In the first chapter of the Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne himself mentioned his fascination with the “mysterious symbol” (Hawthorne, 29). Indeed, there are many symbols contained within this work, none of which is more prominent than the child named Pearl. Pearl was conceived through an adulterous liaison between her mother, Hester Prynne, and a revered minister of the Puritan colony, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Although Hester was condemned forthwith for her licentious behavior, and condemned to wear a red “A” (for adultery) as penance, Dimmesdale was not named the father of Pearl and led a life of respect throughout the book. Pearl herself was written as a symbol more than as a human throughout most of the book.

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To begin with, Pearl’s name has symbolic meaning. According to writing in chapter six, Hester named the child Pearl because she was borne “of great price—purchased with all she had,–her mother’s only treasure!” (Hawthorne, 81). Apparently Hawthorne may have taken this wording from a parable found in Matthew 13:45. Nonetheless, the price that Hester paid was her honor and position in Puritan society, for bearing Pearl made her a pariah marked by the red A that she was forced to wear on her bosom. Interestingly, pearls themselves are creations of nature that come from one living being (an oyster) similar to how Pearl was only known to have one parent, Hester. A seed of dust is deposited in an oyster and grows into a beautiful pearl, gathered at great risk by divers. In the case of the child, Hester told her she was born of her mother and the Heavenly Father (Hawthorne, 89), while Mistress Hibbins proclaimed Pearl the offspring of the “Prince of the Air” (Hawthorne, 224). Others called her the child of the devil or of sin. In any event, throughout most of the book Pearl was similar to the gem pearl, in that her existence was traceable only to one living creature.

Pearl symbolized the sin of both Hester and Dimmesdale, and her behavior seemed erratic and almost not human. Hester would look at Pearl and see an imp or a fairy, who made strange faces and expressions” “an imp of evil, emblem or product of sin” (Hawthorne, 85). She lacked friends as a child, but would play with sticks and stones, mistreating them as to somehow get back at the children who rejected her. Several times, when given the chance to act normally, Pearl chose to behave in an almost animalistic fashion. When Hester was in risk of losing Pearl, and one of the adjudicates, Mr. Wilson, asked Pearl of whence she came, instead of answering from her mother and God, or some other reasonable response, Pearl stated that she “had been picked by her mother off the bush of wild roses, that grew by the prison door” (Hawthorne, 101). This answer seemed to cement the inhuman quality of Pearl, who at the time showed traits of wildness (perhaps to accentuate her illicit origins) and put in jeopardy her remaining with her mother, were it not for the forced intervention of her (not disclosed) father, Dimmesdale. A second time that Pearl reacted with strangeness was during the forest scene in chapter 17, when Hester introduced Pearl to Dimmesdale, doing everything she could to reveal his parentage to her daughter. Hester said that the Reverend would love Pearl, but when he kissed Pearl on the forehead, she bolted to the stream and washed off his kiss. Pearl seemed to reject both her mother’s assurances and the man’s feeble attempts of affection, without reason.

Both Dimmesdale and Hester viewed Pearl as a constant reminder of their shared sin, their personal scarlet letters. Dimmesdale admitted as much in the forest, when he said he was constantly afraid someone would notice some physical resemblance between himself and Pearl, and his outward status as pure would be equated to what he believed to be his inward status as corrupt. Hester, while outwardly viewed as sinful, with Pearl as the living reminder, on the other hand was living a life of good deeds. The inward and outward roles were reversed, with Pearl the living connection between the two.

Indeed, when Dimmesdale finally decided to declare his sin publicly, he did so with Pearl and Hester at his side. Once again he asked Pearl for a kiss, and this time she obliged. According to Hawthorne, at this point “[a] spell was broken… [and]…Pearl would grow up amid human joy and sorry, nor for ever to do battle with the world, but be a woman in it” (Hawthorne, 236). By forgiving Dimmesdale, and realizing that she had two parents, Pearl seemed to lose her symbolic existence and was set to be no longer a fairy, imp or wild thing, but a human or “woman” (Hawthorne, 236). Although it was too late for Dimmesdale, who died at the time of his declaration, Hester and Pearl were both freed by the admission. Apparently Hester continued to do good deeds, and Pearl surprisingly became a wealthy woman (due to an inheritance from her evil-seeming step-father, the so-called Roger Chillingsworth, formerly Hester’s husband under another name and part of Dimmesdale’s undoing). As Hawthorne points out, regarding the hypocrisy of people when money is involved, had Pearl wished to, due to her newly-acquired fortune she “might have mingled her wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan among them all” (Hawthorne, 241), since great wealth will overcome any number of sins. What actually became of Pearl is somewhat unclear. Her main function within the novel was to serve as a symbol of sin, wildness, and eventually, forgiveness—while emphasizing the inconsistent views society held toward her charitable but punishment-accepting mother and her beloved but guilt-wracked father.

  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Penguin Books, 2009.