Scarlet Letter Ambiguity
Ambiguity and The Scarlet Letter go better together than two people that have been
happily married for 75 years. There is no exemption in Hawthorne’s exquisite symbolism
of one of his main characters, Pearl. The Scarlet Letter A, worn by Hester Prynne, was a
punishment for the immoral sin of adultery she had committed. Following Hester’s act of
adultery, she became pregnant with a baby girl whom she named Pearl. From the first
moment that we are introduced to Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet
Letter, we get the sense that there is something strange and unnatural about her. Pearl
acts very differently than the other people in Boston in that she seems to be much more
vibrant than the others. We see this displayed in various different forms like her dress, her
mood swings, her sometimes mischievous behavior, and her constant liveliness.
Throughout the novel, Pearl is used by Hawthorne to symbolize many different elements,
and the ambiguity come together for one significant meaning.
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A critic of Hawthorne states, ?when depth and ambiguity are much admired in
writing, Hawthorne has continued to offer enough complexity and mystery to hold a wide
variety of readers.?(Davidson, 361) Pearl was not accepted by virtually anyone; her
unavoidable seclusion was due to the sin of her mother. Pearl was always different
somehow. Throughout all of this, Pearl is labeled with many symbols that are meaningful
in understanding Hawthorne’s novel, and they will be explained in the preceding
For one, Pearl is the living embodiment of the scarlet letter. She is the result from
Hester’s and Dimmesdale’s sins. Pearl plays one of the most crucial roles in The Scarlet
Letter. Hawthorne uses Pearl as a dynamic character; she is a constant reminder to Hester
of her sin. When we were first introduced to Pearl, she was immediately drawn to the
Scarlet A on Hester’s bosom. ?But the first object of which Pearl seemed to become
aware was the scarlet letter on Hester’s bosom! One day, as her mother stooped over the
cradle, the infant’s eyes had been caught by the glimmering of the gold embroidery about
the letter’ and, putting up her little hand, she grasped at it, smiling not doubtfully, but with
a decided gleam.? (Hawthorne, 88). Beginning when she was conceived, Pearl served as a
reminder of the Scarlet A on her bosom. Hawthorne shows this symbolism various times.
In Chapter 7, Pearl and Hester go to the Governor’s house and Pearl’s attire ?inevitably
reminded the beholder of the token which Hester Prynne was doomed to wear upon her
bosom. It was the scarlet letter in another form; the scarlet letter endowed with life!?
(Hawthorne, 93). Pearl is dressed in a scarlet dress with gold fringe exactly resembling the
Scarlet A on Hester’s bosom. Pearl had a natural preference to focus on the Scarlet Letter,
which is show in Chapter 15. ??Pearl took some eel-grass, and imitated, as best as she
could, on her own bosom, the decoration with which she was so familiar on her mother’s.
A letter, the letter A, but freshly green, instead of scarlet!? (Hawthorne, 163). In this
scene, Hester eventually has to deny its significance to Pearl after she constantly confronts
her mother of its significance. One of the most symbolic scenes in the novel occurs in the
forest as Pearl and Hester are traveling to meet Dimmesdale. Pearl remarks to Hester that
?the sunshine does not love you. It runs away and hides itself, because it is afraid of
something on your bosom.? (Hawthorne, 168). Sunshine, which can symbolize composed
happiness or the approval of God and nature, rejects Hester because of her sin and the
?thing on her bosom?. Therefore, this confirms that Pearl constantly reminds her of her sin
and her punishment. In one of the most dramatic scenes in the novel, Pearl prevents Hester
from escaping her sin and shame. Pearl ?bursts into a fit of passion? and will not go to her
mother until she puts the Scarlet A back on her bosom and places her hair back
underneath her cap. In the one moment that Hester attempts to escape her sin, Pearl
refuses to acknowledge her until she returns to the shameful mother that she has always
known. Pearl is a child without guilt, with all a child’s freshness and spontaneity, however
to Hester is a persistent remembrance to the Scarlet A, which she must bare on her bosom.
Pearl really was the Scarlet Letter, because if Pearl had never been born, Hester would
have never been found guilty of adultery, and thus never would have had to wear that
burden upon her chest. As Pearl’s symbolic meaning of being the embodiment of the
scarlet letter, this is not the only symbolic meaning that she has.
Pearl is also symbolic in that she symbolized innocence. She did absolutely
nothing to be treated how she was treated, all Pearl did was be born. Pearl, in the same
idea of being the symbol of innocence, is the symbol of the treasure of youth. Her name
designates her to be a child of great value and worth. A pearl in the ocean is found and
extracted after careful labor. Pearl was brought into the world at a great cost. She was
brought into the world at the expense of her mother’s public condemnation. Pearl is
innocent and is her mother’s only treasure and companion. Pearl is different from ordinary
Puritan children in that she has a mind of her own. A pearl would not belong in Puritan
society because it would contrast with society’s austerity and utilitarianism. A pearl would
be a luxury and an object that would not be found on any proper Puritan woman. Pearl
nonetheless stands out as beautiful and charming in a society of dull and stern people. In
the same way that her mother Hester was different from Puritan society, her offspring also
was a not a normal Puritan. Pearl is different but it’s her difference that gives her great
worth and beauty. Though her symbolizing innocence and the treasure of youth, she is
also used to symbolize a contrasting element.
As Pearl symbolized another substantial element in the novel, there were no
possibilities of any character appreciating this symbolization. Pearl was also used to
symbolize evil and secret sin. On the rare occasion that the children would show interest
in Pearl, she would ?grow positively terrible in her puny wrath, snatching up stones to
fling at them?? (Hawthorne, 87) Throughout most of the book, Pearl is wild. When she
is in the forest with her mother, she fits in with the wild things and they seem to accept
her. ?…the mother forest, and these wild things which it nourished, all recognized a
kindred wildness in the human child.? (Hawthorne, 188) Nature recognizes in Pearl, a
wildness. Pearl’s character is described as developing, ?…the steadfast principles of an
unflinching courage, ?an uncontrollable will, ?a sturdy pride…? (Hawthorne, 165) Also,
Pearl asks Hester where she came from, and Hester says that she came from the Heavenly
father and Pearl says, ?He did not send me…I have no Heavenly Father.? All of these
characteristics relate to sin, especially sin that is not recognized. While committing the sin,
a person has strong will, pride, and courage just like Pearl does. Pearl is wild along with
passionate. Since Pearl is so wild and passionate, she is accepted very well in the forest.
This explains very straight forwardly how she is evil. Since she is accepted well in the
forest, which is the home of the ?Black Man? or evil, she is symbolizing evil. Likewise,
when the sin is discovered, Pearl’s character changes dramatically. Before, Pearl had been
wild and not very caring, when her father, Arthur, finally admits he is Pearl’s father and is
dying, Pearl changes. This breaks her free from being the symbol of evil and sin, and gives
a chance to go to the next and final symbolization of Pearl.
Hawthorne uses Pearl for one last symbol in The Scarlet Letter, the symbol of
the moral blossom. This is very much associated with symbolizing a rose. Since her
mother symbolized passion through the rosebush, the child is thus comparable to the
blossoms on the rosebush. Once and a while, Pearl would bring happiness to Hester’s life,
and that gave her a reason to keep on living. Pearl really symbolized a rose to her mother,
at some times she could be bright and vibrant, and really love her mother, but at other
times, she could be ?wilting?. It was the times when she was wilting that brought
Hester the most grief. Hawthorne comments that the rose may serve as a moral blossom.
Pearl does represent a moral in the novel, making her parents take responsibility of their
sins, and Pearl was persistent until this happened.
Hawthorne has much ambiguity throughout The Scarlet Letter, and it is often through
his points or important figures or important settings. One critic agreed with Hawthorne’s
ambiguous ways of writing, but at the same time, praised the continually, ?But the reader
feels that his vision was clear, and his feeling about the matter very strong and rich.
Hawthorne’s imagination, on the other hand, plays with his theme so incessantly, leads it
such a dance through the moon-lighted air of his intellect, that the thing cools off, as it
were, hardens and stiffens, and, producing effects much more exquisite, leaves the reader
with a sense of having handled a splendid piece of silversmith’s work.? (James, 815)
Hawthorne’s ambiguity of the symbolism of Pearl is extremely evident to each of his
readers. Some will think, what is his point of so ambiguously describing the symbolic
Pearl. Well, Hawthorne gives the reader a chance to adjudge their own opinion on what
Pearl is really standing for. Yet, he leads the reader to believe that Pearl’s overall
symbolic ambiguity is standing for the possibilities of sin combining with innocence. His
ambiguity shows the true complexity to Pearl and each of her symbolic meanings that were
covered in the previous paragraphs. It truly is put together quite magnificently because
Hawthorne incorporated the aftermath’s of Hester and Dimmesdale’s sins into one
innocent character, Pearl.
In conclusion, Hawthorne’s portrayal of Pearl and her symbolism are quite
ambiguous. This is clear in how many symbolic meanings Pearl had. She symbolized the
scarlet letter, innocence and treasure, evil and sin, and the moral blossom and rose. It is
evident that he wanted to ambiguously portray the symbolism of Pearl. So, was
Hawthorne meaning to show the possibilities of combining sin and innocence through the
ambiguous description or was he just putting symbolization in the only one character that
wasn’t a sinner? Well, this is a question that can never be answered.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. United States of America:
Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1987
James, Henry. ?Hawthorne? Major Writers of America.
Ed. Perry Miller. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. 815.
Davidson, Edward H. ?Nathaniel Hawthorne.? Major Writers of America.
Ed. Perry Miller. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966. 361.