Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter:
Excerpts from chapters from Understanding The Scarlet Letter: A Student
Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents by Claudia Durst Johnson
(courtesy of Greenwood Press)
In "The Scarlet Letter" (pp. 77-78) Pennell paints a portrait of Pearl,
"the most complex character of the romance." She highlights Pearl's name, her
supposed connection to Satan, her spontaneity and mischievousness, and her isolation
and truthfulness, both disconnecting her from the Puritan values and community.
"In many respects, Pearl is the most complex character of the romance, though less developed than Hester and Dimmesdale. She is frequently identified as the living symbol of her parents' sin, by them, the townspeople, and the narrator. The other characters attempt to read her nature through their own anxieties about who she is and what she might be, fearing that as a product of sin she is Satan's child rather than a gift from God. Hester names her 'Pearl' because she has come at great price, and Hester believes that Pearl is her only reason for living. Such feeling about her daughter explains Hester's response to the threats to take Pearl from her.
Pearl is beautiful, having a natural grace and lightness about her. However, she is also a mischievous child who tries to circumvent rules whenever she can. Her unpredictable responses and uncontrollable actions are described as those of a 'sprite' and an 'elf.' Her mother's situation defines Pearl's world, and she, too, lives as an outcast. Her treatment by other children recalls the hostility and cruelty shown an outsider in 'The Gentle Boy,' although Pearl is a feisty opponent, unlike Ilbrahim. Because she suffers her mother's exile and exclusion by children her own age, Pearl often looks to the natural world for companionship, finding in the woods, sunshine, and babbling brook the company she seeks. In these instances, Pearl reflects a romantic connection to nature: She does not see herself as living an existence separate from it, nor does she see it as something she must fear and conquer. For Pearl, the natural world has not become a place of danger or the forest an emblem of moral chaos.
Growing up on the margins of the Puritan culture, Pearl has not been socialized to view life or people as it does. Thus, she does not enact the hypocrisy of her culture but is quick to recognize the hypocrisy of others. Pearl seeks the truth from her mother, from Dimmesdale, and from the natural world. She questions her mother about the meaning of the letter, she questions the minister about his connection to her. Pearl confronts the minister with the charge that he is 'not true,' implying not only his failure to tell the truth but also his lack of loyalty and commitment. Although it is the narrator who gives voice to the motto, 'Be true! Be true! Be true!' (34 1), it might as easily have been said by Pearl.
At the end, the narrator reveals that Pearl has returned to England, where she enjoys a happier adulthood. Unlike Hester, who is tied to the place of her passion and her fall, Pearl has never absorbed the Puritan sensibility. She can escape it as neither Hester nor Dimmesdale can. The details of Pearl's adult life are not made known, but people believe she has married and feels fondly toward her mother, sending Hester small gifts of remembrance" (77-78).