The mistress’s pearls are the focus of Duffy’s poem. As the maid is forced to wear the pearls each day, she is constantly reminded of her mistress, and the class divide between them. However, various symbols reveal the greater significance of the pearls as emblematic of the potential illicit relationship between maid and mistress.
In the first two stanzas, the pearls are a symbol of wealth and status. They are a decoration available to prosperous citizens to distinguish them from their subordinates. The possessive pronoun 'her' in the line 'Next to my own skin, her pearls' (1) emphasises the maid's economic separation from her mistress, having no claim on the pearls, despite their proximity.
The hierarchy created by the maid and mistress's disparity of wealth is emphasised in the maid's metaphor for the pearls: a rope. The statement ‘slack on my neck, her rope’ (8) suggests a master-slave relationship, or even the tethering of an animal. However, a ‘slack’ rope suggests the maid's lack of resistance: a willingness to remain bound to her mistress. This undermines the notion that the poem is solely antagonising the subject of inequality.
By the third stanza, the maid's erotic desire has become apparent as she declares her mistress is 'beautiful' (9) and fantasises about her as she lies 'in [her] attic bed' (9-10). The depiction of the pearls as ‘milky stones’ (12) is therefore ironic, as 'milk' connotes lactation. The 'milky stones' as a symbol of childbirth highlights the maid’s inability to provide the mistress with the objects of her ambition: a husband and a family. This contributes to the tone of frustration, which culminates in the declarative statement ‘I burn’ (24), as the maid is incapable of satisfying her illicit desire due to both social and economic restraints.
The question of the mistress reciprocating the maid’s desire remains ambiguous. As the maid’s ‘slow heat enter[s]each pearl’ (7-8), the mistress ‘fans herself’ (6). The inclusion of these phrases in the same sentence suggests a connection between the maid's action and the mistress's response. The maid’s sexual arousal implied by her ‘slow heat’ is transferred to the ‘pearl’. In this instance, the 'pearl' could symbolise the mistress, who is reciprocally aroused and attempts to cool herself with her fan.
Yet, there are numerous examples which suggest the maid’s desire is unrequited. In the symbol of the rope, for example, the adjective ‘slack’ suggests the mistress has little interest in ensuring her maid’s loyalty. The ‘slow heat [of the maid] entering each pearl’ through arousal is contrasted in the final stanza by the mistress's ‘cooling’ (22) pearls. As the pearls will supposedly be cold when they are returned to the maid in the morning, an absence of affection and desire is suggested. An instance similar to the ‘slow heat entering each pearl’ is the ‘soft blush seep[ing] through [the mistress’s] skin’ (14). However, rather than being evoked by arousal, the blush has to be physically forced by the maid as she 'dust[s]' (13) her mistress, pressing against her skin.
Symbolism allows the themes of social hierarchy and illicit desire to coexist in the poem, and contributes to the depiction of the maid’s frustration. The symbols exemplify the maid’s psychological condition, projecting her uncertainties and desires onto the dominant symbol of the poem: her mistress’s pearls.