This metaphor evokes the fashionable craze for Egyptology that gripped the western world during Hawthorne’s time. For centuries, attempts to decipher hieroglyphs had amounted to almost nothing but with the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, scholars made vast leaps forward. By 1822, Jean-François Champollion had published the first accurate translation of hieroglyphs and established the grammatical structure that underpinned them. As a result, fascination with all things Egyptian swept the international stage.
In likening Pearl to a hieroglyph, not only does Hawthorne make her the living incarnation of the scarlet letter, he also evokes the sacred-profane dichotomy that surrounds it. Egyptian hieroglyphics reveal much about a belief system that would have been deemed heretical by Puritans, but the word hieroglyph itself comes from the Greek term for sacred carving. Thus Pearl becomes the sanctified embodiment of a form of blasphemy.
If you fancy seeing what your own name looks like approximately translated into Egyptian hieroglyphs, click here.