What does Pearl represent in The Scarlet Letter, specifically and generally?

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William Delaney eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The scarlet letter “A” which Hester is forced to wear upon her breast is only a sign or accusation that she committed adultery, but the little girl is undeniable circumstantial evidence, living proof, that Hester committed adultery.

The main theme of the novel is based on a famous incident recorded in  John, Chapter 8, of the New Testament.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him…. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her....And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Pearl not only represents the sin of adultery, but Hawthorne calls her “a living hieroglyphic.” She is not only proof of the sin, but as she grows older the features of her father will become more and more apparent in her own face. In other words, Dimmesdale’s guilt will become obvious to everyone sooner or later, because Pearl will look more and more like her father. So Pearl is a living accusation of his guilt and a living portent of his ultimate exposure. She torments his conscience every time he sees her. She also binds him inextricably to Hester.

Hester names her child Pearl because she is a treasure for which she has had to pay a great price. Here again, there is a direct allusion to the New Testament. In this case it is to Matthew 13:45-6.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man….Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Pearl is already a complex character while still very young. She is exceptionally beautiful, but at the same time she is described as having a mischievous and impish nature. Her mother loves her and refuses to part with her, but she is also a little bit afraid of her--as are all the other children in the neighborhood, for that matter. Pearl is a continual source of worry for both her parents. Hawthorne apparently intended to convey that idea that this little girl has a demonic nature because she was born out of a sinful liaison and is growing up without a father. In his novel The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne’s theme was based on Exodus 34:6-7 in the Old Testament:

...The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

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The Scarlet Letter

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