The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne is teeming with countless elements that bombard the reader with Romantic and Gothic themes. It can almost be difficult at times to dissect the novel and find the sources of these themes, not because they are subtle, but rather, due to sheer amount that has been pumped into the text. Pearl, the daughter of Hester and one of the side protagonists in the story, provides us with many glimpses of the element of Romanticism in the novel. Pearl allows us insight to the upcoming events in the story, she provides a counterweight to the otherwise rapid regrowth of Hester’s image in society, and she acts as a physical and permanent embodiment of Hester’s sin. Through each of these roles, Pearl creates an ongoing sense of Romanticism in the novel and although she is only a child, plays an enormous role in the development of the story as a whole.
One of the most interesting factors about Pearl’s role in The Scarlet Letter is her lack of knowledge about the world around her. Pearl is consistently insensitive about her mother’s letter, clearly not understanding the meaning behind it. At one moment in the story she can even be seen throwing flowers at the letter playfully: “she amused herself with gathering handfuls of wildflowers, and flinging them, one by one, at her mother’s bosom; dancing up and down, like a little elf, whenever she hit the scarlet letter.” (Hawthorne 67). Shortly after this incident, Hester would ask Pearl if she was her daughter in order to indicate that she was hurt. Pearl simply responds that she is Pearl because she does not realize that her actions are hurting her mother. Pearl displays her childlike innocence towards the world in an impish way, causing others around her grief while she is seemingly ignorant of the on goings around her. A few chapters later, Pearl does something that creates a sense of deeper wisdom in her character; despite her lack of knowledge, Pearl is the first character to create the knowledge of future events in the story. While in the presence of the minister, Reverend Dimmesdale, Pearl recognizes that something is askew. “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 obtrusive—.” (Hawthorne 79). Pearl, although most likely unaware of the exact meaning of this herself, understands there is something more going on in the situation than is readily apparent. In this scene there is an underlying struggle between Hester and Dimmesdale to help each other without revealing their true positions. The reader has no ability to recognize this or draw clues from it until the simple detail of Pearl’s actions. Although lacking the most basic knowledge to hand a situation properly, Pearl performs a miracle of wisdom by providing insight to detail for the readers that would otherwise be left unnoticed. As stated in the novel: “Her one baby-voice served a multitude of imaginary personages, old and young, to talk withal.” (Hawthorne 65)
Furthermore, Pearl fulfills the roles of both protagonist and antagonist in The Scarlet Letter. For a while Pearl’s role heavily leans towards antagonist as she seemingly abuses her position in Hester’s life to pester, harass, and torment Hester with the mistakes of her past. Hester notices her impish behavior and constantly questions whether Pearl is a blessing or a curse. Pearl does not limit her antagonistic behaviors simply toward Hester, however, as she displays similar qualities towards the community and even toward Dimmesdale. “‘Dost thou mock me now?’ said the minister. ‘Thou wast not bold!—Thou wast not true!’ answered the child ‘Thou wouldst not promise to take my hand, and mother’s hand, tomorrow noontide!’” (Hawthorne 108). At this point in the story, Pearl has her suspicions about the true identity of Reverend Dimmesdale. It is still very unclear about whether or not she understands the truth, but she clearly knows something is askew. Pearl does the only thing that she can think of in order to try to discern what is going on and she pokes at the minister. The impish side of her propels her to poke fun at things that she doesn’t understand, which has an echoing impact on the thoughts of Dimmesdale. As the story progresses further, the protagonist elements seen in Pearl begin to outweigh the impish antagonist she so often comes across as. Pearl drives the story forward with every time she pokes in places that she isn’t supposed to. At a later point in the story, Pearl creates the letter ‘A’ out of grass and pins it to her own chest. Hester is immediately troubled by this and worries that Pearl will never outgrow her impish behaviors or need to poke around; however, Pearl rapidly changes her perspective on the action through a quick exchanging of words. “‘Dost thou know, child, wherefore thy mother wears this letter?’ ‘Truly do I!’ answered Pearl, looking brightly into her mother’s face. ‘It is for the same reason that the minister keeps his hand over his heart!’” (Hawthorne 122). This moment from the story serves a dual purpose. Not only is Pearl providing more of her contextual wisdom to the reader and highlighting the ever growingly apparent relationship between Dimmesdale’s chest injury and Hester’s letter, but she is also highlighting her role in the story as a protagonist, rather than an antagonist. Pearl further separates herself from sharing the same role as Chillingworth by the way she speaks about him in the next chapter. “‘How he haunts this forest, and carries a book with him,– a big, heavy book, with iron clasps; and how this ugly Black Man offers his book and an iron pen to everybody that meets him here among the trees; and they are to write their names with their own blood. And then he sets his mark on their bosoms!’” (Hawthorne 127).
Through her place in The Scarlet Letter, her interaction with those around her, and the insight she provides to the story, Pearl can be seen as the physical embodiment of Romanticism in the novel. Pearl contradicts her own development as a character many times throughout the novel. Despite her childlike innocence and lack of understanding about the world around her, Pearl manages to be a source of wisdom for the reader. Wisdom is rarely found from sources lacking knowledge so this in its own way is a miracle of childhood innocence. At the beginning of the story, Pearl’s impish behavior is viewed as a curse upon those who encounter it. She is seen as an ‘elvish’ imp child due to her pestering and extraordinary contextual sense of situations. While towards the end of the story, Pearl is viewed as a blessing to those she encounters, preceding her years with her wisdom and offering a unique outlook on the world. Typically, impish characters lack even the most basic wisdom, but the main reason Pearl is found to be impish is primarily due to her incredible wisdom. Pearl is almost a living duality, existing as probably the most prominent character, while also being one of the most overlooked characters as to having an impact on the events in the story. Without Pearl, I can confidently state that The Scarlet Letter would not be considered a Romantic novel, but rather, a purely gothic novel. If Pearl had not been born, the affair between Dimmesdale and Hester would be viewed as a struggle of power, Hester would not have defeated her curse of the scarlet letter through becoming an independent and ‘A’-ble woman, and Chillingworth would have eventually gotten his revenge. Her impact on the themes and elements seen in The Scarlet Letter are astounding; Pearl’s birth pulled the entire novel inside out and transformed it from being purely gothic, to something much, much more.
Despite being the youngest and possibly most overlooked character in The Scarlet Letter, Pearl plays one of, if not, the most important roles in the novel. Pearl’s symbolism and what she represents in the novel is incredibly vague, and purposely so. Pearl invokes in the reader a need to analyze the context with a deeper level of thought, and although at times she contradicts her own characterization, she creates an infrastructure for the story that allows it to succeed- even excel at what it does. Through the roles she plays and the context that she creates, Pearl plays a key role in creating a Romantic story out of an otherwise gothic context.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850; Bartleby.com, 1999.