The Symbolic Pearl in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

The Symbolic Pearl in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

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Pearls have always held a great price to mankind, but no pearl had ever been earned at as high a cost to a person as in Hester Prynne, a powerful Heroine in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter. Her daughter Pearl, born into a Puritan prison in more ways than one, is an enigmatic character serving entirely as a vehicle for symbolism. From her introduction as an infant on her mother’s scaffold of shame to the stormy peak of the story, Pearl is an empathetic and intelligent child. Throughout the story she absorbs the hidden emotions of her mother and magnifies them for all to see. Pearl is the essence of literary symbolism. She is, at times, a vehicle for Hawthorne to express the inconsistent and translucent qualities of Hester and Dimmesdale’s unlawful bond, and at other times, a forceful reminder of her mother’s sin. Pearl Prynne is her mother’s most precious possession and her only reason to live, but Pearl also serves as a priceless treasure purchased with Hester’s life. Pearl’s strange beauty and deeply enigmatic qualities make her the most powerful symbol Hawthorne has ever created. The product of Hester’s sin and agony, Pearl, was a painfully constant reminder of her mother’s violation of the Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not commit adultery. Hester herself felt that Pearl was given to her not only as a blessing but a punishment worse than death or ignominy. She is tormented by her daughter’s childish teasing and endless questioning about the scarlet letter and its relation to Minister Dimmesdale. After Pearl has created a letter “A” on her own breast out of seaweed, she asks her mother: But in good earnest, now, mother dear, what does this scarlet letter mean? -- and why dost thou wear it on thy bosom? -- and why does the minister keep his hand over his heart? In saying this Pearl implies that she knows much, much more about the scarlet letter than she lets on. Throughout the conversation Pearl is impish and teasing, saying one thing and contradicting it soon after. She refuses to say just what she means, which makes it hard for Hester to give a straight answer. Hester is shocked that her playful daughter has lead their conversation to the topic of the scarlet letter, and even more disturbed that she has assumed Hester’s letter and Dimmesdale’s habit of pressing his hand to his heart a branch from the same issue.

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Pearl, in bringing this forbidden and painful subject about, unwittingly inflicts agony upon her unhappy mother. Hester cannot tell her daughter what has passed between the minister and herself and come clean. Pearl symbolizes a hidden part of her mother that has not, and will never be exposed and therefore washed free of sin. Pearl was always drawn to the ”A”, and seemed to twist the symbolic knife in Hester’s bosom every time she thought she was free of her burden of sin by rudely reminding her of the letter and the meaning it bore. Pearl’s questioning wrenched Hester’s heart when the child seemed to somehow know about the relationship between Hester and Dimmesdale. Pearl’s precocity worried Hester constantly. Hester Prynne herself realized that Pearl was unlike other children, and prayed that she was not sin incarnate. When Hester finally freed herself of her sin and removed the scarlet letter after years of its leaden weight on her chest, it was little Pearl who brought the reality of her eternal condemnation back to Hester with a stinging blow. She was “the scarlet letter endowed with life”. Pearl represented the part of Hester to be always dulled by the searing judgment of others in that she was Hester’s ceaseless reminder of the sin she had committed, but also symbolized everything about Hester that was free and alive. Pearl is the only happiness in Hester Prynne’s lonely life. Without a child to care for, teach, and love, Hester would have long ago given her soul and life over to evil. When town authorities, shocked at Pearl’s apparent belief that she was plucked from a rose bush and not created by God, recommend she be taken from Hester and placed in a school, Hester responds with the following: “God gave me this child!... She is my happiness, she is my torture none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life!...Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” Pearl, though Hester understands that she was God-given as a constant reminder of her sin, is her only requited love and a friend that does not judge her by things past. Later, Hester comments that she would have “signed my name in the Black Man’s book too, and that with mine own blood!” if they had taken Pearl from her. Her daughter is her only earthly salvation, as well as her only friend. Pearl is a blessing upon Hester in that her light-heartedness and seeming innocence allow her mother to forget about her troubles and (to use a Calvin Klein cliché) simply BE. To see Pearl playing on the beach and creating a fascinating world of her own is to allow Hester to momentarily throw off the shackles imposed on her by Puritan society and be truly happy. Another important symbol that makes up Pearl is her significance as Hester’s only tie to Minister Dimmesdale, her partner in adultery. Pearl is imbued with an unearthly knowledge about the bond between her mother and the Minister. While this, in itself, frightens Hester, Pearl is all that she has of Dimmesdale and she treasures the girl for that. She is the one who repeatedly demands that he hold hands with Hester and herself in public and recognize them. Of course, this is the only thing that Dimmesdale can do to save himself from the misery of guilt, which only goes further to show that Pearl symbolizes the deep nexus between Hester and the Minister. The Scarlet Letter is overflowing with masterfully wrought symbolism and representation, but Pearl Prynne is the purest and deepest symbol in the story. She was born not only out of utter sin, but out of the deepest and most absolute love imaginable. She serves as a messenger of God’s salvation through pain, and as a symbol of all that is blessed and content in Hester Prynne’s life.

 In the end, it is Pearl who kisses Arthur Dimmesdale as he lies dying on the scaffold, having admitted his sin. She breaks a spell that had lain over the dyad in adultery and herself - the product of their sin - completing her service as a symbol of pain and hardship, but more importantly a symbol of love, salvation, and the deep bond between two lovers condemned by the strict decorum of the Puritan days.

Works Cited:

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
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