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The days of the far-off future would toil onward, still with the same burden for her to take up, and bear along with her, but never to fling down; for the accumulating days, and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame. (5.1)
Hester's punishment isn't to wear the scarlet letter for a year, or even five years: it's to wear it for the rest of her life, and—oh yeah—to be ostracized and shunned until the day she dies. Forgiveness doesn't even enter into it.
"Do you see that woman with the embroidered badge?" they would say to strangers. "It is our Hester, —the town's own Hester, —who is so kind to the poor, so helpful to the sick, so comfortable to the afflicted!" (13.3)
Great. Now that Hester's tending to the poor and sick, the townspeople are all, "Oh, look at our Hester!" Not that she still gets to come to church or gets invited to the Tupperware parties—we're not talking forgiveness, after all.
"The judgment of God is on me," answered the conscience-stricken priest. "It is too mighty for me to struggle with!"
"Heaven would show mercy," rejoined Hester, "hadst thou but the strength to take advantage of it." (17.43-44)
Let's say you've messed up. Really messed up—like, can't-even-talk-about-it messed up. Being forgiven can actually be harder than being punished, because you feel like you deserve something really bad. (Don't believe that it can mess with your head? Just ask this guy.)