Analyze Pearl's symbolic function in The Scarlet Letter. Why does Hawthorne craft Pearl in the way he does?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel is less about characterization than symbolic meaning, and for this reason, it often presents problems for readers. In fact, Hawthorne as narrator terms Pearl as "the scarlet letter endowed with life." Ironically, her physical appearance is much like the pre-scaffold Hester: 

a rich and luxuriant beauty; a beauty that shone with deep and vivid tints; a bright complexion, eyes possessing intensity both of depth and glow, and hair already of a deep, glossy brown....,

yet she is the scarlet letter made incarnate. This incongruity suggests, then, that although one commits sin, there is still beauty and goodness in the person. This concept, of course, contradicts the Calvinist anathema for sin. 

As a symbol, Pearl often reflects the conflicts of her mother. In Chapter IV, for instance Hawthorne writes that Pearl "writhed in convulsion of pain, and was a forcible type in its little frame," and focuses upon the misery of Hester who is isolated and experiences much rejection. Certainly, too, Pearl represents the passion of Hester as in Chapter VI, Hester recalls what she herself has been, "Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl."

Not a passive reminder of her mother's sin, Pearl plays an active role in connecting Hester and Dimmesdale. In the second scaffold scene, Pearl asks Dimmesdale if he will stand in the daylight and hold her hand as he has done this night. When, Dimmesdale does not have the courage to do this, Pearl chastises him, "Not wast not true!" These words clearly presage Hawthorne's own statement of theme at the end of the novel: "Be true! Be true! Be true!" It is Pearl who forces her mother in the forest to replace the scarlet letter and still acknowledge her sin; it is Pearl who, thus, effects Hester's salvation just as she does Dimmesdale's when he invites Hester and Pearl onto the scaffold after considering her chastisement of him earlier. Indeed, Pearl is the living conscience of her parents; as such she effects their spiritual salvation.

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The Scarlet Letter

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