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Pearl in The Scarlet Letter: Symbolism & Analysis

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  • 0:00 A Pearl of Great Price
  • 0:51 The Embodiment of the…
  • 1:34 The Outlaw, Elfin Child
  • 2:18 Hester's Saving Grace
  • 3:16 The First Transcendentalist?
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson analyzes the character of Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel 'The Scarlet Letter'. The lesson argues that Pearl symbolizes a new, more individualistic morality, suggested by Hawthorne's Transcendentalist beliefs.

A Pearl of Great Price

Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter is one of the most esteemed and controversial novels in American literature. The story of a love affair between Hester Prynne and the Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale, the novel explores life's big questions: What is love? What is sin? Is desire evil? Who is to judge?

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Hawthorne

Hawthorne seems to provide some answers with the character of Hester and Dimmesdale's illegitimate daughter, Pearl. In Pearl, readers find a sprightly, lawless girl, the embodiment of the scarlet 'A' her mother must wear. Indeed, Hester and Dimmesdale pay a great price for their Pearl; but, Hawthorne suggests, it's a price well worth it.

From 1878 novel edition
Hester Prynne

Let's examine who and what Pearl is in The Scarlet Letter.

The Embodiment of the Scarlet Letter

Pearl is the living, breathing scarlet letter, the token of her mother's adultery. She is the being that made her mother's sin known. Both Pearl and the scarlet letter 'A' Hester has been condemned to wear are ceaseless reminders of this transgression.

Hester and Pearl live in the 1640s Massachusetts Bay Colony in a Puritan community dedicated to the purification of society through strict application of Christian doctrine. For the Puritans, the sin of one is the sin of all, and only swift punishment can cleanse the community.

Both Pearl and the scarlet letter ensure Hester's endless repentance. They are a daily reminder of her failure, humbling her to accept her punishment meekly.

The Outlaw, Elfin Child

Because Pearl is illegitimate, she's considered outside the laws of her community. She and her mother are excluded from the Puritan Church. They're not welcome into any respectable home unless Hester is there on an act of charity like nursing the sick or feeding the poor. They even live on the outskirts of the community, alone on a tiny peninsula separated from the mainland and the town by a patch of woods.

But Pearl's outcast state is far from a curse to her. She is wild and free-spirited, and she knows a joy that other Puritan children cannot dream of. She hasn't been constrained by any human or church law, because none apply to her. She is the embodiment of liberty: mischievous, unpredictable, and limitless.

Hester's Saving Grace

Hester lives and breathes for Pearl. She dedicates her entire being to rearing this child well, and she does so entirely on her own. In a time when women were supposedly the weaker vessel, dependent upon men as providers, protectors, and priests of the home, Hester has to become all of these things for Pearl.

Hester supports herself and Pearl well through her exquisite needlework and tending their garden. Excluded from the church, Hester becomes Pearl's moral guide. Raising Pearl redeems Hester. The care of Pearl's soul prevents Hester from falling deeper into despair or depravity, from selling her soul to the 'Black Man' (Satan) that the Puritans feared.

As Hester tends to Pearl's soul, Hester's own soul changes. No longer can Hester so readily accept the idea that what brought Pearl into this world was wrong. As Pearl grows more and more extraordinary in mind and spirit, it becomes increasingly difficult for Hester to see this child as the corrupt product of sin.

The First Transcendentalist?

Nathaniel Hawthorne was one of the leading figures of the American Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. The Transcendentalists rejected established religion, believing that individuals should turn inward to discover their own moral values to find that inner sense of the sacred.

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