Earlier today as I was scrolling through my phone’s camera roll, I paused at pictures of March 2021. My son and daughter, five and six then, were masked at the grocery store in the canned vegetables section. The next picture was them a few months later, masked at the playground. As I scrolled through the pictures, panicked feelings rushed over me again: How was I to juggle a job as a full-time professor, be a good colleague, care for my students, and make sure my children felt safe and secure, all while facing a global pandemic?
The masks may not be as visible, but the suffering they signify has not disappeared. Whereas the masks were arguably sacramental imaginaries of parents and children’s suffering during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the material and immaterial realities they signified are becoming increasingly ineffable. Coupled with masks’ progressively visible absence in our society a steadfast truth remains that all of us who experienced the pandemic are still suffering together, even while we may be encountering a different stage of what that suffering feels like and means.
I was reminded of this point this semester when rereading and teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, The Scarlet Letter recounts the story of Hester’s isolation within her Puritan community; there, she is forced to wear the letter A as a symbol for her adultery after she conceives a child out of wedlock with the local minister while her husband, a physician, is out of town. Readings of Hawthorne’s novel rarely focus on the mother-child relationship—of how fearful Hester must have been to raise her daughter apart from society until the age of seven. At the time her daughter is an infant, the two lived in a cottage together, alone and on the outskirts of their Puritan community: “In this little, lonesome dwelling, with some slender means that [Hester] possessed, and by the license of the magistrates, who still kept an inquisitorial watch over her.”1
Hawthorne depicts Hester as isolated, poor, and struggling with an infant. Others in her community “watch” her parenting. With the advent of Facebook mom groups and social media shaming, mothers in the United States who experienced the first wave of the pandemic can likely sympathize with the pressure the fictional Hester faced. Suddenly, the community forces Hester into a situation without any support. They mark Hester by the letter A. In our cases, communities marked mothers by whether we have decided to wear masks. Or keep our children home. Or take them to school. Or any number of other reasons. Even well after vaccines, the truth remains that communities throughout the COVID-19 pandemic isolated, separated, and judged mothers.
Hawthorne writes that when Hester looks after her daughter and witnesses her grow in isolation, the experience is at once joyful and sorrowful. This bittersweet feeling is one mothers during all stages of the pandemic, but especially its earliest days, might relate to: “How strange it seemed to the sad woman,” he writes, “as she watched the growth, and the beauty that became every day more brilliant.”2 Even as she watches her daughter, “the beauty,” grow, Hester feels sadness because there is no one with whom to share her joy. Hester had named her daughter “‘Pearl,’ as being of great price—purchased with all she had,—her mother’s only treasure.”3 Here, we have the scriptural reference of Matthew 13:45–6, in which Jesus tells of a merchant who sold all he had to buy one, single pearl, symbolizing heavenly salvation. As a gem, a pearl is unique in that it is created through suffering. An oyster—a living being—has an irritant of some sort invade it; then the living being wraps the invader with protective material that will later become a luminous gem, a pearl. The allegory for Hester’s seduction (and subsequent seclusion) is apparent. In the novel, Hester apprehends that both she and her daughter’s future is wrapped up entirely in the choices she makes when they are in isolation from their community—that her salvation is tied to how she treats her one Pearl born from her suffering.
She perceives how she protects and loves Pearl, and how she teaches her daughter to love others, as the key to whether the two will not only be able to continue living together as they do but also as the key to whether they will go to Heaven. Demonstrating Christian love for her daughter foretells, or doesn’t, her redemption. Relatedly, we may have children who are our pearls, who have been formed, as our parenting has been, through a long, isolated period of suffering. Further, we may have been robbed in some way of an ideal, envisioned world, perhaps not seduced exactly in the same way as Hester, but we have been robbed from a parenting existence we imagined we would have enjoyed pre-pandemic, a parenting world of opportunities for ourselves and our children that once existed but never will again for any of us. How we react to this irritant in our lives has a prophetic quality to it.
Hester’s maternal, self-sacrificial suffering is a trope front and center from The Scarlet Letter’s outset. Hawthorne begins chapter one with Hester in prison for adultery. Yet just as Hester suffers, so, too, does she persevere in love: her parenting is put on a pedestal because of how she handles her isolation. Hawthorne likens Hester to the biblical Mary; he regards his heroine as one to be interpreted as spiritually maternal in the highest sense. Hester’s maternal devotion analogized to Mary’s imbues hope amidst suffering: it is balm when humans have shown themselves “frail” in their actions. It might prove helpful to recall that the Virgin Mary is often depicted in Christian iconography as “Our Lady of Sorrows.” Mary suffered because her son Jesus suffered. Hester suffers for her daughter. That mingling of joy and sorrow lies at the crux of any story of isolated parenting—of maternal love during and amidst isolation.
Hawthorne provides both the child Pearl and her mother a resolution that we might turn to today as we consider how we might attempt to reflect some of those feelings the material masks in our lives signified, feelings that linger but may never have been fully lamented or contemplated. Once Pearl’s grief from her lonely childhood is acknowledged, once she is allowed to cry, she makes a “pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it.”4 Pearl, in Hawthorne’s novel that we associate primarily with shame, finds absolution through reconciliation. She is not left with her grief or shame about her isolation; rather she processes her experience and decides that she will “grow up amid human joy and sorrow,” not apart from it. Whereas she had violently lashed out before at those who had judged her mother, she discovers peace and no longer wants to hurt others. Her troubled past is acknowledged publicly—by a minister—her father—and the rest of the community. As an adult, Pearl is described as “married, and happy, and mindful of her mother.”
Likewise, Hester does not simply relegate her sins and suffering to the past without acknowledging them: she too finds absolution through reconciliation. Like her daughter, the community hears the minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, acknowledge his part in isolating her. Then, Dimmesdale says to Hester regarding both of their predicaments, “God knows, and He is merciful!”5 After he dies, she keeps the scarlet letter, her mask from the world one might say, and it “became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe, yet with reverence too. And as Hester Prynne had no selfish ends, nor lived in any measure for her own profit or enjoyment, people brought all their sorrows and complexities and besought her counsel, as one who had herself gone through a mighty trouble.”6 Hester becomes like the figure of the iconographic redeemer Mary, ever ready to hear others’ sorrows and help them grow closer to salvation.
Pandemic mothers, daughters, children, and parents of all types have “gone through a mighty trouble” like Hester. Although we may not live in Puritanical times as Hester did, we have tended to judge each other. We rarely have accounted in those judgments for the suffering and the sacrifices that parents made for their children. Our tendencies toward judgment might resemble those of the fictional Puritan community that took no account of Hester’s sacrifices at the beginning of the novel. That community changed, though, as ours should aspire to as well.
Hester tells those who visit her “of her firm belief that, at some brighter period, when the world should have grown ripe for it, in Heaven’s own time, a new truth would be revealed.”7 It feels doubtful that anyone after COVID-19 feels that we are in a brighter period, yet perhaps we are on a precipice of our own allegorical story of sacrificial love for our children, should we choose to pause and recognize it. We, too, have undergone isolation, and, at this moment, have choices about how to act now before us. Keeping this in mind, it is probable that 150 years from now people will be reading about and interpreting our isolating pandemic signs as we have been interpreting Hester Prynne’s famous “A” in ours. What will these readers in the future parse? What will they interpret from our children’s masks?