What does the scarlet letter mean to Pearl in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter?

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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...

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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.

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For Pearl, her mother's whole identity is bound up with the scarlet letter. Hester and the outward symbol of her adultery are inextricably linked in Pearl's mind, appropriately enough, as Pearl herself is the living embodiment of Hester's transgression.

Ironically, what to Hester is a symbol of restriction is a symbol of freedom for her daughter. The lively, free-spirited elfin child that is Pearl is literally an outlaw, someone unconstrained by any human law or church doctrine. Banished with her mother beyond the physical and moral boundaries of respectable society, she enjoys a greater degree of freedom than any of the children in the town. It's no wonder, then, that Pearl is initially reluctant to accompany her mother and Dimmesdale in leaving New England. Not only does throwing off the scarlet letter change Hester's identity in her daughter's eyes; it also represents a diminution of the freedom that Pearl has come to cherish in her short life.

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For Pearl, the scarlet letter seems to identify her mother, but it also serves as a symbol that sets her mother apart from the rest of the people in Boston (who Pearl, most assuredly, does not like).  Pearl thinks of them as being like "pine-trees, aged, black, and solemn, and flinging groans and other melancholy utterances on the breeze," and "the ugliest weeds of the garden were their children."  There is no love lost between Pearl and the others, but the bright and beautiful letter that her mother wears separates her from this group, makes her different, and that's a good thing. 

Pearl clearly thinks of the letter as a positive thing, something, even, she wants for herself.  One day, at the beach, "Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best as 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 is sort of horrified, but this makes it clear that Pearl really doesn't understand the meaning that their society has placed on the letter and that it is something she associates with her mother's goodness and difference.  In fact, the one time Pearl ever sees her mother take off the letter, in the forest with Dimmesdale, she refuses to come to her mother, and she "point[s] [her] small forefinger at Hester's bosom!"  Hester understands that Pearl is upset about her change in appearance.  However, Pearl's upset seems to go beyond that.  It's as though Hester, for Pearl, is no longer herself without the letter; Hester seems just like all the others in town, and this makes Pearl angry.

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Since Pearl as at the very least a mischievous child, when her mother does not answer her in regards to its meaning, Pearl seems to enjoy making up meanings for it. Pearl also happens to be intelligent beyond her years, and so her guesses for what it could stand for are quite impressive.

For instance, one of Pearl's answers is that the letter means the same reason why the minister holds his hand over his heart. Since we know why Dimmesdale gets sicker and sicker, indeed, the letter means exactly what Pearl thought it did, though certainly in a figurative sense.

Dave Becker

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To Pearl, the scarlet letter is a part of her mother. She has never known a time when her mother has not worn the letter, and she also seems to understand that it causes her mother great distress when Pearl focuses on it. Hester recalls vivdly Pearl, as an infant, reaching out for it, as babies do, yet it is symbolic for Hester. She feels almost as if baby Pearl could understand the meaning of the letter.

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