A Reflective Treasure: Pearl's Role in Self-Recognition

By Maggie Guggenheimer

Her Pearl! - For so had Hester called her; not as a name expressive of her aspect, which had nothing of the calm, white, unimpassioned lustre that would be indicated by the comparison. But she named the infant "Pearl," as being of great price,-- purchased with all she had,-- her mother's only treasure! How strange indeed! (p. 80)

    In Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, young Pearl, the product of Hester Prynne's and Reverend Dimmesdale's shared sin, is a medium for complete self-recognition; she is integral to the novel's plot for her role in first polarizing her parents and finally uniting them. Hester has-both inwardly and outwardly--fully recognized her guilt, while Dimmesdale has demonstrated weakness, cowardice, and inability to accept blame completely. Pearl, as a constant reminder of her parents' mistake, is a torturous reflection of themselves, gradually reinforcing Hester's sad acceptance of her past and Dimmesdale's tormented avoidance of confession. I will show how reflective imagery Hawthorne uses in connection with the peculiar little Pearl is a way of illustrating that, like a mirror, she allows one to perceive and confront personal faults. Only Hester, however, is close enough to Pearl to see her true reflection. In this way, the child helps reveal the dichotomy between her mother's fortitude and her father's feebleness in the acceptance of guilt. I would like to argue that Pearl, as a symbol of total self-knowledge, is the figurative boundary Dimmesdale must cross to join Hester physically on the town scaffold and spiritually in penitence.

    Throughout the first half of the novel, our knowledge of Pearl is largely our knowledge of Hester. As a character, she is little more than a living representative of her mother's transgression. But unlike just any illegitimate child who would inherently symbolize the sin by which it was created, Pearl is especially noticeable; her bold appearance and playfully wicked demeanor make her a blatant symbol--perhaps more obtrusive than the accusing scarlet letter itself. This strange characteristic of the little girl is our first indication that we must take notice, that her character has a deeper significance than merely an image of guilt and sin. She has a purpose-a purpose that is only understood when we realize that what Pearl reveals is overwhelmingly what Hester sees in herself. The following passage explains that Pearl is an embodiment of what is inside her mother; she is an expression of "the warfare of Hester's spirit":

The mother's impassioned state had been the medium through which were transmitted to the unborn infant the rays of its moral life; and, however white and clear originally, they had taken the deep stains of crimson and gold, the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light of the intervening substance. Above all, the warfare of Hester's spirit, at that epoch, was perpetuated in Pearl. (pp. 81-82)

    In this passage and throughout the novel, Pearl, in her mother's eyes, exhibits that familiar red hue and a fiery sort of light. The dual nature of Pearl's role in the novel is thus communicated in the meaning of these two qualities. "The deep stains of crimson" represent the permanent color of sin (seen most clearly in the scarlet letter itself), and the contrasts of a dramatically cast light ("the fiery lustre, the black shadow, and the untempered light") represent the illumination of truth. Hester's close association with the child therefore brings her closer to both sin and truth. In the novel, her connection to these two properties is this: while she is shamed for her sin, she is somewhat admired-by the reader, if by no one else-for her naked honesty and acceptance of punishment. Embodying both sin and truth, and likewise evil and goodness, gives Hester fortitude. Her strong, brutal self-honesty allows her to look daily at the child who is such a painful reminder of the past. Interestingly, Pearl too seems to be both evil and goodness in one being; in one case she is "an imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, [with] no right among christened infants" (p. 84), and later providence itself is said to be "in the person of this little girl" (p.144).

    This double nature of Pearl manifests itself when Hester sees a wicked quality in the beloved being sprung from her own womb. In the visual encounters between mother and child, the phenomenon of reflection is often described, suggesting that the wickedness Hester notices is perhaps sprung from her own image. Hester sees her reflection in Pearl's eyes:

Once, this freakish, elfish cast came into the child's eyes, while Hester was looking at her own image in them, as mothers are fond of doing; and, suddenly, -- for women in solitude, and with troubled hearts, are pestered with unaccountable delusions, --she fancied she beheld, not her own miniature portrait, but another face in the small black mirror of Pearl's eye. It was a face, fiend-like, full of smiling malice, yet bearing the semblance of features that she had known full well, though seldom with a smile, and never with malice, in them. It was as if an evil spirit possessed the child, and had just then peeped forth in mockery. Many a time afterwards had Hester been tortured, though less vividly, by the same illusion. (pp.86-87)

In this incident, Hester looks deep into her child and sees "smiling malice" and "an evil spirit." As a "small black mirror," Pearl is a tiny, but powerful, indicator that the malevolence Hester perceives is a direct personal reflection. She is staring her own sin in the eyes, confronting it head-on, without a moment's hesitation or an attempt to hide. No, her reaction is not one of evasion, but rather of seeming fixation. Surprisingly, she accepts the torturous illusion rather calmly, and while it is not at all a pleasant image, it seems to be more perplexing than frightening. Perhaps this experience is met with such little resistance from Hester because, although she clearly sees evil in what she has done, she does not believe herself to be intrinsically evil. The face she sees is "not her own miniature portrait"; it is not her, but something she has created.

    In another scene containing reflective imagery, Hester and Pearl see their own images in the shiny suit of mail at Governor Bellingham's mansion:

"Mother," cried [Pearl], "I see you here. Look! Look!"
Hester looked, by way of humoring the child; and she saw that, owing to the peculiar effect of this convex mirror, the scarlet letter was represented in exaggerated and gigantic proportions, so as to be greatly the most prominent feature of her appearance. (p.94)

When Hester examines her image, she seems to be examining herself both literally and figuratively. Literally, she immediately sees a magnified version of the scornful scarlet letter upon her breast. I suggest that Hawthorne means to show in this a figurative self-examination by Hester. As when she gazes into the armor and sees first the scarlet letter, when she gazes into herself, she sees first her sin. Pearl, of course, is the initiator of this harsh confrontation; it is her role to show Hester her reflection in the suit of shiny metal, to remind her of the guilty woman she will forever be.

    Hester faces this painful image of herself constantly in the company of her daughter. The image is seen even when Pearl, not some shiny object, is casting the reflection:

[Pearl's] outbreaks of fierce temper had a kind of value, and even comfort, for her mother; because there was at least an intelligible earnestness in the mood, instead of the fitful caprice that so often thwarted her in the child's manifestations. It appalled her, nevertheless, to discern here, again, a shadowy reflection of the evil that had existed in herself. (p.84)

Again, Hawthorne makes clear that Pearl is the medium for her mother's recognition of her guilt. He directly states that Hester discerns in Pearl "a shadowy reflection of the evil that had existed in herself." Because she believes the evil had existed in herself, but seems to exist no longer, I believe Hester has achieved some sort of growth and decided to live beyond the past without ever ceasing to acknowledge it. The passage also reinforces Pearl's dual nature as a symbol; she is at once an indication of both "earnestness" and "evil," the traits that, in embracing her daughter and confessing her past, Hester herself now embodies.

    Pearl's reflective role thus established, I will describe how, she first separates, and then brings together her parents in open acceptance of their sin. Hester and Dimmesdale have essentially opposite relationships with Pearl. Hester has been able to see within the girl a reflection of her flawed self, but Dimmesdale remains too far away from her physically and emotionally to see the full picture of himself. Getting close to Pearl is an acknowledgement and essentially a confession. And so, because Hester is developing beyond the past by embracing her sin while Dimmesdale seems trapped in the past by avoiding his sin, the two are polar opposites with Pearl the symbol of that which divides them.

    When the couple meets clandestinely deep in the woods, they have left Pearl by a sparkling, babbling brook. "Pearl resembled the brook, inasmuch as the current of her life gushed from a well-spring as mysterious, and had flowed through scenes shadowed heavily with gloom" (p. 163), Hawthorne writes, deliberately comparing the equally mysterious child to the body of water. This association is especially suggestive. Similar to previously discussed imagery, the brook is reflective; it is stated that it might "mirror its revelations on the smooth surface of a pool" (p.162). The secret that the brook might reflect upon its surface parallels the secret held by Dimmesdale that Pearl reflects upon her surface.

    When Hester leaves her child to meet with Dimmesdale, Pearl's fascinating connection with the brook is broken. Hawthorne writes, "So Pearl, who had enough of shadow in her own little life, chose to break off all acquaintance with this repining brook" (p.164). Pearl's departure from the reflective brook is symbolic of Hester's departure from her self-examining tendencies. Pearl is out of sight, and so Hester's guilt is out of mind. In fact, when Hester is in the company of Dimmesdale, Hawthorne seems to abandon his description of Pearl and her brook long enough to suggest that the guilty couple has forgotten her presence.

    With Pearl now exploring on the other side of the water, the brook becomes an unapproachable boundary separating the couple from the reality of their sinful connection. That reality is one that Dimmesdale has been forever distant from. But now, as the conversation between the man and woman becomes more intense, and the presence of Pearl becomes less evident, Hester seems tempted to join Dimmesdale in his distance. She even goes so far as to remove the scarlet letter and toss it towards the brook, in the direction of the opposite bank. "The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit" (p.176). She thrusts one symbol of sin, the letter, towards the other, her daughter, hoping to forget them and remain on the side of the brook where her sin is not staring her in the face. By separating herself from her daughter, Hester attempts to erase her permanent brand and join Dimmesdale in a life numb to the burning chastisement of the town.

    But alas, things never work out quite so well. As Hester says to Dimmesdale, "Thou must know Pearl!" (p.177). She knows that Pearl is an essential part of their union, but without realizing it, she is admitting what is obvious to the reader: the guilty couple will never attain that greater good, that higher truth, without fully acknowledging their sin. But Pearl, a little being so full of light and truth, remains on the other side of the brook where the reflections in the water are clear but too far away for the couple to see.

    Dimmesdale is soon aware of their dilemma:

"I have a strange fancy," observed the sensitive minister, "that this brook is the boundary between two worlds, and that thou canst never meet thy Pearl again. Or is she an elfish spirit, who, as the legends of our childhood taught us, is forbidden to cross a running stream? Pray hasten her; for this delay has already imparted tremor to my nerves." (182)

He sees that the two banks are in fact "two worlds," that Pearl's world represents honest but brutal self-recognition, and theirs, an easier life void of truth. Obviously the trio is incapable of inhabiting both worlds together, and Dimmesdale hopes that Pearl will cross the stream to join her parents where all are at a distance great enough to avoid confronting the water's reflection. But "the legends of our childhood," upholding youthful ideals of innocence, truth, and purity, forbid this cross-over. And Dimmesdale fears young Pearl will forbid it as well. "Pearl, without responding in any manner to [Hester's] honeysweet expressions, remained on the other side of the brook" (p.182).

    When Hester understands Pearl's obstinacy, she sees that it is her own responsibility to reconnect with her daughter. She returns to a state of full self-recognition, complete with the scarlet letter again attached, and only then Pearl receives her, shouting, "Now thou art my mother indeed! And I am thy little Pearl!"(p.184). But Dimmesdale is not yet able to reach this point of self-honesty that is required to be in Pearl's good favor. It is not until he later reaches out to the mother and child in front of the entire community, fully admitting his sin and finally being true to himself, that he is accepted into Pearl's heart:

Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. 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, not for ever 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. (p.222)

    This conclusion to Dimmesdale's inner struggle is significant because it reestablishes Pearl's role in the search for self-honesty that is at the heart of the novel. She was in fact a "messenger of anguish," sent by some supreme entity to remind her parents that the past, though painful, must be acknowledged. Her mirror-like tendencies illustrate how she played this role. Because Hester had nothing to hide, she was able to look without fear straight into what seemed to be a reflective face of evil. And when Dimmesdale finally achieved open confession, he too made his connection with Pearl, symbolizing an end to his fear of seeing and showing his true self. The final interaction with Pearl on the scaffold--with her lips touching his, her tears rolling down his cheek--is the ultimate image of self-acceptance, the long-awaited union with his exposed reflection.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).