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Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

Legend of a girl-child Pearl

Nathaniel Hawthorne Hawthorne, in his The Scarlet Letter, employs a great deal of mystery and symbolism, some of which is uncovered and interpreted by Pearl. Pearl functions more than just a child-character — she is an indispensable aid to the reader. Without her commentary and her thought-processes, the reader would find himself questioning what goes on in the story, or at best, slow to pick up on certain points. Pearl is more than just a child-character; she also functions as an extended metaphor of the scarlet letter — one of Hawthorne's more famous symbols.Pearl functions and an indispensable aid to the reader.

Hester Prynne becomes a social outcast after Salem learns of her adultery. Likewise, her daughter Pearl is an outcast among her peers and doesn't get along well with them. (Remember the rock-throwing incident?) She never made any friends and spent a great deal of time playing with herself and the plant-life. (ch. 6 & 14) Pearl even carries on a conversation with her own reflection because she has no other playmate. (ch. 14) On the other hand, Pearl could communicate efficiently with adults at an early age – she could relate to them in a way other children could not. This trait and her curiosity play an important role in the way she mentally picks apart her parents.

Pearl seems content without peers. Ms. Prynne does not discipline her daughter the way a normal mother of that time period would have and subsequently Pearl spends her early childhood without much concept of right or wrong. This may account for her being out-spoken.

She seems to possess a broad understanding of her surroundings and of the key players in the story. She is very suspicious of Mr. Arthur Dimmesdale (the way he puts his hand over his heart) and knows of his prior involvement with Hester. She sees the link between Mr. Dimmesdale's behavior and her mother's scarlet letter. (ch. 15) By the end of the novel, Pearl is overflowing with curiosity about the letter, reminding and prodding her mother constantly about it. At the procession, she questions Mr. Dimmesdale's peculiar behavior, an indication to the reader that she knows something is not right. She is so smart, so peculiar, that her mother could scarcely believe that Pearl was a human being. (ch. 6) Hawthorne constantly describes Pearl as not quite human: a "little imp" (ch. 6) and an "elf-child." (ch. 8) Hawthorne creates this chasm between Pearl and the other characters to emphasize her peculiarity and attract reader attention. Pearl's "not-quite-human" aspects add to her mystery and surprisingly enough, boost her feasibility.


Throughout most of the novel, Pearl's actions suggest that she is incapable of experiencing the proper emotions. If she saw that her mother was distraught, her common reaction was to laugh and sing and carry on, denying Hester the consolation that she needed. Pearl, upon injuring a sea-gull with a pebble, simply sighed and walked away. (ch. 15) It was an improper emotion, but an improvement over the prior example. One particular symptom of schizophrenics is their display of improper and/or intense emotions. Pearl was not quite schizophrenic, but Hawthorne uses Pearl's emotional unpredictability to further isolate her from the other characters. Pearl rarely cried, and when she did, she would convulse and "gesticulate" violently. Usually, it was over selfish matters and the like. At the final scaffold scene, Pearl is found crying softly in her father's arms, displaying true, proper emotions for the first time in her life. Like Mr. Dimmesdale, Pearl undergoes a transformation when the truth of the affair is revealed.

Hester realizes that "she [Pearl] is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved…" (ch. 8) Hawthorne establishes a direct link between the scarlet letter and Pearl by saying, "It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!" (ch. 7) Pearl is Hester's second prominent physical reminder of her adultery, and like the scarlet letter, she "burned on Hester's bosom" as well. Pearl is Hester Prynne's only reason for living, but she is also her torturer. She is similar to Roger Chillingworth in that she has a duel role of savior/tormenter. Mother Prynne says it best, in her rebuttal to Gov. Bellingham in ch. 8: "[Pearl] is my happiness!-- she is my torture…Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me too!" Without Pearl's presence, Hester likely would have gone mad.

Along with being Hester's constant reminder of her sin, Pearl would "rub it in", torturing her even more. For instance, when Pearl was but an infant, one of the first things she noticed was her mother's scarlet letter. Whenever Pearl took interest in the letter, Hester became distraught and pained. Upon seeing her mother in this state, Pearl would smile and laugh all the more. (ch. 6) Pearl would play games with the letter, flinging flowers at it and sticking burrs onto it. When Hester and Pearl visited Roger Chillingworth as he gathered herbs by the sea, Pearl took some eel-grass and formed a scarlet letter on her own dress. (ch. 15) Pearl's innocent aspirations to be "just like Mother" were just another way Pearl inadvertently tortured her.

Pearl has great responsibilities in the novel — she saves her mother from madness and/or death, constantly reminds her parents of their sin and gives the reader a child's-eye view of the situation (arguably the best view). She accomplishes these tasks with the knowledge and skill of a much older girl and helped turn The Scarlet Letter into a masterpiece.

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