Pearl’s twilight nature in "The Scarlet Letter": Emblem of sin or self-fulfilling prophecy?

Term Paper, 2004

15 Pages, Grade: 1+ (A)



1. Introduction

2. The Birth of a Living Symbol

3. A Symbol at Work

4. The True Revelation of the Symbol

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

In The Scarlet Letter Nathaniel Hawthorne has not only created an intriguing plot, but also some very “picturesque” characters, among whom the character of Pearl can probably be viewed as the most unique one. Pearl, a composition of demon offspring and elf-child, cannot but raise the question of her identity, and nature, from the day she is born. Not only the Puritan community, even her own mother persistently questions her human nature and allegorizes her as a token of guilt. Not even Hawthorne can restrain himself in reminding us constantly about the symbolic and functional nature of Pearl, so that even the most ignorant reader must notice her resemblance of the Scarlet Letter in the story.

But is Pearl really just a purpose-fulfilling construction? Or is there more to this character than its function? Is a child’s fascination with a shiny and colorful object really that unusual? And is it unusual for a child to behave wild if the mother raises the child in a non-authoritative form? Could it be that any real child, born into a situation described in The Scarlet Letter, would develop as Hawthorne develops the character of Pearl?

This work will raise the question of Pearl’s true nature and examine whether her character in Hawthorne’s romance is purely shaped by her function. Yet, an analysis of Pearl’s character would be a futile attempt if viewed independently of all other characters. The reader never gets to know the “independent character” Pearl.[1] She is always reflected via her interaction with other characters or objects. Her thoughts remain obscure to the reader – unlike the other characters’. Thus, an analysis on Pearl will consist of an analysis of her interactions with the other characters in the story.

2. The Birth of a Living Symbol

When Pearl is introduced into the story, she is an infant of three months, facing daylight for the first time. Her mother Hester, who has just made her way from the prison door to the scaffold, holds the infant in her arms (see picture below).[2] The reader is introduced to Hester Prynne, her appearance of “perfect elegance” and “exquisitely painful [beauty]”.[3] Furthermore, the reader is given a glance at the Scarlet Letter, worn by Hester as a punishment inflicted upon her by the Puritan community for her adulterous actions. The letter, “in fine red cloth”[4] and embroidered with gold thread, is depicted from the start as eye-catching and extraordinary – not only in the Puritan community. Hawthorne himself succumbed to the spell of this shiny, mysterious object when he found it in the Custom House.[5] And by “inclosing [Hester] in a sphere by herself,” the Scarlet letter takes on a prominent position in the life of Pearl and her mother.

When Hester refuses to name the father of the child, she is interrogated by the young minister Dimmesdale, a pale and melancholic man, whose “half-frightened look”[6] foreshadows his importance in the story and whose angelic and powerful voice is then heard on the marketplace. Upon hearing the “tremulously sweet and rich”[7] voice of the minister, infant Pearl “gazed towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and help (sic!) up its little arms, with a half pleased, half plaintive murmur.”[8] Although the reader might be a bit puzzled about the nature of Pearl’s action, it seems evident that this scene foretells a relationship between Pearl and the minister. The infant’s instincts seem astonishing or even bizarre, and a mystic aura is thus created around the child. Yet this instinct might be not abnormal at all, since the voice of the minister Dimmesdale attracts the attention of all of his listeners, and a strong voice like his will easily catch the attention of an infant who is audio-visual guided anyway.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Then, when Hester meets her husband in prison, who goes now by the name of Roger Chillingworth and acts as a physician, the infant in her arms is assigned its main function: as a prick to the conscience of her parents. Chillingworth says to Hester: ”Live, therefore, and bear about thy doom with thee, in the eyes of men and women – in the eyes of him whom thou didst call thy husband, - in the eyes of yonder child!”[9] Of course, he is speaking about the letter on Hester’s bosom, yet at the same time, indirectly, he refers to Pearl whose eyes will bear the reflection of the letter and who will accompany Hester all the time. Hence, Pearl starts her journey as a messenger of anguish for her mother – like Chillingworth does for Dimmesdale later on. Maybe that is the reason why Chillingworth sympathizes with the child. He does not mean any harm to Pearl and could not do better if it “were [his] child.”[10]

Released from prison, Hester resumes her life in a secluded cottage, doing needlework for the Puritan community. By wearing the letter, the reader gets to know, she gives up her individuality, functioning as a “general symbol” for women’s frailty.[11] However, wearing the Scarlet Letter also endows her with a “new sense”: the “knowledge of the hidden sin in other hearts.”[12] At least we are told so. And consequently she is only able to establish bonds to those who are sinful themselves – most obviously to her: Pearl. As a result of an evil action, the infant cannot but be evil itself, so far Hester’s conviction. She deeply distrusts her daughter.[13] Yet, at the same time, Pearl is Hester’s only contact to the community. She is her “sole treasure.”[14] She is from now on “Hester’s world”. And she is the only one who can save Hester from losing herself and really giving up her individuality.

The child resembles the mother in appearance as well as in spirit. Pearl’s beauty becomes more evident from day to day and her mother enhances her brilliancy by dressing her in gorgeous robes that give her “the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant-baby and the pomp, in little, of an infant princess.”[15] And “above all, the warfare of Hester’s spirit”[16] shines through her daughter. But the child cannot be controlled by her mother. And we are told: “In giving her existence, a great law had been broken; and the result was a being, whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder.”[17]

The child perfectly resembles the mother, but as a proof of the sinful actions of her mother, the mother cannot accept the child as a valid human being and treats her accordingly. She gives up “controlling” her and leaves Pearl to her innate impulses,[18] waiting for the child to become a “moral monster.”[19] And since “a poison does never insinuate so quickly, nor operates so strongly, as when women’s milk the vehicle werein ‘tis given,”[20] Hester is likely to get what she expects of her daughter: a demonic spirit to remind her of her sinful deeds and tormenting her for them. And so, Pearl is not even given a chance to prove her mother’s fears wrong: “Der Keim des Guten kann in einem Milieu, das von Schwäche und Leidenschaft beherrscht ist, nicht aufgehen.”[21]


[1] Or as John Dolis puts it, she “lacks a story of her own.” Dolis, p.173

[2] Images

[3] Hawthorne, N., p.39

[4] Hawthorne, N., p.39

[5] Hawthorne, N., p.25

[6] Hawthorne, N., p.48

[7] Hawthorne, N., p.49

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hawthorne, N., p.52

[10] Hawthorne, N., p.51

[11] Hawthorne, N., p.55-56

[12] Hawthorne, N., p.61

[13] Hawthorne, N., p.62

[14] Hawthorne, N., p.64

[15] Hawthorne, N., p.63

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hawthorne, N., p.64

[19] Hawthorne, N., p.229: Colacurcio, Michael J. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson: The Context of The Scarlet Letter.

[20] Hawthorne, N., p.223: Colacurcio, Michael J. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson: The Context of The Scarlet Letter.

[21] Hansen, p.93

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Pearl’s twilight nature in "The Scarlet Letter": Emblem of sin or self-fulfilling prophecy?
University of Hamburg
Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Puritans
1+ (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
820 KB
Pearl’s, Scarlet, Letter, Emblem, Nathaniel, Hawthorne, Puritans
Quote paper
Anja Schmidt (Author), 2004, Pearl’s twilight nature in "The Scarlet Letter": Emblem of sin or self-fulfilling prophecy?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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