The poem’s central Christian symbol is the pearl itself, and the poem begins by developing a multifaceted presentation of what the pearl could mean. The narrator says he had a pearl so beautiful that princes would have loved it, but he lost it. At first the pearl seems to be merely an object (albeit valuable), but the pronouns used (both “it” and “her”) reveal that more is going on. The poem soon implies that the pearl is someone whom the narrator loved and who has died, and at line 483, it reveals that she was his infant daughter.
As the poem continues, the pearl-symbol acquires increasing significance. In the first section of the poem, the pearl is both precious gem and lost child. In the second, as the narrator’s dream-vision begins, the symbol of the pearl plays a core role in the poem’s depiction of Heaven. The marvelous landscape that the dreamer sees is both beautiful and so abundant that things that are precious on earth are common here; the “gravel” on the ground is “precious pearls.”
When the dreamer sees the Pearl-maiden, the meaning of the central symbol deepens further. The Pearl-maiden’s garment is adorned with pearls, symbolizing her purity. She wears a crown covered with pearls, the symbol of what is promised to the faithful as their reward in Heaven. The large pearl on the Pearl-maiden’s chest connects with the parable of the pearl of great price. Indeed, the Pearl-maiden is described as pearl-like, in words (line 190) previously used to describe the narrator’s lost pearl (line 6), making the connection between his loss and the girl he sees. By the end of the poem, the narrator has learned that he must submit to God, despite his grief, and strive to live according to his will, which will polish his soul like a spotless pearl, to be treasured and cherished by the prince.
The pearl is the central Christian and most developed image in the poem, but additional, related motifs can readily be located. The use of precious stones to symbolize the abundance and beauty of Heaven occurs later in the poem, in the description of the Heavenly Jerusalem. In addition, the concatenating words of each section draw attention to important Christian concepts of the poem.