Pearl can’t control her stranger traits. It is simply the way she was born.