The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne takes place in Puritan America, Boston Massachusetts. The Scarlet Letter tells the story of Hester a Puritan woman who commits adultery with a beloved reverend in Boston named Arthur Dimmesdale. Hester commits adultery because she believed her husband, Roger Chillingworth, to be dead for two years and falls in love with Dimmesdale. Hester is soon pregnant with a child and branded with a mark known as the scarlet letter, she gives birth to a baby girl in a prison cell and is named Pearl; the child is a great treasure to Hester however obtained at a great cost. Roger Chillingworth soon reappears in Boston having been captured by Native Americans during his absence and becomes infuriated at the acts Hester has committed and vows revenge on Hester's lover. The story consists of Hester coming to terms with her sin and keeping a watchful eye on Pearl who is believed to be the devil's child, Dimmesdale and his own guilty conscience that eats away at his body and leads to his eventual death, and Chillingworth's revenge against Dimmesdale which destroys him and makes him lose his humanity. However an important element of the story is how Puritan society is in fact a contributor to the hardships faced by Hester, Dimmesdale and Pearl which is evident throughout the novel.
Reverend Dimmesdale is revered by many of the townspeople as a holy citizen however he has one unholy secret and that is he had committed adultery with Hester Prynne and is the father of Pearl. Dimmesdale's status leads to him feel guilty about his acts and ashamed that a man as holy as him would be committing an act of this degree. Dimmesdale's fear of God and what the public might do to him leads Dimmesdale to bottle up all of his guilt; this destroys Dimmesdale spiritually and physically. "In Mr. Dimmesdale's secret closet, under lock and key, there was a bloody scourge. Oftentimes, this Protestant and Puritan divine had pled it on his own shoulders; laughing bitterly at himself the while, and smiting so much more pitilessly because of that bitter laugh. It was his custom, too, as it has been that of many pious Puritans, to fast - not, however like him, in order to purify the body and render it the fitter medium of celestial illumination."(pg 160) This illustrates the Puritan ethic that a person who commits an act against God will not be forgiven unless they prove they are truly sorry by ridding themselves of sin through means of humiliation and torture. Dimmesdale being horrified of public humiliation he would receive develops overwhelming stress, fasts, and even lashes himself to prove himself to God but is not enough in his eyes and his body continues to decay until his death. This exhibits the Puritan's fanatically obsession with penance and the extremes they will go through to atone themselves despite it being detrimental to themselves.
Hester Prynne in the novel before her branding with the Scarlet Letter was that of a loving tender woman who had become a bare and harsh outline of her former self. "All the light and graceful foliage of her character had been withered up by this red-hot brand, and had long ago fallen away, leaving a bare and harsh outline." (pg 179) Many of the townspeople note this change in Hester which they attribute to the Scarlet Letter, believing that the punishment worked making Hester contemplate her sin. However this actually does not make Hester contemplate her sin but instead conjure thoughts of suicide. "At times, a fearful doubt strove to possess her soul, whether it were not better to send Pearl to Heaven, and go herself to such futurity as Eternal Justice should provide (pg 182). This illustrates that Puritan punishment was ineffective and that the humiliation and ostracism against Hester did not make her spiritually better but instead crushed her and makes her contemplate her meaning in life. Pearl also in the novel is affected by Puritan ethics, she is consistently throughout the novel judged by the townspeople for being the daughter of "its father's guilt and mother's shame"(pg126). This leads to adults looking down on her without getting to know who she truly is and consistently view her as a demon.
Puritan culture was flawed in many ways and one of them was their forms of punishment. Puritan ethics taught of penance in the forms of humiliation and other mild forms of torture. "The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teachers- stern wild ones- and they made her strong, but taught her much amiss."(pg220). Although this quote refers to Hester it can be applied to any woman and man that although these punishments were used to teach sinners of wrong doing they hurt more than they cured. These extremes of punishment would have made people even less willing to follow Puritan laws.
The Puritan belief system largely contributed to the demise of Hester and Dimmesdale. In Hester's case the public's scrutiny against her left her depressed and feeling that there was no one who could sympathize with her besides Dimmesdale who was too afraid to actually bear the sin with her publicly. This leads to Hester becoming harsh and a completely transformed person losing faith in Puritanism and the people of Boston. Dimmesdale suffered because of Puritanism because his status as a reverend made him too insecure about his sin he bottles it up in hopes not betray the townspeople who think of him so highly. However his guilt of public scrutiny leads him to fast and beat himself as a way of repentance. The Puritan's ideal religious society is one of harsh punishment and unforgiving in nature. This is evident with Hester and her ostracism from Boston. This belief also strikes fear into people including Dimmesdale who is too afraid to make public his sin because of the consequences and instead bottles it up causing his downfall. Had Puritan teachings been more compassionate it would have saved Dimmesdale's, Hester's and Pearl's future together.