Explain the ambiguity concerning Pearl's background in The Scarlet Letter.  

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Pearl as a character is a very fascinating example of a symbol in this novel. It is clear that the ambiguity that surrounds her stems from the fact that she is the product of an illicit relationship. Being born out of wedlock to a mother who is branded and punished for committing adultery and to an unknown father results in her childhood being extremely different from that of other children, as she grows up isolated and shunned in the same way that her mother is rejected and spurned.

The ambiguity surrounding her, in my opinion, has to do with how we "read" her as a character. Her name instantly brings to mind a precious object, produced by the introduction of an impurity, and developed in secret. Yet, especially in Chapter 6, we see that she is also surrounded by images that refer to plants and gardens, being described as "a lovely and immortal flower" being bred "out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion." In her ornamented clothing, she is presented as the incarnation of the scarlet letter, a living stigma. Yet, vitally, she is also described as various and mutable. She does therefore not lend herself to any one single definition:

In this one child there were many children, comprehending the full scope between the wild-flower prettiness of a peasant-baby, and the pomp, in little, of an infant princess.

Pearl in a sense is similar to the scarlet letter, because neither can be pigeonholed or limited to one particular meaning. We are told that Pearl's nature "lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born". Both the scarlet letter and Pearl, as its product, defy interpretation to any fixed form of meaning, and it is this that creates the tremendous ambiguity surrounding her character.

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The greatest ambiguity with Pearl is that of her origin.  While it is obvious that she is Hester's child, the community is nonplused about who her father is until Chapter XXIII of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  This ambiguity is caused by Hester refusal to divulge the name of her partner in sin despite the urgings of the Reverend Mr. Wilson as she stands on the scaffold in Chapter II, and when he asks little Pearl herself in Chapter VIII. As recalitrant as her mother, Pearl tells the minister that she was not born at all, but was pulled from a rose bush by her mother, the bush that flourishes by the prison door. As a symbol of her mother's sin of passion, Pearl seems more like a "sprite," an "efl-child."  Of course, the sanctimonious Puritan say that Pearl is a "demon offspring."

Much of Pearl's strangeness and other-worldliness is attributable to her quickness of mind and the abnormal environment in which she lives.  But, clearly there is something anachronistic about Pearl until the events of Chapter XXIII bring her fully into the world of humanity.

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The Scarlet Letter

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