Shawn L. Bird

Original poetry, commentary, and fiction. All copyrights reserved.

Pearl of great price February 21, 2011

The final character to explore from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is Pearl.  Of course, much has been written about the obvious point that Pearl represents the Biblical “pearl of great price” because Hester loses everything on her account.  What I don’t see explored are some deep issues around that Biblical reference or some other issues around her name.

A pearl is an excellent symbol for a secret, because a pearl is a hidden irritation that is slowly transformed. The pearl becomes a ball that emerges from the flesh of the oyster.  When revealed the pearl is a thing of beautiful rarity.  Hester’s body would have been transformed as Pearl blossomed in her belly and exposed the sin.  When choosing the name, Hester chose to acknowledge Pearl as a treasure and accepted the transformation of her life.  She seems to welcome the isolation and notoriety that results, celebrating her difference from the rest of the community.

Hester also chose to protect the identity of Pearl’s father.  A pearl is hidden inside the oyster and no one knows whether it is there.  Thus, Pearl represents the secret of her father’s identity.  Today, he could be found by genetic testing, but Pearl would have to give her genes in order to reveal the identity.

The Bible quotation is a short one. Matthew 13, verses 45 and 46 reads     “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”  (New International Version).   Consider this: 1. the merchant purchases this treasure, and the purchase is what determines its value.  2. the kingdom of heaven is represented in this transaction.

Is Hester symbolic of the kingdom of heaven because she has made the sacrifice for this pearl? Or is Pearl symbolic of the kingdom of heaven because she is purchased at great sacrifice?  Both concepts are worthy of exploration.  What microcosm of heaven is found in Hester and/or Pearl?  The fundamentalists Calvinists represented by the Puritans believed in pre-destination, in other words, from the beginning of time God has known who will or will not make it into heaven. This philosophy makes reward and punishment seem a trifle perverse, since there is nothing the individual can do to improve his or her spiritual condition.  Thus, Hester was conceived with Pearl as an inevitable sacrifice and the weight of Dimsdale’s and her sin.  Does their respective independence, insolence, disrespect for authority, love of beauty, and unrepentence reflect the kingdom of heaven?  Hmm.  There is an entire essay waiting to be written on just this concept. (If you write it, put a link to it in a comment, below!)

A pearl is an expensive ornament, and Hester works very hard to ensure Pearl is a showy ornament in the dreary community.  Puritans do not believe in ornamentation.  Pearl was destined to be set apart from the other children simply due to her parentage.  If she is going to be set apart, Hester seems to have reasoned, then she might as well celebrate the difference.

A pearl is also the most delicate of precious stones.  One can easily crush a pearl underfoot.  Rough treatment does little to damage a diamond or a ruby, but will destroy a pearl.  Pearls are supposed to be kept isolated from other jewelry in soft bags to avoid being scratched or damaging their glowing lustre.  They can not be cleaned with caustic substances or they are destroyed (one suspects Puritan life was rather caustic with all that fire and brimstone).  Hester seems to believe that Pearl is a sweet gentle creature beneath the aggression that she shows to others.  The aggression confuses her.  Is Pearl really as delicate as her name implies or is her mother’s treatment what makes her unable to fit into her society?  From her clothes to her attitude to her living arrangements Pearl is intentionally set apart.  Should one not anticipate a creature who does not fit in as a result?  Is Pearl really delicate or is she the firey creature intimated by her wild behavior?

One further thought:  we never hear her full name spoken, but consider the sound of the name “Pearl Prynne.”   The double aspiration of these single syllable words is like an exclamation of derision.  It makes a rather effective taunt.  Consider also some homophones for Pearl Prynne.  Puritan is one. Why would her name echo her community’s and her father’s faith? How about Purim– when the Jews were saved from a genocide by Queen Esther’s appeal to King Darius?  Who does Pearl save? (or attempt to save?) Or purlin– the beam that supports rafters in a roof.  Does Pearl support anyone? Or purlieu  a place on the edge, once set aside for royalty but now available for common use.  How does Pearl allow others to go through into royal (heavenly?) lands?  Or pyrethrum– a poison derived from chrysanthemums.  How is Pearl a poison within the community or within the lives of her parents?  Each of these homophones invites further exploration of symbolic connection to Pearl.

I’ve given you lots of complex things to consider when you analyze Pearl Prynne.  Which ones particularly resonate with you?

(c) Shawn Bird.

Students, to avoid plagarism please cite this source as follows:

Bird, Shawn.  Pearl of great price.  Collected (insert date you copied your notes).

See analyses of other characters from The Scarlet Letter.



4 Responses to “Pearl of great price”

  1. a gentle iconoclast Says:

    Hi, Shawn! Thank you for liking my recent post about the return of Jesus Christ and our universal need for repentance.
    You write well and read carefully. I read The Scarlet letter in the 1960s as required reading in high school. At that time, being in a Catholic school, the Puritans were like ETs to me. Several years ago I saw the remake of the film, with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman (? I think he played Roger Dimsdale).
    Another homophone for Pearl would be purr, and another purchase.
    I’m a big fan of the Puritans since coming to the Lord (a funny way to put this!) because of their love for Him and belief in separation – living in the world but not being of it – but I realize, I’m certain that there were rotten apples – or much better still – tares among the wheat that the Lord had planted. I truly enjoy John Bunyan (that’s obviously where I got my website’s name), but sometimes in reading him, I’m a little unnerved, because sometimes there is a little too much of human strength instead of the Lord’s strength in preserving us.
    About Hawthorne, it has seemed strange to me that people take what he has to say about Puritan society as the true view. Didn’t he leave his heritage behind? Believing him would be like crediting Amish who leave and then display their hatred. Is this going too far?
    Once again, this was entertaining and thought provoking,

    • I did know some modern Puritans. I don’t know that anyone is being hard on the sect.

      Fiction reflects its time and the author’s perspective. His view of the society is valid, but I don’t believe anyone says it’s the only possible perspective.

      • a gentle iconoclast Says:

        I’ve observed them being belittled and maligned in a course on multiculturalism in college. The students who were younger than I had brought this with them from high school, and there are other places I’ve seen this. Essentially, this is okay, that is, it is to be expected – I should not have complained. Most of the Reformed Christians I know are simply people, though like other people we can be “high-minded.”

        I hope and pray that you have repented and trusted Jesus Christ, Shawn, because His Word and life and death aren’t fiction.

        God bless you! Talk to me about this if you need to.


  2. a gentle iconoclast Says:

    I need to add, nor is His resurrection, which proved Him to be the Son of God with power.

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