How does Hawthorne use Puritan guilt to shape his characters in The Scarlet Letter?
The sense of Puritan guilt rose from a belief that the words of the Bible were to be narrowly construed and that those words and beliefs were to guide the behavior and moral development of Puritans in their society. These communities were set up under the strict belief that it was sinful to misconstrue the words of God, and thus they sought to have only a singular interpretation of God's word. In addition to their religious beliefs, the Puritans were new colonists in America and struggling to make their home in a harsh environment. The Puritans had to stick together, and their common religion was their "glue." As a result, guilt was often used to make sure that the ties among Puritans remained firm as dissention threatened the stability of their new, small communities. From this belief, Hawthorne constructs his characters as being shaped by a sense of Puritan guilt. Dimmesdale is a strong example of this--his own guilt over having sinned and subsequently hiding his sin from the people in the community seems to eat at him from the inside, and the novel implies that he is literally eaten alive by his own guilt.