In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the scarlet letter that her mother is forced to wear on her dress is a source of fascination to Pearl. As a young infant, she touches the letter inquisitively and finds it amusing. However, it eventually comes to mean ostracism by the local townspeople to Pearl, while at the same time, it teaches her humility and gives her the strong desire to be happy despite the sorrow that exists in the world.
Hawthorne tells us that the scarlet letter was the first object that Pearl becomes aware of.
One day, as her mother stooped over the cradle, the infant's eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about the letter; and, putting up her little hand, she grasped at it, smiling, not doubtfully, but with a decided gleam, that gave her face the look of a much older child.
However, because of what the letter represents, the Puritans in their small town believe that Pearl “was of demon origin.” They do not know who Pearl’s father is. They only know that she is an out-of-wedlock child, which, in those days, was the ultimate evidence of sin. In fact, at one point in the story, the Puritans attempt to remove Pearl from her mother’s home because they fear the influence that the “sinful” Hester might have on the innocent Pearl.
Yet, Pearl seems to be a happy child, the difficulties of her mother’s life notwithstanding. Her fascination with the scarlet letter continues as she becomes a young child. At one point during the novel, Pearl fashions herself a mermaid’s costume. Then,
“As the last touch to her mermaid's garb, Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother's. A letter,—the letter A,—but freshly green, instead of scarlet!”
Hester asks Pearl if she understands the significance of the scarlet letter that she is condemned to wear. The child responds and displays an intuitive understanding of the connection between the letter, her mother, and Reverend Dimmesdale:
“Yes, mother,” said the child. “It is the great letter A. Thou hast taught me in the horn-book.”
Hester looked steadily into her little face; but, though there was that singular expression which she had so often remarked in her black eyes, she could not satisfy herself whether Pearl really attached any meaning to the symbol. She felt a morbid desire to ascertain the point.
“Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?”
“Truly do I!” answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother's face. “It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!”
When Hester prods the child to say more, she answers that she does not know what “the letter [has] to do with any heart.” Nevertheless, she senses that there is something between her mother, Dimmesdale, and even Chillingworth.
However, over the course of the novel, although she might not fully understand what the letter represents to Hester, Pearl learns humility and empathy, in part because of the letter. She recognizes the heartbreak that the letter—or its origins—have caused her parents. When Reverend Dimmesdale is dying, Hawthorne writes:
The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father's cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor forever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it. Towards her mother, too, Pearl's errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled.
Thus, to some degree, the letter also equates to her pledge to herself that she would grow up amid human joy and not only sorrow.