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.



Arthur Dimsdale: can’t see his power February 19, 2011

A third character to explore in The Scarlet Letter is the minister, Arthur Dimsdale. Many sources narrow in symbolically on the idea that Dimsdale is ‘dim.’ Dim as in stupid, when he fails to recognise the evil in Chillingsworth. Dim as in weak, as his physical health declines. Dim as in muted light, when he is hiding himself in the dark of his denial of Hester and Pearl.

However, there is far more to explore here. Dale means ‘valley.’ I live in a valley, and I love the sense of comfort and security the hills provide. One feels hidden away, not everyone can see you when you’re in a valley. Being in a valley cuts off light though. The sun isn’t visible until it has climbed over the hills, and it leaves earlier dropping behind them. This gives valley dwellers a shorter day. Being down in the valley also limits our perspective. We see what we see of our own little area, we don’t get a sense of the larger world unless we climb up to the top of the mountains. Isolation tends to produce navel gazers, and this certainly applies to Dimsdale. He has no sense of a wider world of possibility open to him.

Finally, Arthur is an old Welsh name means ‘bear.’ There are lots of bears where I live as well, so I know something of their characteristics and I see Arthur reflected in this name choice as well. A bear is a powerful creature which has the ability to get whatever it wants, but it can be defeated until it becomes a dancing bear- moving to the tune of trainer who has weakened it, until it has no idea of its power anymore.   A bear looks distinguished and capable to some, but the bear itself often seems slow and stupid, going about motions without a lot of consideration to more creative solutions (return to the same places to feed on easy garbage, for example, instead of fleeing to the safety of the wilderness where freedom means more effort). Bears also hibernate. They fill themselves and climb into their dens and ignore the world, stuck in their own dreams until awakened by the hunger for more. However, this is the time when bears are their most vulnerable, for a hunter can pick them off as they groggily head out the door.

Yes, Nathaniel Hawthorne made a very appropriate name choice for Arthur Dimsdale!

(c) Shawn Bird.  Students, to avoid plagarism, cite this article as follows:

Bird, Shawn.  “Arthur Dimsdale: can’t see his power.”…-see-his-power/  Collected (insert the date you copied the information)


Roger Chillingsworth: his value cools ardour! February 18, 2011

The next character worth considering in The Scarlet Letter name analysis is the antagonist, who decides that he should be known as Roger Chillingsworth. Many works reference “chill” and suggest he is cold, but don’t neglect the ‘worth’ part of his name.  His value in the story is not just to add a chill to Hester’s heart when she catches sight of him, or to chill the feeble heart of Arthur Dimsdale with his constant vigilance.  His value in the story is his cold heart, which menaces Hester. Like cold air, he hovers around making people miserable by his presence.

If Hester is a burning star, Chillingsworth is a cold calculation, freezing out good intention and positive options. When the other townsfolk have given up worrying who the adulterous father is, Hester knows that Roger Chillingsworth is still on the case, so she continually feels the chill of fear on behalf of her beloved.

Consider also that Roger means “spear.” Hester is constantly stabbed with pain in his presence, for having married him initially, for her personal betrayal of him, and for fear of his inevitable retribution.

Chillingsworth also destroys Dimsdale by the cold evil of his presence and stabs of guilt that Dimsdale feels.

At the end of the narrative when Hester and Dimsdale finally feel free and hopeful about their future, Chillingsworth destroys their dream with a stab through their hearts, and freezes them to the core with the realisation that he will never let them escape from him.

(c) Shawn Bird.  Students, to avoid plagarism, cite this article as follows:

Bird, Shawn.  “Roger Chillingsworth: his value cools ardour!”…e-cools-ardour/  Collected (insert the date you copied the information)


Hester Prynne: the star of love February 17, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that authors choose their characters’ names very carefully, researching them like they would for their own children.  These offspring of the imagination need a name that edifies the reader about their traits, either in agreement or contradiction.

Last weekend I read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.  I haven’t read it since college, and although I remember the plot well enough that I was shocked and dismayed by the movie version a few years ago, I had lost some of the finer points.  Unfortunately, I didn’t finish reading until moments before book club, and I didn’t get a chance to do some of the research I’d like to have done on the characters’ names.  So I’ll do some of that exploration here.

The protagonist of the story, of course, is Hester Prynne.  Her name is delightfully symbolic, though I can’t say I’ve ever seen reference to this in any on-line study guides I’ve skimmed through.

Her first name, Hester, is Greek.  Like “Aster” it means Star.  This meaning opens up several possible interpretations.  A star is a beacon that guides the lost.   A star illuminates the darkness.  A star is unreachable.  A star cannot be hidden for long, even if it is covered by cloud, it is still above all, shining.  A star is forever burning.  A star can implode and suck others into the void.  A star inspires stories, music, and wishes.  Now consider the character of Hester and all the ways those things apply to her…

Her last name, Prynne, is not an accident either.  Although it doesn’t mean anything to us, to Hawthorne it would have been a classical Puritan choice, like naming a Mennonite character Friesen or Reimer.  William Prynne was a very famous Puritan leader and pamphleteer.  He lived in England and wrote denouncing the Church of England and its Archbishop Laud.  Over objections to some of his writings, he found himself in court a time or two, and managed to get his ears cut off as a disciplinary measure.  He was rather successful in his campaigns, however, because Archbishop Laud was executed.  Like William Prynne, Hester Prynne was punished publically, but challenged authority by bearing unapologetically the mark of shame, and thereby turning it into a badge of honour.

I ponder whether Hawthorne could have known the Sanskrit word prem, which is a homophone of Prynne?   Prem means love.  Seems pretty coincidental, doesn’t it? Hester Prynne was a star of love, blazing above her community, having flaunted the moral rules of the community by embellishing the token of sin and becoming a beacon and a talisman.

(c) Shawn Bird.  Students, to avoid plagiarism, cite this article as follows:

Bird, Shawn.  “Hester Prynne: the star of love”  Collected (insert the date you copied the information)

There are four posts on this blog about characters from The Scarlet Letter.  Click to see all four.


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