So as every Batfan knows, pearls are the symbol of the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. They’re a repeated image in two Batman classics, The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, where Martha Wayne’s shooting results in her pearl necklace breaking and scattering across the ground. They show up in Batman Begins, given an especial emphasis by having Bruce remembering his father actually giving them to Martha.
So far, so good, right? Then we come to The Dark Knight Rises and Nolan actually does something new with the most famous iconography in comics. Selina Kyle, breaking into Wayne Manor and incidentally kickstarting Bruce Wayne back towards the suit, swipes the pearls while she’s getting his fingerprints. Bruce confronts her about it and says he can’t let her take them. As you might expect, he doesn’t really mind that someone’s stealing from him—it’s more that they’re his mothers’ pearls. But still, he’s not outraged either. He’s frosty. Cordial. The pearls don’t mean anything to him, not anymore, they’re something he’s irrationally holding onto. Deadweight.
The rest of the movie, we have characters telling Bruce about his deathwish, how he doesn’t have to keep being Batman, how he can have a happy life, but it isn’t until the finale that he truly accepts this. And the pearls are a perfect visual metaphor of that. While faking his death, Bruce takes the time to grab them—not for himself, but as a gift for Selina.
I’ve noticed some people asking what the point was of Catwoman in TDKR, since most of what her character did could’ve been accomplished by other characters in an admittedly overfull movie. But even though she was an engaging, entertaining character in her own right, her real importance to the story is in symbolism. If Bruce just faked his death and ran off to Italy, we’d have no way of knowing he wouldn’t become a hermit again or even be drawn into becoming Batman once more.
By showing him with Selina, we can see he’s taken the film’s lesson to heart. It’s not just that he lets go of the pearls, it’s that he gives them to Selina. He’s moving on. He’s releasing both the stigma of his parents’ murder and the fantasy of a romance with Rachel, something that never would’ve worked, something that was proven to be impossible; and proven again with Miranda Tate, a seemingly-similar character to Rachel, idealistic and comforting, but now twisted into a deathly apparition.
Selina is someone who can understand what he’s been through, because she’s been there herself. The idea of a lover as saintly redeemer is gone. Selina is Bruce’s partner and equal, as reiterated throughout the movie in both action and dialogue. And in the end, the pearls that were originally intended by Thomas Wayne as a gift for his wife come full circle. They’re not a symbol of death anymore. They’re not deadweight anymore. In giving them to Selina, Bruce once more gives them meaning. They are, again, a token of affection.