The Powerful Character of Pearl in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter
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One of the most significant writers of the romantic period in American
literature was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne wrote stories that opposed
the ideas of Transcendentalism. Since he had ancestors of Puritan belief,
Hawthorne wrote many stories about Puritan New England. His most famous
story is the Scarlet Letter. This novel tells of the punishment of a woman,
Hester Prynne, who committed adultery and gave birth to Pearl. A minister
of Boston, Arthur Dimmesdale, had an affair with Hester while believing
that her husband, Roger Chillingworth, had died. However, Chillingworth
did not die and appears during the early stages of Hester's punishment.
The purpose of this paper is to analyze the character of Pearl in the
Scarlet Letter. Her whole life had many difficulties while living in
Puritan New England. Furthermore, Pearl displays much parallelism to the
scarlet letter that Hester must wear. Finally, Pearl's birth intensified
the conflicts in the novel. Clearly, Pearl becomes the symbol of all the
other major characters' tragedies.
The character of Pearl in the Scarlet Letter lived a very difficult
life. Before the novel begins, Hester Prynne gives birth to Pearl after
having an affair with Arthur Dimmesdale, a Puritan minister. Pearl's birth
proves that Hester cheated on her husband Roger Chillingworth provoking the
stories action. The novel opens with the people of Boston staring and
laughing at Hester holding Pearl while standing on the town's scaffold. At
this time, Pearl is three months old. Years later Hester gets released from
jail and lives with Pearl in the outskirts of town. Since Hester becomes
alienated from Boston, Pearl turns into "her mother's only treasure!"
(Hawthorne 76). Hester makes bright red clothes for Pearl that parallel the
scarlet "A." At age three, Pearl endures many laughs and jokes from other
Puritan children but chases them away with stones. Since Pearl's birth
resulted from broken rules, she does not feel the obligation to follow
rules. Although her life is an outcast of Puritan society, Pearl's language
shows a high level of intelligence. Later, Hester receives word that the
magistrates want to take Pearl away from her. Hester takes Pearl to the
governor's house where the child meets her father, Arthur Dimmesdale.
Dimmesdale persuades the governors to allow Hester to keep Pearl, he gives
the child a kiss on the forehead. This kiss hints that Dimmesdale is
When Hester and Pearl return from Governor Winthrop's death bed, they
join Dimmesdale standing on the town's scaffold. Pearl asks Dimmesdale
"Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, to-morrow noontide?" (Hawthorne
131) twice. Realizing that Arthur is her father, Pearl wants him to
confess his sin so that the three of them can live peacefully. Next,
Hester takes Pearl for a walk in the woods to meet Dimmesdale. While the
two lovers talk and come up with plans to leave for England, Pearl goes off
and plays in the woods. After Hester and Dimmesdale finish talking, Pearl
returns and finds that her mother has removed the scarlet letter. Pearl,
who has grown attached to the "A," throws a temper tantrum until Hester
puts the letter back on her dress. Later, Dimmesdale kisses Pearl, who
then runs to a brook and washes off the kiss. Pearl does not accept
Dimmesdale as her father. At the end of the novel, Hester and Pearl go to
England, but Hester returns and dies in Boston. Hawthorne never tells
exactly what happened to Pearl.
Nathaniel Hawthorne develops Pearl into the most obvious central
symbol of the novel, the scarlet letter. First, Pearl's birth resulted
from the sin of adultery, the meaning of the "A." Since she came from a
broken rule, Pearl does not feel that she has to follow rules. Hawthorne
expresses that "The child could not be made amendable to rules" (Hawthorne
91). Next, Pearl exhibits the same characteristics as the scarlet letter.
For example, the letter contains scarlet fabric. Hester makes red clothes
for Pearl to wear, making her an outcast of Puritan society. Likewise,
wearing the scarlet letter has made Hester an outcast of society.
Furthermore, Pearl grows just as Hester continues to enlarge the letter by
adding golden thread. During infancy, "The letter is the first object
that Pearl becomes aware of" (Baym 57). Throughout her life, Pearl became
very attached to the scarlet letter that was on Hester's bosom. When
Hester removed it in the forest, Pearl became detached from her mother.
Finally, at the end of the novel Hester, still wearing the scarlet letter,
returns to Boston without Pearl. Although Hawthorne does not tell what
happened to Pearl, the reader learns about the death of Hester. Before
Hester died, she continued to wear the scarlet letter. While all alone in
Boston, one can reason that Hester wore the letter to keep Pearl a part of
herself. Since Pearl symbolized the scarlet letter, she held a large role
in the plot of the Scarlet Letter.
Hawthorne's character of Pearl is the most significant object in
developing the plot of the Scarlet Letter. To start, Pearl's birth proved
Hester's sin of adultery. Subsequently, the people of Boston forced Hester
to wear the scarlet letter. The letter turns Hester into an outcast of
society. Next, when Chillingworth found out that Hester gave birth to Pearl,
he became determined to find the father of the child. Chillingworth thinks
that Dimmesdale had the affair with Hester, but he cannot prove it. While
caring for Dimmesdale, Chillingworth commits many cruel deeds against the
minister. Pearl helped to create the conflict between Chillingworth and
Dimmesdale. Furthermore, Pearl's birth reminded Dimmesdale of his sin of
having an affair with Hester. Because of his cowardly personality,
Dimmesdale tries to fast and whip the sin from his body plus "confessing
his sin as he faces his Sunday congregation" (Loring 74). The birth of
Pearl ignited the conflict within Dimmesdale. Finally, the conflict
between Pearl and the children of Boston surfaces. Pearl's red clothing
becomes a target of other children's jokes. If the affair had never
produced a child, then the novel's major conflicts most likely would be
less intense. Therefore, every major conflict has its roots with Pearl's
In Hawthorne's novel the Scarlet Letter, Pearl represents the anguish
in the lives of the other major characters. Life in Puritan New England
presented many difficulties for Hester Prynne's daughter Pearl. Next,
Pearl becomes a scarlet letter as the novel progresses. Finally, the most
significant part of the Scarlet Letter's plot was the birth and life of
Pearl. The purpose of this essay was to analyze the character Pearl from
the Scarlet Letter.
Most of her characteristics show that Pearl could be a real child.
For example, Pearl's language expresses a sign of a child prodigy with a
good parent teacher. Pearl's behavior could also mean that she feels
rebellious to all of the hardships that she acquires from society. Finally,
Pearl compares with a real child in that she constantly tries throughout
the novel to find out what takes place around her. Overall, Nathaniel
Hawthorne developed Pearl successfully and made her one of the most
significant and memorable characters in the Scarlet Letter.
Works Cited and Consulted
Baym, Nina. The Scarlet Letter. A Reading. Ed. Robert Lecker. Boston: Twayne Publishers. 1996.
Chorley, Henry F. "Severity, Purity, and Sympathy." The Scarlet Letter: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, and Sources Criticism. Eds. Sculley Bradley et al. New York:. W. W. Norton, 2001.
Gerber, John C. "Form and Content in The Scarlet Letter." The Scarlet Letter: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds,and Sources Criticism. Eds. Sculley Bradley et al. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ed. Brian Harding. Oxford: Oxford 2005.
Loring, George B. "Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter"  The Scarlet Letter: Text, Sources, Criticism. Kenneth S. Lynn. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 2009.
Matthiessen, F. O. "Allegory and Symbolism." Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Scarlet Letter. Ed. John C. Gerber. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2002.