One of the most complex and elaborate characters in The Scarlet Letter is Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. Pearl, throughout the story, develops into a dynamic individual, as well as an extremely important symbol- one who is constantly changing. Pearl is involved in a complex history, and as a result, is viewed as different and is shunned because of her mother’s sin. Pearl is a living Scarlet A to Hester, as well as the reader, acting as a constant reminder of Hester’s sin.
Hawthorne uses vivid descriptions to characterize Pearl. She is first described as the infant; “…whose innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable decree of Providence, a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion.” (81). From the beginning of her life, she is viewed as the product of sin, as a punishment. Physically, Pearl has a “beauty that became every day more brilliant, and the intelligence that threw its quivering sunshine over the tiny features of this child.” (81-82). Pearl is ravishing, with “beauty that shone with deep and vivid tints’ a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown, and which, in after years, would be nearly akin to black.” Combining with her extreme beauty, are the lavish dresses that she wears.
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The exquisite dresses and her beauty cause her to be viewed as even stranger from the other typical Puritan children, who are dressed in traditional clothing. As a result, she is accepted by nature and animals and ostracized by the other Puritan children. “Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world… the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children.” (86). Pearl was not accepted by the children; her unavoidable seclusion was due to the sin of her mother. On the rare occasion that the children would show interest in Pearl, she would “grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up stones to fling at them…” (87)
As a result of Pearl’s seclusion from society, nature sympathizes with Pearl, which can be seen with the role of the sunshine in the forest. “The light lingered about the lonely child, as if glad of such a playmate,” (168). The sunshine is grateful for Pearl, accepting her as an equal. Hawthorne describes another sign of acceptance as the “great black forest…became the playmate of the lonely infant.” (187). Eventually, it is declared, “The truth seems to be, however, that the mother-forest, and these wild things which it nourished all recognized wildness in the human child.” (188). Because Pearl isn’t accepted by the community she takes on the characteristics of nature because nature accepts her as one of its own.
Pearl’s character “lacked reference, and adaptation to the world into which she was born. The child could not be made amenable to rules.” (83). This quote shows a striking resemblance in the description between Pearl and nature. Pearl and nature are referred to as not adapting to Puritan society. This characteristic makes Pearl so different because she is unaffected by the community, and is a product of nature and its ways. Hawthorne’s descriptions and developments of the relationship between Pearl and Nature further characterizes Pearl who has been thrust out of Puritan society.
The members of the Puritan society view Pearl as a weird, strange little girl, born from a sinful act. However, the characters with a closer, more in-depth relationship to the child, feel differently towards Pearl. “She is a strange child! I hardly comprehend her! But thou wilt love her dearly, as I do, and wilt advise me how to deal with her” (186). Hester describes her unbalanced feelings and emotions to Dimmesdale. This statement shows that although Pearl’s quirks and oddities cause her to become “strange” in the eyes of others, they form into love from Hester. This relationship between Hester and Pearl is important because both are ostracized for their irregularities and for the sin and shame of Hester. Dimmesdale responds to Hester’s statement with, “I have long shrunk from children because they often show distrust- a backwardness to be familiar with me. I have even been afraid of little Pearl!” (186). As Dimmesdale has been trying to find peace with himself because of his sin, he has also been attempting to develop a relationship with Pearl. However, this is impossible because he is unable to acknowledge Pearl in public. Because Pearl continuously demands public recognition (seen in Chapter 19, as well as Chapter 21) Dimmesdale grows a fear towards her. Therefore, it is understood that Pearl does not accept him as a father or loved one until he acknowledges her on Election Day. Hester, again, describes her relationship with Pearl while attempting to convince the Governor to allow her to maintain Pearl’s mother. “She is my happiness! She is my torture, none the less Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me too!” (104). This quote examines the importance of Pearl in Hester’s life. She allows Hester to feel happiness, as well as serves as a constant reminder and punishment of the sin that Hester has committed. Through the quotes and feelings of the other characters, the reader is able to see a more complex side of Pearl.
Pearl is involved in an extremely perplexing and elaborate history and background. Pearl’s mother, Hester, was punished for adultery, therefore Pearl was the result of her sin. Pearl, being Hester’s child as a result is involved in Hester’s history as well. Pearl is brought up with only a mother, who is ostracized from society as well. She does not know who her father is and Hester will answer none of her questions about her past. Because of her nonexistent history, she naturally becomes a very curious child. She desires to know what Hester will not tell her. She is also viewed as different from the rest of the community. She lives alone with just her mother, which is extremely unusual (unless she is widowed) and her father is unknown to everyone, except her mother. Her unusual history and background is the cause of her curiosity, as well as her seclusion from the community.
Pearl plays one of the most crucial roles in The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne uses Pearl as an effective and dynamic character; she is a constant reminder to Hester of her sin. When we were first introduced to Pearl, she was immediately drawn to the scarlet A on Hester’s bosom. “But the first object of which Pearl seemed to become aware was the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom! One day, as her mother stooped over the cradle, the infant’s eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter’ and, putting up her little hand, she grasped at it, smiling not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam.” (88). Beginning at infancy, Pearl served as a reminder of the Scarlet A on her bosom.
Hawthorne shows this symbolism various times. In Chapter 7 Pearl and Hester go to the Governor’s house and Pearl’s attire “inevitably reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her bosom. It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!” (93). Pearl is dressed in a scarlet dress with gold fringe exactly resembling the scarlet A on Hester’s bosom. Pearl had a natural inclination to focus on the scarlet letter, which is shown to its fullest in Chapter 15. “…Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best as she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s. A letter, letter A, but freshly green, instead of scarlet!” (163). Throughout Pearl’s continuous questions Hester has never denied the significance of the scarlet A on her bosom. However, in this scene, Hester eventually has to deny its significance to Pearl after she ceaselessly confronts her mother of its significance.
There are many continuous themes in which Pearl and her actions are large contributions to their overall portrayal. The theme of alienation, which is exhibited throughout all of the main characters, is clearly seen in the descriptions of Pearl. Pearl is always unaccepted by the community (which has already been addressed); she is shunned because of her mother’s sin. This can easily be viewed by analyzing the many various ways she is described by Hawthorne, by being weird and eerie, having imaginary friends, and continuously being called “elf-child”. She is ostracized and alienated from Puritan society and the children of the community, contributing largely to the theme of alienation. Another theme to which she contributes is the theme of beauty and its portrayal. “So smooth and quiet that it reflected a perfect image of her little figure, with all the brilliant picturesque-ness of her beauty, in its adornment of flower and wreathed foliage, but more refined and spiritualized than the reality.” (190).
This quote describes the beauty that Pearl has attained while she is playing in the forest and Hester and Dimmesdale talk. Her natural beauty is enhanced as she approaches Hester and Dimmesdale, her mother and father. This beauty brings together the theme of love, that is present between the three, as well as the importance of shame. While Pearl approaches her mother, who is not wearing the scarlet A and whose hair is down, she refuses to acknowledge her without her A and capped hair. This shows Pearl’s dissent for beauty as a solution to sin, which is expressed in the first few chapters when Hester is lightly punished for her adultery.
Because of Pearl’s banishment from Puritan society, she was thrown to another way of life and her wildness and peculiarity is a direct product of her banishment. Her character acts as a mysterious and interesting symbol in The Scarlet Letter. Pearl is an important character, as she is a constant reminder to Hester, as well as to the reader, of the constant sin of Hester. She contributes largely to the themes of the noel through her peculiar history. The one character that seems to play the most uninvolved role in the novel is one of the most intense symbols and individual throughout.
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