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Societal Change as Personified by Pearl in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter

by Virginia Lore

Much has been written about the role of Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet

Letter. Barbara Garlitz provides an overview of how critics have identified Pearl in her

essay “Pearl: 1860-1955”.

Pearl was called both “an embodied angel from the skies” and

“a void little demon” and time produced no unanimity of opinion.

In the past hundred years she has been variously described as

“most artificial and unchildlike,” and as possessing “the natural

bloom…of childhood,” …For some critics she performs the

function of “a symbolized conscience,” but for others she is

simply “a darksome fairy” or “the one touch of color in a somber


There is no doubt that Pearl is a rich character, full of inconsistencies not easily nor

quickly read. One can interpret the character in context of a literary Puritanism, as a

symbol of nature in contrast to civilization, or as an embodiment of the Scarlet Letter

itself, a living result of the sinful union between Reverend Dimmesdale and Hester

Prynne. However, one must not disembricate the story from the historical moment in

which it was written. When viewed through the lens of history, Hawthorne’s use of this

character signifies the personification of uncontrolled sweeping social change, and the

place of Pearl in the society of the book symbolizes a collectively-held fear of that


The Scarlet Letter was published in 1850, just two years after the global unrest which
had expressed itself in the European Revolutions of 1848 and the Mexican-American

War. While Hawthorne might not have been aware of the uprisings across the Atlantic,

surely he was aware of the primary causes of the unrest: rapid technological change

disrupting centuries of prescribed class roles, extended political awareness through

popular press, and new ideas of liberalism resulting from the Enlightenment. Change

and fear of change percolated through the American consciousness as the push to build

the empire butted up against the very ideals of egalitarianism that proponents of

Manifest Destiny ostensibly supported. While Hawthorne would not have read historian

Julius W. Pratt, who pointed out Manifest Destiny’s tenet of “the right [of the American

people] to possess the whole of the continent”, he would have read Thomas Paine’s

Common Sense. In Common Sense, Paine wrote “"Society is produced by our wants,

and government by wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by

uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices…Society in every

state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil."

Hawthorne himself had every reason to view the government as but a necessary evil.

Having held a public position as a surveyor at the Salem Custom House, he was

summarily dismissed in 1848 as a result of the political changes that accompanied new

Presidential administration.

An historical analysis of The Scarlet Letter is particularly apt for two reasons. First, the

novel is itself set in a different time than that in which it was written, indicating that

Nathaniel Hawthorne valued historical context. Second, Hawthorne spends the entire

introduction establishing a cultural and historical context for the story in his description

of the Custom House. This emphasizes to the reader the importance of interpreting the

events of the story within a specific framework. Though Hawthorne’s suggested

framework was Puritan New England, no doubt he carried an awareness of the

struggles of his own time and an awareness of how the events of his story might be

seen in that context as well, as is indicated when he writes of “the great-grandchildren

of the present race” hoping that they “may sometimes think kindly of the scribbler of

bygone days”.

The introduction of Pearl occurs in the second chapter, when the infant’s first action is to

wink and “turn aside its little face from the too vivid light of day.” Just a few weeks old,

Pearl has spent her entire infancy in the pale light of a dungeon. If we read Pearl as

representing social change, we then read this passage with the knowledge that social

change occurs slowly in subterranean spaces, and is fragile when first introduced to the

light. In this chapter, Hawthorne draws the parallel relationship between Pearl and the

scarlet letter, writing that Hester realizes that “one token of her shame would but poorly

serve to hide another.” Though many of the bystanders jeer, one bystander notes that

“let her cover the letter as she will, the pang of it will always be in her heart.” Hester is

not only permanently marked by Pearl’s existence and the letter, but she is set apart by

it. The scarlet letter has “the effect of a spell…enclosing her in a sphere by herself.” In

this way Hester joins the isolation of those visionaries who truck with change, who

portend it. Unlike Joan of Arc or Moses, however, she is shamed by her vision, by her

relationship with the future, which is painted as a sin by her fellow citizens.

Where there is social change, there must also be tradition. In Chapter Three,

Hawthorne introduces us to Roger Chillingsworth. He is “a gentleman advanced in

years, with hard experience written in his wrinkles.” More than anyone else in the novel,

Chillingsworth represents tradition, the place from which the visionary has come, and

that which seeks to discover and suppress the change agent and perhaps the change
as well. Pearl, representative of social change, will not be suppressed. She “pierce(s)

the air with (her) wailings and screams.” Reverend Dimmesdale is also introduced in

this chapter. As the father of Pearl and the silent transgressor against the customs of

the people, in this interpretative framework he becomes the reluctant agent provocateur.

Social change is underscored as inevitable in the fourth chapter when Hester

apologizes to Chillingsworth as having wronged him. “We have wronged each other,” he

answers. “Mine was the first wrong, when I betrayed thy budding youth into a false and

unnatural relation with my decay.” Tradition recognizes its own inefficacy in this

statement, but comes forward nevertheless with a rejection of the visionary, shunning

her from its society and requesting that the visionary deny her source. This occurs when

Chillingsworth asks Hester to keep the secret of her marriage to him, that he might start

over in this area without being tainted by her actions.

Hawthorne then describes how the visionary lives, alone and with only her craft and the

symbol(s) of change to keep her company. She is outside of society here, and

despised. This is a common thread through the stories of visionaries, according to

Elizabeth Petroff, who describes this as the “purgative” stage of becoming a visionary.

She writes that all female saints share a “commitment to ascetic practice and self

mortification.” Hester Prynne lives this asceticism as she participates with her

immediate society in conflating change with “sin”. “She would become the general

symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point” writes Hawthorne. “The young

and pure would be taught to look at her…as the figure, the body, the reality of sin.”

Hester lives alone in the forest and seeks only subsistence for herself while she seeks

abundance for her child. Always, though she gradually comes to have an economic

place in the region, she is apart from other people. “In all her intercourse with society,”
Hawthorn writes, “There was nothing that made her feel as if she belonged to it.” Thus

she subsumes herself, the visionary, sacrificing for the child, the future, the social

change. Like other visionaries, saints and mystics, Hester Prynne is a recluse.

Pearl, however, is anything but a somber ascetic. She is a "lovely child" with an

"expanding nature" in whom Hester fears to detect some "wild peculiarity" or

perverseness brought about by Hester's sin. She is called Pearl because she has been

"bought at great price." Like the specter of oncoming social change, Pearl does not

adapt to the rules of her society. She has her own internal order, unpredictable to the

others around her. Hester both fears and loves her.

Hawthorne himself brings up the question of how Pearl is used as a symbol in this story

by pointing out that Hester wonders if Pearl is entirely human. Pearl is impossible to

discipline, wild, a force of nature.

Pearl is treated with fear and suspicion by the children of the village. Hawthorne

chooses to set the story among the Puritans because they are notoriously hard-hearted

and unwelcome to change. This serves to emphasize Pearl's wild nature, and to further

underscore the fact that social change or any element thereof is initially unwelcome to

the ordinary people of a specific historic moment. Pearl's spirit, however, is "ever-

creative" and will not be suppressed. Indeed, it seems impossible to suppress her.

Once given life, there is no turning away from the wildness of her nature nor what it

represents. Here, Hawthorne echoes the earlier thoughts of both Jean-Jacques

Rousseau, who posited the supremacy of the natural child, and Denis Diderot, who

wrote of the human being's dependence on her senses. That Pearl notices the scarlet

letter as her first material object underscores the letter as her semiotic twin and

reflection. There is no lack of reflection of Pearl in various objects throughout the book.
Reflection is a major motif. Pearl sees herself not only symbolically in the scarlet letter.

She literally sees herself in both nature (in the brook, in the pond) and in society (the

Governor's Hall).

Hester fears that Pearl may be seen as a Devil's child by the townspeople. Hawthorne

draws a parallel here between Pearl and another symbol of social change when he

writes of Martin Luther, who "according to the scandal of his monkish enemies, was a

brat of that hellish breed."

Hawthorne explores the relationship triad between social change, tradition, and

authority in the scene in the Governor's Hall. The servant tries to bar entrance to the

visionary, but Hester will not have it. When the servant says that she may not see the

Governor, she replies "nevertheless I will enter" and she lets herself in to the Hall. Pearl

is particularly perverse in this setting. She deflects the catechism impishly. She is "the

elf child" and appears "wild and flighty" although she does show some softness to

Reverend Dimmesdale, the agent of her existence. The minister responds with the

physical actions of a blessing: a hand on the child's head and a kiss on the brow.

Because of the intervention of Reverend Dimmesdale, the Governor allows Hester

Prynne to continue to raise the child. Without that intervention, Pearl would have been

taken away, the embodiment of social change would have been co-opted at the behest

of the embodiment of authority. Hawthorne demonstrates a number of principles here:

first, that an individual may stand up to and then influence authority; second that change

is capable of moments of calm; and third, that the government's authority extends only

as far as its will. In 1850, as the Enlightenment begins to decline and various new ideas

arise from it, these points are well taken.

Hawthorne establishes Chillingsworth within the context of the tradition of medicine as it

was practiced at the time. Chillingsworth manifests his role as the embodiment of

tradition by his "familiarity with the ponderous and imposing machinery of antique

physic." He is welcome in the community and an integral part of it for his expertise. In

direct contrast to Pearl, his demeanor is described as ever marked by quietness.

Chillingsworth is the advisor of Dimmesdale. He seeks to know, heal and seduce the

minister to his side. Hawthorne describes "the strong interest" Chillingsworth has in

Dimmesdale, who "attached himself to him as a parishioner and sought to win a friendly

regard and confidence from his naturally reserved sensibility." As he continues to

investigate and abide with Dimmesdale, "something ugly and evil in his face" begins to

appear more apparent to the observant members of the community. If Chillingsworth

embodies tradition, this is evidence that tradition faced with a resistant agent of change

becomes ugly or dark or evil over time. The title of the chapter most dedicated to the

description of Chillingsworth is "The Leech," which emphasizes the sycophantic

relationship between tradition and that on which it feeds--in this case, the agent of


Tradition becomes slowly more corrupt and unhealthier as the story progresses. No

meeting between Chillingsworth and Pearl occurs in which Pearl does not emerge

victorious or newly energized, having given nothing but irreverence and honesty to the

interaction. A chance sighting of Pearl and Hester in the graveyard when Chillingsworth

is visiting Dimmesdale bears out this point. Chillingsworth notes that Pearl has "no law,

nor reverence for authority, no regard for human ordinances or opinions, right or wrong"

as he sees her. There is a moment when the four major characters of the novel regard

each other: tradition and change, the visionary and the reluctant agent of change.

Then change beckons the visionary, and draws her away, "like a creature that had
nothing in common with a bygone and buried generation, nor owned herself akin to it."

Having called Chillingsworth "The Black Man," referring to the devil, she dances off.

Hawthorne writes, "It was as if she had been made afresh, out of new elements" and

calls her "a law unto herself".

The weakest link in this argument positing that Pearl represents change is the role of

Reverend Dimmesdale. He is an unlikely agent of change, a reluctant catalyst. As a

man of shy and sensitive temperament, he views his actions in a manner consistent

with the traditional view that his actions in the creation of Pearl constitute a sin. So

what is his relationship with change? Can a catalyst of change truly be so reluctant,

portrayed as so shamed by his actions?

According to John W. Stuart, Dimmesdale is selected by Hawthorne both to "expose the

theocracy's fallacious premises" and to "suffer their cruel consequences pathetically."

He also embodies hypocrisy, carrying his secret while being regarded as a "paragon of

virtue" by the community. Dimmesdale has the "genuine impulse to adore the truth" but

is unable to speak it. He is not a revolutionary nor a bold criticizer of tradition. He is,

instead, an agent or catalyst in the more physical sense of those words, propelling the

rate of social change forward as a byproduct of his actions, rather than by intention.

Reverend Dimmesdale holds a vigil on the scaffold while the Governor (cast here as an

embodiment of authority) lies on his deathbed. After the Governor has died,

Dimmesdale encounters Pearl and Hester, who are coming from the Governor's

mansion. He invites them up on the scaffold and he holds one of Pearl's hands as

Hester holds the other. Hawthorne again describes "a tumultuous rush of new

life...hurrying through all his veins." He writes that the three of them "formed an electric

As they stand there, a meteor rushes across the sky. It echoes the electricity he

receives from Pearl and illuminates everything around the scaffold with "a singularity of

aspect that seemed to give another moral interpretation to the things of this world than

they had ever borne before." In the light of the meteor, Dimmesdale sees the letter A,

which he grasps as reinforcement of the shame that he adopts. Hawthorne attributes it

" solely to the disease in his own eye and heart".

With the death of the Governor comes an important shift in the dynamics of power in the

novel. Hester and Pearl seem to ascend and thrive even as Dimmesdale weakens and

Chillingsworth descends further into evil. The visionary becomes respected though still

set apart by the community as tradition appears to become uglier and more hate-filled

by its resistance to change. So proceed the events of the story until Chapter Fifteen.

The fifteenth chapter describes the changed relationship between Hester-as-visionary

and Pearl-as-change, painting a contrast between them using light and shadow. The

visionary is human, and therefore flawed. She is subject to sin and resentment,

demonstrated as Hester thinks of how she hates Roger Chillingsworth, "be it sin or no."

The visionary is ever in shadow, as the imminent social change is in the light. Both

visionary and that which she envisions are strong at this point in the novel, and growing

in strength. Pearl is also flawed, hurting a small bird by flinging a pebble at it. But she

regrets the impulse and moves again into the sphere of nature she inhabits, insisting on

clarity and honesty as she creates a mimic of her mother's symbol and asks her to

declare aloud what it means. Hester turns away from the moment, deflecting the

question. Pearl asks the next morning why the minister keeps his hand over his heart.

Hester responds as she has not responded before, threatening to put the child in a

closet. It is significant that Hester threatens Pearl with both suppression and darkness if
she will not be still. Change once unleashed is difficult to control and demands to be in

the light.

Hawthorne expounds on this theme in the sixteenth chapter when Pearl says to Hester

that the "sunlight doesn't like (her)." The sunlight apparently does like Pearl. Hester

perceives that she catches the sunlight and stands in the middle of it laughing.

Hawthorne personifies the sunlight saying that it "lingered about the lonely child, as if

glad of such a playmate" until Hester attempts to join Pearl in its rays. At that point

either the sunlight disappears or Pearl absorbs it into herself. In the next chapter, then,

Hawthorne calls Pearl a "character of flame". Throughout the story Pearl is brought forth

as being associated with the light, with fire and with electricity. Hawthorne wrote the

Scarlet Letter a scant 50 years after Volta invented the first electric battery.8 The

technological impacts of the Enlightenment era were ascendant in America at this time,

and Hawthorne would have been very aware of the potential of electricity to change a

culture and a people.

Pearl and Hester encounter Reverend Dimmesdale in the nineteenth chapter. This is a

meeting of which Dimmesdale has dreamed, and he questions himself afterward as to

whether it really happened. It is by virtue of Pearl and Hester's absence that he

recognizes that their presence was real. In this way, Hawthorne demonstrates the

reigniting of the change agent by the social change, a reconnection with the result of his

actions. " The excitement of Mr. Dimmesdale’s feelings, as he returned from his

interview with Hester, lent him unaccustomed physical energy, and hurried him

townward at a rapid pace" writes Hawthorne. Dimmesdale is recharged from his

encounter. As he passes his church, "Mr. Dimmesdale’s mind vibrate(s) between two

ideas..." The change agent now sees the future as clearly as the visionary once did, yet
his connection with and reluctance to release his place in traditional society keeps both

constructs present simultaneously. He experiences "a revolution in the sphere of

thought and feeling." Instead of releasing him from his torment, however, this inner

revolution exacerbates the tension between the old order and the new, and it is

Dimmesdale's all-too-human inability to encompass this tension that leads him to

temptation. As he heads towards town, he encounters the temptation to spread what

he considers evil repeatedly.

There are many evidences that the new order grows in strength. A ship is in the harbor,

a new authority has arrived on scene, and Dimmesdale tosses his salutatory into the fire

to write a more revealing speech. Hester and Pearl are poised on the edge of

embarkment, and their position in the town's society has changed to the point where

their leaving might be called bittersweet. The installation of a new governor is occasion

for a holiday, a time when strictures and sobriety relax. The presence of Indians and

sailors exemplify the liminal characteristics of this occasion.

The energy that has sustained Dimmesdale since his walk in the woods continues to

sustain him. He is so invigorated that Pearl wonders if he is the same person. His

declamation is viewed from Hester's point of view. As the visionary, she is the first to

catch a portent of what is to come. Dimmesdale delivers a masterful speech, and is

venerated by the townspeople. But instead of celebrating, he walks from the church to

the scaffold and reveals himself as Pearl's father. He needs Hester to support him to

the scaffold to speak to the crowd, tear open his vestments and reveal the scarlet letter

on his chest. In the same moment that he reveals it, he collapses. Pearl kisses his lips

and comes fully into her power not only as a representation of social change but as a

fully incorporated element of the culture. As Hawthorne writes "her errand as a

messenger of anguish (is) fulfilled."

In the conclusion, Pearl "became the richest heiress of her day in the New World." This

emphasizes her role as substantive social change. Chillingworth (tradition) is dead, and

the change agent has revealed his part in things and passed away as well. In

retrospect, it is his reluctance to reveal his part that tortured him, and his denial of his

strong relationship in bringing about the social change that has killed him. A new

Governor has been installed. The visionary has returned to the site of her vision to take

up the wearing of the scarlet letter again, but the letter itself has changed. It has

"ceasede (sic) to be a stigma which attracted the world's scorn and bitterness, and

became a type of something to be sorrowed over, and looked upon with awe..." Hester

has become the wise counselor of the community, taking her place among the

townspeople for the first time since her "sin". Thus as time has transmuted the scarlet

letter and as the Old World has yielded to the New World, the visionary has become the

personification of wisdom.
Works Cited

1. Breunig, Charles. The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789-1850. New York:

Norton, 1977.

2. Burns, Edward McNall. The A merican Idea of Mission: Concepts of National

Purpose and Destiny. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1957.

3. Garlitz, Barbara. “Pearl: 1850-1955”. PMLA, Vol. 72, No. 4. (Sep., 1957), pp.

689-699. JSTORE. University of Washington. Accessed December 10, 2007.

4. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Ohio State University Press, 1962.

All quotes from the text taken from the fifth edition, 1983.

5. Pancaldi, Giuliano. Volta: Science and Culture in the Age of Enlighten ment.

Princeton: N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.

6. Petroff, Elizabeth. “Medieval Women Visionaries: Seven Stages to Power”.

Frontiers: A Journal of Wo men Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1. JSTORE. University of

Washington. Accessed December 14, 2007.

7. Pratt, Julius W. “The Origin of ‘Manifest Destiny’.”The A merican Historical

Review, Vol. 32, No. 4. (Jul., 1927), pp. 795-798. JSTOR. University of

Washington. Accessed December 14, 2007.

8. Stuart, John W. "Christian Imagery in Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter". Accessed December 2007.