The Scarlet Letter is the story of Hester Prynne, who is forced to wear a letter “A” on her clothing as a reminder of the adultery that led to the birth of her child, Pearl. A first read of The Scarlet Letter would give the impression that Pearl’s temper is a result of how she was conceived. The truth is that Pearl isn’t truly a little girl. She doesn’t behave in the way girls are expected to; she isn’t sweet, she’s far from innocent, and doesn’t play with dolls or cling to her mother’s skirts. Rather, she is filled with rage and passion and has instinctual knowledge that she cannot possibly possess. Pearl is not a human child; she is the embodiment of sin. Pearl is a vessel for Arthur Dimmesdale’s secret sin and shame and cannot truly live until he publicly acknowledges her.
As the story begins, Hester stands on the scaffold with three month-old Pearl. Hester takes the punishment alone and refuses to name her lover and Pearl’s father. The man in question, reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, participates in Hester’s public humiliation on the scaffold. Hester’s estranged husband, Roger Chillingsworth, pays Hester a visit in prison and vows that he will figure out the identity of Hester’s lover because he will “read it on his heart” (Hawthorne, 93).
Now released from prison, Hester is free to leave the town and thus remove the scarlet “A” from her bosom. She refuses to do so, however; she moves to the outskirts of town and works as a seamstress. The local children taunt Pearl as often as their parents taunt Hester. Rather than handling it with quiet dignity, Pearl fights back, both in imagination and in deed.
The governor is prepared to take Pearl away from Hester, but Reverend Dimmesdale successfully pleads on her behalf (Hawthorne, 136-139). Chillingsworth has now made a place for himself within the community and has insinuated himself with Dimmesdale. He quickly realizes that the reverend has a secret. Chillingsworth uses this knowledge to torture Dimmesdale at every opportunity in the hopes that he will eventually confess. His failure to admit to any weakness gives the congregation the impression that he is a holy man.
As Dimmesdale’s mental state weakens, Hester’s status within the community improves. She has endured the abuse from the community and they are now content to leave her alone. Her status as an adulteress means she cannot have relationships with men
and cannot do anything that will draw the community’s attention back to her scarlet letter. She cannot, for instance, draw attention to Chillingsworth’s torture of Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale has now become a broken man on the verge of complete insanity. Hester manages to catch her husband alone and implores him to stop torturing the revered. Chillingsworth admits that he has become a willing instrument of the devil before releasing Hester from her promise to keep his identity a secret (Hawthorne, 206-209).
Hester waits for Dimmesdale frequently before finally confronting him about Chillingsworth being her husband. Dimmesdale is angry at first, and once Hester confesses that she still loves him, he realizes that he has been released from a great burden. Hester comes to this realization as well and takes off her scarlet letter and the cap that keeps her long hair bound. Pearl sees this activity and instead of being happy that she will finally, formally be introduced to her father, she goes into a rage until Hester replaces the cap and the letter (254-255).
Hester makes plans to leave for Europe with Pearl and Dimmesdale, and soon discovers that Chillingsworth will be joining them. Election Day is a fateful day; Mistress Hibbins reveals that she knows Dimmesdale’s secret and Pearl is eager to be acknowledged on the scaffold (292). Dimmesdale has regained his strength and vigor until he hears a shout proclaiming his moral superiority. He instantly returns to the mental weakling he had been earlier and insists that he will stand on the scaffold and confess his sin. Dimmesdale collapses, but he does confess to his part in the adultery. Pearl is overjoyed and embraces her father. Dimmesdale dies to Chillingsworth’s dismay at not being able to reveal it himself. Eventually, Hester and Pearl leave town. She returns an old lady, once again wearing the scarlet letter.
Hawthorne created the character of Pearl in part to force the other characters to act. The first evidence of this is Pearl’s conception. Had she not been conceived, no one would have been the wiser about Hester’s affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, evidenced by Hester’s silence on the subject and Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess. When she is three years old and taken to the governor’s mansion, it is her inappropriate behavior that inspires the governor to consider taking her away from her mother, and our first glimpse into the real power of the government at this time. The governor does not threaten to begin custody proceedings or to evaluate Hester’s fitness as a parent; he merely mentions taking Pearl away as if it were the easiest, most natural thing to take a child away from its mother. Throughout the novel, Pearl’s presence incites Chillingsworth to torture Dimmesdale for a confession.
The reader’s first introduction to Pearl comes on page 55 as Hester is leaving the jail for the scaffold. The Goodwives have little but nasty things to say about her, even going to far as to suggest that she be executed for the crime of adultery (68). Pearl is not thought of as a baby – no civilized society would imprison a three month old infant. Therefore, Pearl must have another purpose. The first evidence of Pearl’s true purpose takes place as Hester stands on the scaffold holding her in her arms. Dimmesdale stands before them, reluctantly chastising her for her sin and imploring her to confess the name of the father. While he gives a long and boring sermon, Pearl cries uncontrollably. This is because she’s in such close proximity to the man responsible for her misery. Even as a baby, she cries out to him to acknowledge her so that she can be whole. Dimmesdale refuses to do so, and she must be drugged to keep her from making herself sick with rage.
At the age of three, Pearl is physically beautiful and graceful (30). Much as it is a contradiction for a man of the cloth to be an adulterer who cannot control his desires, Pearl is a beautiful little girl who cannot control her rage. She cares nothing for authority and responds equally to kindness and threats from her mother; they’re the same to her.
Initially, children regard her with curiosity, and Pearl responds with anger and violence.
…the children gathered about her, as they sometimes did, Pearl
would grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up
stones to fling at them, with shrill, incoherent exclamations…(115)
It is uncomfortable to be stared at because Pearl knows, even at her age, why they are
staring. She has no interest in making friends. Her one obsession is getting her father to
One day, Hester goes to the governor’s mansion to deliver a pair of gloves and to convince him not to follow the advice of the townspeople who would have Pearl taken from her. Children taunt Pearl as they walk, and Pearl drives them off with threats. Was Pearl truly interested in the vicious words of children? It’s not likely. Instead, Pearl knows instinctively that her father is at the mansion and she has no interest in being delayed. When they arrive, Pearl makes a comment about her origin that makes the governor think twice about leaving the child with Hester.
“I am mother’s child,” answered the scarlet vision, ” and my
name is Pearl ! ” (133)
This comment shows no respect for authority as children at that time were not expected to speak unless spoken to. An illegitimate child was not supposed to be proud of her heritage or her mother; rather, she was expected to be humble and aware of her mother’s sin. But who can say that Pearl didn’t know what affect the comment would have on the governor? Pearl’s comment may have been designed to force them to take her away from her mother and place her with the “good” reverend, who hasn’t yet acknowledged her as his child.
Pearl is fascinated with the scarlet letter, which she constantly recreates with other materials. While Pearl does not understand the intricacies of wearing such a letter, she does seem to understand human nature, as evidenced from the following quote:
“Mother,” said little Pearl, “the sunshine does not love you. It runs
away and hides itself, because it is afraid of something on your bosom. . . .
It will not flee from me, for I wear nothing on my bosom yet!”
“Nor ever will, my child, I hope,” said Hester.
“And why not, mother?” asked Pearl, stopping short. . . . “Will it not
come of its own accord, when I am a woman grown?” (Hawthorne, 220-221)
Pearl could be referring to the scarlet letter, but it is more likely she is referring to human nature in regard to sin. Somehow, she knows that when she is a grown woman, she too will have to make choices regarding her own passionate nature.
The longer Dimmesdale resists confessing, the weaker he gets. Conversely, Pearl only gets stronger and meaner. She knows that the scarlet letter has to do with her; she insists on asking her mother about it constantly, realizing that she isn’t being told the truth. When Hester meets with Dimmesdale in the woods, he is on the verge of officially meeting Pearl when she realizes that her mother has taken off her cap and letter – two things which ensure her continued penitence and Dimmesdale’s eventual acknowledgement of Pearl. She can’t stand the idea that the secret couple will reunite without insisting upon the reverend’s confession. So, Pearl throws a fit until Hester
resumes her former chaste and remorseful appearance.
Hester informs her daughter that her father will eventually make a public confession,
and Dimmesdale seals this promise with a kiss to Pearl’s forehead. This isn’t good enough, for it is not what she needs to cast off her rage and her father’s secret. She washes off the kiss as a sign that she is still waiting for the confession. As Dimmesdale leaves Hester and Pearl in the forest, he sees Pearl dancing – she still believes she’s going to get what she needs in order to be whole.
After her encounter with Dimmesdale in the forest, Pearl sees him again and asks her mother:
“Mother, was that the same minister that kissed
me by the brook?” “Hold thy peace, dear little Pearl!”
whispered her mother. “We must not always talk in the
market-place of what happens to us in the forest.” (290)
In this instance, Pearl is being used as a tool to demonstrate the differences between living in the forest and living in a civilized society. In the forest, Hester and Pearl may speak to whom they wish, whenever they wish to do so. They need not have any regard for social norms and niceties. In the town, they must behave differently. This is the community that made judgments regarding Hester’s sin and Pearl’s status; this is the same community waiting for a determination on Pearl’s true paternity.
On Election Day, there is electricity in the air, the anticipation that great things will happen that day. Pearl becomes agitated and passes the time before the Election Sermon by dancing. She asks her mother if Dimmesdale is going to finally confess his sin and acknowledge her on the scaffold, but Hester is hesistant to answer. Instead, she instructs her daughter not to call out to him. In fact, when Dimmesdale arrives, full of vigor, confidence and energy, Pearl does not recognize him (290). She goes off into the crowd and sees the shipmaster, who tells her that Pearl, Hester, Chillingsworth and Dimmesdale will all be leaving for Europe together.
It is not until Dimmesdale is ready to die that he can finally acknowledge his daughter. When he approaches the scaffold, he is weak and cannot climb up on his own. He is holding his daughter’s hand when he finally ascends the scaffold. He needs to hold Pearl’s hand because he is going to confess his sin and rid her of the burden of his secrets. Pearl has waited for this for seven years. Dimmesdale confesses his sin before revealing something on his chest that horrifies the crowd even further.
an instant, the gaze of the horror-stricken multitude was
concentrated on the ghastly miracle; (308)
It is not just Dimmesdale who is obsessed with the letter; Pearl is preoccupied with it as well, having been the cause of her mother wearing it. One could say that Pearl was the letter, because she was the outward evidence of Hester’s sin. It is no coincidence that Hester was in the habit of dressing her daughter in crimson with hints of gold (Baym, 1), the very design of the letter. When Hester drops the letter to the ground during her meeting with Dimmesdale, Pearl reacts violently; this might be that she sees herself in the letter and without the need for an outward show of sin, it has no purpose. Pearl, too, wants to have a purpose.
Now that Arthur Dimmesdale has confessed his sin, he has not only relieved himself of his guilt, but he has taken it away from his daughter as well. For the first time, Pearl cries like a normal child. She receives payback from her would-be stepfather Roger Chillingsworth in the form of a large inheritance.
Had Dimmesdale left the Earth without confessing, Pearl would have been condemned to a life of rage, misery, and a completely one-dimensional existence. Instead, Dimmesdale resumed for her what should have been a normal life. Chillingsworth left her a considerable amount of money and Pearl went from illegitimate child to heiress. It is assumed, at the end of the story, that when Hester returned to the town, Pearl was set up in a good marriage, and had babies for which Hester embroiders baby garments. Much as she did for Pearl, her grandchildren are dressed in rich, vivid colors, a sign that her mother is a vivid, multi-dimensional woman since being released from her father’s burden.
Baym, Nine. “The Scarlet Letter: A Reading.” The Character of Pearl. 1986. Holt, Reinhart & Winston. 21 Oct 2006 <http://eolit.hrw.com/hlla/writersmodel/pdf/W_P110504.pdf?WebLogicSession=Qhzx0UpELNmxostoouz8PtunTC7282b88xxi4HL8wyc3K7pzFgng%7C19056100342224463/167838195/6/6000/6000/7002/7002/6000/-1>.
The Scarlet Letter. 2006. Spark Notes. 19 Oct 2006 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/scarlet/>.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1906. Questia. 21 Oct. 2006 <http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=101083512>.
“Literature.” Literature Related to Hester and Pearl In The Scarlet Letter. 11 Oct 2006. Hawthorne in Salem. 21 Oct 2006 <http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/Literature/Hawthorne&Women/ScarletLetter/Literature.html>.