A Character Analysis of the Many Facets of Pearl The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a book of much symbolism. One of the most complex and misunderstood symbols in the book is Pearl, the illegitimate daughter of Hester Prynne and Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Throughout the novel Pearl develops into a dynamic symbol; one that is always changing.
In the following essay, I will explore Hawthorne’s symbolism of Pearl from birth, age three, and age seven. Also, I will attempt to disprove the notion that Pearl is branded with a metaphorical scarlet letter “A” representing amorality; instead she represents the immorality of her mother’s adultery.
In The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne, for her sins, received a scarlet letter “A” which she had to wear upon the “breast of her gown”(Hawthorne 39). It was the Puritan way of treating her as a criminal for the crime of adultery.
The Puritan treatment of Hester did not stop simply with the assignment of the letter. As she walked through the streets, she was looked down upon as if she were some sort of evil spirit among them, being punished for some ghastly crime. This gave Hester much mental anguish and grief.
On the other hand, God’s treatment of Hester for her sin was quite different than the scarlet letter. He gave Hester the punishment of rearing a very unique child whom she named Pearl. “But she named the infant “Pearl,” as being of great price, –purchased with all she had, –her mother’s only treasure!”(Hawthorne, 62). Hester named her daughter Pearl because she had to give up everything, including freedom, for her.
This punishment handed down from God was a constant mental and physical reminder to Hester of what she had done wrong. There was no escaping it. In this aspect, Pearl symbolized God’s way of punishing Hester for the sin of adultery. Even when she was just a baby, “her infant’s eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter” (Hawthorne 67).
From birth, Pearl seemed to be attracted to the scarlet letter “A” that clung to her mother’s chest. In one specific incident when Pearl was a baby she reached up smiling to touch the scarlet letter on Hester’s dress as she stooped over her cradle.
This gesture by the baby mortified Hester because of Pearl’s innocent recognition of the underlying meaning of the letter on her chest. It seemed as if Pearl unknowingly antagonized her mother by constantly reminding her of the “fatal token” (Hawthorne 67). “From that epoch, except when the child was asleep, Hester had never felt a moment’s safety; not a moment’s calm enjoyment of her” (Hawthorne 67).
Hester realized that she could not enjoy the normal maternal relationship with her daughter because of the embarrassing symbol on her chest. Hawthorne states, “Weeks, it is true, would sometimes elapse, during which Pearl’s gaze might never once be fixed upon the scarlet letter; but then, again, it would come at unawares, like the stroke of sudden death, and always with that peculiar smile, and odd expression of the eyes” (67).
Hester recognized that Pearl’s odd expression was her own recognition of the immoral meaning of the scarlet letter and Pearl herself. At age three, Pearl still possessed the same childish fascination with her mother’s decorative symbol of shame. Hawthorne told of one certain incident were “… she amused herself with gathering handfuls of wild flowers, and flinging them, one by one, at her mother’s bosom; dancing up and down, like a little elf, whenever she hit the scarlet letter.” (67). Pearl, through the use of the letter, toyed with her mother’s emotions as if it were a game placed there for her own personal amusement.
Hester still bore witness to “little Pearl’s wild eyes”; the same expression that she had seen before in her eyes as a baby (Hawthorne 67). Hester could tell that with every day that passed her little girl was becoming more and more aware of the scarlet letter and its immoral meaning.
Pearl was now old enough to ask questions about her identity. When Pearl questioned her mother as to where she came from, Hester vaguely answered, “Thy Heavenly Father sent thee!” (Hawthorne 68). Sometimes it seemed to Hester that Pearl was possessed by an evil spirit; an insight supported by Pearl when she denied having a Heavenly Father, and then demanded Hester really tell her where she came from.
Hawthorne states “Whether moved only by her ordinary freakishness, or because an evil spirit prompted her, she put up her small forefinger, and touched the scarlet letter” (68). This again reiterates the notion of Pearl toying with her mother’s emotions and also the symbolism of her immoral character with regard to her mother’s scarlet letter. As Pearl matured to age seven, her actions toward the scarlet letter became bolder.
Hawthorne told of an incident where “…Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter,–the letter “A”,–but freshly green, instead of scarlet!” (121). Pearl, at this questioning age, wonders if her mother will ask what this green letter “A” means. Pearl inherently did this to draw forth some sort of reaction from Hester.
I do not believe that Pearl really knew the immoral symbolism behind the scarlet letter, but she did know that it was somehow associated with the actions of Reverend Dimmesdale and the whole Puritan community.
Her childhood curiosity was more insightful that other seven-year-olds and she tried to coax her mother into telling her the truth behind the letter. Hester was forced into being untruthful, not only with herself, but also with Pearl, by telling her “What know I of the minister’s heart?” and that she wore the letter “…for the sake of its gold thread!” (Hawthorne 123). In her own way, Pearl was reaching out to her mother.
She was trying to tell Hester that she could confide in her the meaning of the scarlet letter but her mother was afraid to entrust her with the knowledge and face the fact that Pearl would now know the truth about her shame. Another incident that occurred in the novel was when Hester, Pearl, and Reverend Dimmesdale were in the forest contemplating their escape to a new life as a family.
When Hester called for Pearl to come to her, Pearl would not, and simply pointed her finger at Hester’s chest. Hester stated, “I see what ails the child…children will not abide any, the slightest, change in the accustomed aspect of things that are daily before their eyes” (Hawthorne 142). Pearl would not go to Hester for the simple fact that she was not wearing the scarlet letter. Pearl had grown attached to the letter because since birth, she had always seen her mother wear it.
One insight to this incident was that Pearl had become so closely associated with the letter on Hester’s breast that she had become the embodiment not only of Hester’s sin but also of her conscious. By Hester not wearing the scarlet letter she was free from the reminder of her sins. In Pearl’s eyes the scarlet letter was as much a part of her mother as any other bodily feature.
Without it, Pearl could not play on her mother’s emotions by reminding Hester of the immoral act in which she was conceived. In closing, Pearl was a source of many different kinds of symbolism. She, in a way, really was the scarlet letter showing the immorality of the act of adultery. If she had never been born, Hester would have never been found guilty of adultery, and thus never would have had to wear that symbol of shame upon her chest.
Pearl, in her own way, helped her mother come to terms with her sin by being her constant reminder. As a final note, Pearl was more than her mother’s only treasure or sometimes headache; she was her mother’s only source of survival.