Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter characterizes its youngest character, Pearl, as a wild, often disobedient, but loving child. As the fruit of Hester’s all-to-public sin of adultery, Pearl is a natural symbol that Hawthorne uses for several purposes. One of those purposes is to portray the end result (Pearl) of Hester’s public shame as a sort of “new” person, one that the townspeople, in their stodgy, strict, and judgmental ways, cannot fully understand. The last thing that Hester’s tormenters would have expected was for this child to become a comfort and a vindication for Hester.
In chapter 15, “Hester and Pearl,” Hawthorne explores the relationship between the precocious Pearl and Hester. As she plays along the sea’s edge, the reader sees Pearl identify with her mother in a physical way:
. . . Pearl took some eelgrass, and imitated, as best she could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s.”
Although the letter is supposed to make Hester feel shame, it is an object of fascination to Pearl, which makes less of a punishment to Hester.
Most importantly, Hester begins to view Pearl as something more than just the biological consequence of her affair with Dimmesdale, and in fact, something more than just her own child. She begins to consider the idea that Pearl is actually a gift of God, sent to help her get through her difficult and lonely life.
Hester had often fancied that Providence had a design of justice and retribution, in endowing the child with this marked propensity [Pearl’s interest in the Hester’s scarlet letter]; but never, until now, had she bethought herself to ask, whether, linked with that design, there might not likewise be a purpose of mercy and beneficence.
To a person in Hester’s situation, what could be more of a “treasure” that a physical manifestation of God’s mercy? Here, Hester is actually considering the possibility that God (Providence) has given her Pearl as a means of comfort. The idea that Pearl is a creation of God’s “mercy” links the child with the divine and helps explain why Pearl seems so ill-suited to Puritan society: She is a creature of heaven, not of earth, and not able to be understood by the townspeople, many of whom have impure motives.
While the reader might have expected Pearl to be a burden to Hester, a constant reminder of her tainted life, Pearl becomes the means by which Hester overcomes the stigma of the scarlet letter and the scorn of her Puritan neighbors.
"But she named the infant "Pearl," as being of great price--purchased with all she had--her mother's only treasure!"
"By its perfect shape, its vigour, and its natural dexterity in the use of all its untried limbs, the infant was worthy to have been brought forth in Eden"