In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, what does Pearl represent in the novel specifically and generally?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Pearl represents the physical aspect of Hester Prynne's affair with Rev. Dimmesdale. Though no one knows who the father of the child his, Pearl is a constant reminder to Hester and the townspeople of Hester's sin. It stands as a symbol of that action—as does the "scarlet A" that Hester wears sewn to the bodice of her dress.

Pearl is both Hester's punishment and, ironically, her salvation. Pearl is also a blessing to Hester. Hester does not hesitate in lifting her up as a blessing rather than hiding her like a sin. Her mother dresses her in a scarlet dress with beautiful embroidery and...

...there was an absolute circle of radiance about her.

Pearl also, of course, is symbolic of the love between Hester and Dimmesdale.

Specifically, in Chapter Twelve, Pearl seems to symbolize Heaven's call for Dimmesdale to confess his sin. Almost as if Heaven has given her some supernatural power—with a spiritual clarity that a child of her age could not posture—Pearl pressures Dimmesdale to humble himself in front of the townsfolk and take his place on the scaffold—the place of judgment—next to Hester and Pearl.

As they stand on the scaffold the night of Governor Winthrop's death, Pearl challenges Dimmesdale:

"Minister!" whispered little Pearl.

"What wouldst thou say, child?" asked Mr. Dimmesdale.

"Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, tomorrow noontide?" inquired Pearl.

"Nay; not so, my little Pearl," answered the minister..."Not so, my child. I shall, indeed, stand with thy mother and thee, one other day, but not tomorrow."

Like a heavenly judge, Pearl asks Dimmesdale again. And he says:

"...another time."

"And what other time?" persisted the child.

"At the great judgment day," whispered the minister..."Then, and there, before the judgment-seat, thy mother, and thou, and I must stand together. But the daylight of this world shall not see our meeting!"

The minister's fear of public exposure is too great for him to come forward. 

Later, when Dimmesdale comes upon Hester and Pearl in the woods, they decide to run away. Again, he will not face his judgment.

In the woods, Hester tells him:

Heaven would show mercy...hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it. 

This seems to be why Pearl had pressured Dimmesdale before. Dimmesdale can have forgiveness if he seeks it—if he is willing to own up to what he has done. When Dimmesdale and Hester plan to run away, his part of their sin still unconfessed, Pearl will have nothing to do with them; her heart seems remote and dark.

Dimmesdale might choose to confess in hope to see Pearl and Hester in the next life. Pearl may symbolize Dimmesdale's emotional and spiritual freedom: something he greatly values (having lived with his guilt for such a long time). Once he has made his decision, he calls the child...

"...Come, my little Pearl!"

...The child...flew to him, and clasped her arms about his knees....

"For thee and Pearl, be it as God shall order," said the minister; "and God is merciful! Let me now do the will which He hath made plain before my sight."

Pearl's actions seem to be symbolic of Dimmesdale's return to grace. 

Read the study guide:
The Scarlet Letter

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