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For once, guided by Hester and not by Chillingworth, Dimmesdale can see the human element in his situation. He can offer himself a small measure of forgiveness.
Hester confirms Dimmesdale's judgment. But, as usual, she pushes the minister further than he is ready to go. "'What we did...'" she reminds him, "'had a consecration of its own. We felt it so! We said so to each other!'" Dimmesdale, frightened as much by Hester's audacity as by the memory of those heady days, tells her (not for the last time in the novel) to hush.
Hester and Dimmesdale sit quietly for a while, grateful for this brief respite in their troubles. The path lies before them back to the settlement where Hester must take up her burden of shame and Dimmesdale his life of hypocrisy. But not yet. They linger in the gray twilight of the forest, charmed by the novelty of letting go, of laying down the guards they carry before the world.
Dimmesdale is the first to break the spell. He comes back to reality with a start. What, he asks Hester, is he to do about Chillingworth? Now that he knows the physician's true identity, he can no longer live under the same roof with the man. But then, he sees no escape except to crawl under the leaves and die.
The deterioration in Dimmesdale becomes evident now. He is childish in his confusion, too weak to make the most basic decisions about life. He turns to Hester as a small boy might turn to his mother, placing all responsibility in her hands. "'Be thou strong for me,'" he pleads. "'Advise me what to do.'"
Hester is appalled by her lover's disintegration, but she accepts the opportunity his weakness provides. Perhaps she feels that if she cannot have a man, she can at least have her way. She starts to exercise what Hawthorne calls "a magnetic power" over Dimmesdale's shattered spirit.
Is Hester manipulating Dimmesdale and taking unfair advantage of his moral collapse? Or is she legitimately seeking to put heart into her lover? It is hard to be sure. Whatever Hester's purpose, she makes one of the most moving and eloquent speeches any woman has ever made to the man she loves.
Don't lie there and talk about dying, Hester tells Dimmesdale. Pick yourself up and go. Go out into the wilderness or over the sea to England, and build yourself a new life. Don't be deceived by this false appearance of doom. See farther, and see with my eyes. You say the forest track leads back to the settlement. Well, so it does. But it goes on from there. Deeper and deeper into the wilderness, until all signs of civilization vanish. There you will be free of Chillingworth and free, too, of the guilt that has been eating away at your heart.