Why do Pearl's actions towards Dimmesdale change during the narrative of The Scarlet Letter?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is essential to recognize Hawthorne's depiction of Pearl as symbol; for, she is "the scarlet letter endowed with life," the incarnation of the sin of Hester Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale.  As such, she seems other-worldly--an "elf," an "imp," a "sprite-like creature." 

Because Pearl is a perplexing mixture of strong moods, laughing uncontrollably at times, sullenly silent at others, some of the Puritans think she is a "demon offspring."  However, such is not true. As the symbol of Hester's and Dimmesdale's adultery, Pearl, at times, simply feels the effects of this illicit affair.  For instance, in Chapter IV, the infant Pearl "writhed in convulsions of pain and was a forcible type in its frame" because Hester has experienced much agony throughout the exchange with her husband, Roger Chillingworth.  In Chapter VIII, Pearl is described a combination of "unhallowed lust" and "holy love" by Dimmesdale,

"retribution...a torture to be felt at many an unthought-of-moment; a pang, a sting, an ever recurring agony, in the midst of a troubled joy!"  

So, as a reminder of his sin with Hester, Dimmesdale fears her and does not recognize her in public.  The perspicacious Pearl who is the incarnation of these conflicting emotions, perceives this rejection and asks her mother in Chapter XIX, "Will he go back with us, hand in hand, we three together into the town?" When it becomes evident that he willl not, Pearl washes off Dimmesdale's kiss and stays apart from her parents.

In Chapter XXI, Pearl again asks her mother if Dimmesdale will recognize her as they prepare for the New England Holiday,

"And will he hold out both his hands to me, as when thou ledst me to him from the brook-side?"

On the holiday, after the procession of dignitaries has passed, little Pearl, who has been unable to detect Dimmesdale in the group, tells her mother that she would "have run to him, and bid him kiss me now, before all the people....," wondering if, seeing her, the minister would then have placed his hand over his heart and frowned at her, dimissing her. Ironically, Pearl touches upon the one authentic act that Dimmesdale must perform if he would be forgiven his secret sin.  Finally, as the minister confesses on the scaffold, Pearl kisses him and "A spell was broken." It is at this point that Pearl becomes human--for to sin is human--as Dimmesdale finally acknowledges his sin publicly. Pearl changes because her "errand as a messenger of anguish was all fulfilled." Indeed, just as Pearl is the living symbol of Hester's sin, now she is also acknowledged by the minister as the living symbol of Dimmesdale's secret sin.  This is why her behavior changes towards the minister; "a troubled joy," she has for long desired this recognition.

missy575 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Pearl seems to represent an all-knowing evil at times. She is directly called an imp, an elf, and a demon-child. She is called a witch. In a moment during chapter 8, Pearl has a moment of affection for Dimmesdale:

Pearl, that wild and flighty little elf, stole softly towards him, and, taking his hand in the grasp of both her own, laid her cheek against it; a caress so tender, and withal so unobtrusive, that her mother, who was looking on, asked herself,— “Is that my Pearl?”

This moment may be revealing to the audience that Pearl almost knows her father is Dimmesdale, or she appreciates how he stood up for Hester to be able to take care of her. 

By the 15th chapter, Dimmesdale notes that she has up to this point been affectionate to him twice only. Hester asks her to be affectionate again, but Pearl refuses:

Pearl would show no favor to the clergyman.

She even washes off a kiss that Dimmesdale places on her forehead. 

There may be a few reasons why Pearl's actions change in respect to Dimmesdale throughout the novel. First, she is intuitive. She notices that there is a relationship between he and Hester. But it is not a relationship that can be acted on. This is strange to her:

But here in the sunny day, and among all the people, he knows us not; nor must we know him! A strange, sad man is he, with his hand always over his heart! (Chap 21)

Another reason she changes is because she doesn't understand this. For a time, she didn't really want to obey him or relate to him, but as she sees opportunity to want to be with him in public, she cannot. The hiding of the sin makes no sense to her because she does not know of the sin. 

Pearl changes and grows in her understanding over time. At sometimes it seems as if a demonic presence does indeed compliment her ability to percieve. Other times, she is dependent on her human nature and it is astute. She acts as any other child who would percieve her father and want to know him but doesn't understand WHY she can't really be with him.

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The Scarlet Letter

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