By Any Other Name

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By Any Other Name

Emily Feenstra

The pearl is the oldest gem known to man. It is a symbol of perfection and beauty, and was believed to contain magical powers by the Aztecs and Incas. In Latin, pearl literally means "unique" (American Museum of Natural History). In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, the character of Pearl encompasses all of these descriptions. She is unique, resembling neither of her parents and no normal child, and she is connected with magical powers by the many names she is called, including "witch" and "demon." Pearl is a curiosity. Her uniqueness reverses the roles between parents and children, and makes her both a witch and a ruby, a demon and a pearl. It is this uniqueness, this drastic difference from her parents, which ultimately allows her to leave behind her evil character and become a pearl in the sweetest sense of the word.

Her mother, Hester Prynne, is a woman of great piety and sense, save for the moment that created Pearl. She obeys all rules and laws, and is a better citizen of Boston than any other. Pearl contains none of these characteristics. She is contained by no law or religion, and cares not for others, except her own mother. The most striking aspect of their relationship is the reversal of roles between mother and child that occurs. "Heart-smitten at this bewildering and baffling spell, that so often came between herself and her sole treasure, whom she had bought so dear, and who was all her world, Hester sometimes burst into passionate tears," upon which Pearl would show unsympathizing discontentment, laughter, or grief of her own (85). A mother does not normally cry in front of her child; rather, a child cries and is comforted by her mother. It is strange to see Pearl have to react to her mother's tears, because young children never see their mothers cry. Hester cries like a child, and Pearl reacts unlike the child that she is. Further on, the reversal is more distinct when children fling mud at Hester and Pearl. Where a mother would normally scold the children to make them stop, it is Pearl who "made a rush at the knot of her enemies, and put them all to fight. She screamed and shouted, too, with a terrific volume of sound, which, doubtless, caused the hearts of the fugitives to shake within them" (94). Hester stands and bears it, while Pearl forces the children to stop. And, once they stopped, she "returned quietly to her mother, and looked up, smiling, into her face," as if proud of herself for protecting her mother (94). A mother is usually the protector, and her child the object of her protection. Even with wild animals, a mother bear is even more aggressive than usual in her desire to protect her offspring. But with Hester and Pearl, Pearl is the protector of her mother. Pearl is so unlike her mother that she seems to hardly even need her. Pearl has more fire, more defiance, and more determination than Hester seems to have ever had.

If Pearl overpowers her mother's personality, she makes her father look like an empty jar. Reverend Dimmesdale is a weak, feeble, deeply religious, unconfident coward. He is constantly punishing himself for his act of adultery. He whips himself with a "bloody scourge," and fasts till "his knees trembled beneath him" (133). Where Dimmesdale finds a prison of guilt, Pearl finds, as Dimmesdale himself describes, "the freedom of a broken law" (123). Pearl cares not for the laws of the land or the laws of the Lord, while Dimmesdale is deeply and irreversibly connected to both. He hides his guilt from the village and punishes himself privately, cowardly, while Pearl frolics about the village unabashedly a symbol of a broken law. One night, when Dimmesdale wanders onto the scaffold in the middle of town, Hester and Pearl find him there. He takes Pearl's hand in his, and she asks him, "Wilt thou stand here with mother and me, tomorrow noontide?" (140). Somehow she has observed that he is the other guilty party, that Dimmesdale and her mother are guilty of the same crime, and asks him to face up to it. By him to appear on the scaffold with them in daylight, she is asking him to peel away his cowardice and admit his wrong as her mother did. When he refuses, her reaction is an accusation. She yells, "Thou wast not bold!-- thou wast not true!" (144). She realizes his cowardice and his guilt, and becomes angry. Much like with her mother, she is so unlike her father that Pearl reverses the roles. Where a parent would normally scold his child, Pearl scolds her father. Although he is the reverend and she is the child of a sin, she sees the right thing to do more easily than he does.

Where her father is weak and cowardly, Pearl is strong and bold; where her mother is pious and sensible, Pearl cares not for religion and shows little sentiment. She is a perfect contrast to her parents. Even in comparison with other children, Pearl makes no sense. She shows no innocence or inhibitions, and cares not for the company of other children. Her character can be observed through the many different names she is given throughout the book. In play, she is called an elf; by the neighboring townspeople, she is called demon offspring; by Mr. Wilson, she is called both a ruby and a witch; and by Chillingworth, she is called evil (89,91,101,107,123). Except for ruby, none of these names profess goodness or beauty. And yet, Pearl has her moments of goodness. She protects her mother from the children flinging mud, and tries to convince Dimmesdale to admit his guilt. She is always described as beautiful, especially in the fine clothes Hester sews her. Perhaps the best name for her, an umbrella name under which all of these descriptions are true, is her real name: Pearl. A pearl is opaque; no one can see inside of it, just as no one can understand the thoughts of Pearl. It reflects other colors, but in a blurry way that distorts the image. Likewise, Pearl reflects her mother's beauty, but all of her mother's personality characteristics are distorted. What is more, a pearl is hidden inside an oyster until it is pried open. In this comparison, the guilt of her father acts as the oyster that keeps her from showing her goodness. Pearl acts as a demon or witch while she tries to get Dimmesdale to admit his guilt. Once he more or less confesses, Pearl is unveiled; she becomes free from the scandal. The opened pearl shows its beauty, and Pearl escapes the gloom of Boston for a life of rich luxury and a family of her own in Europe.

The last question of Pearl is the question of her inheritance. Why does Chillingworth give Pearl all of his wealth? He is not related to her, and it is her existence that proves the adultery committed by his wife. In a narrow view, he should hate Pearl, hate her for representing the love forged between his wife and another. My explanation is twofold. One possibility is that he loves her for revealing the adultery. She proves the act. Without her, he would never know his wife had been unfaithful, and could never have gotten his revenge. As Chillingworth's revenge becomes his life, in a sense Pearl gives him the meaning of his life, the meaning of his revenge. But another possibility is simply that he sees in Pearl an evil like his own. He can relate to her, and can relate to her goal of getting Dimmesdale to confess. No matter which possibility, if either, is his reasoning, or if both had their influences, Chillingworth gives Pearl the opportunity to escape the village, an opportunity that Hester never took, and that Dimmesdale never had. Because of him, Pearl becomes the only character who takes hold of her fate and escapes a village of oppression.

Born from a moment of overwhelming and sinful passion, Pearl is unlike either of her parents, unique as the pearl for which she is named, and described by the townspeople as being more like the evil of that moment than anything else. She is difficult to understand, for she lives a life without inhibitions and without a care for rules or laws, qualities that make her appear evil or witchlike, but she also has qualities that are good. Her boldness protects and tries to help her parents, and she is more honest than most of the people of the village. While they all hide their sins, she wears hers on her sleeve. And finally, she is the only person bold enough to change her fate. Instead of staying in Boston, to be viewed her entire life as a child born from sin, she moves to Europe and begins a life with more freedom than she ever could have had in America. While it remains questionable why Chillingworth gave her his inheritance, it is this action that helps free her from the darkness and evil she held within herself in Boston. Pearl sheds her evil names of demon and witch, and becomes uniquely Pearl.

Works Cited
American Museum of Natural History. "Pearls." . 26 March 2006.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Bantam Books. New York: 1986.

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