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If Hawthorne is critical of Hester, he is much rougher on Dimmesdale. For running away from his responsibilities, the minister has not a shadow of an excuse. Unlike Hester, Dimmesdale has never been left to his own moral devices. The best we can say of him is that-weakened by guilt, confused by remorse-he chooses open flight over a life of sham.
What are we to make of this tidy moral lecture thrust into the middle of the forest scene? Some readers simply dismiss it. Hawthorne, they say, is really on the lovers' side, but he's worried about offending the tender sensibilities of his Victorian readers. So he throws in this little critique of illicit passion just to be on the safe side.
Other readers latch on to this moral lecture as the meaning of the forest scene. However attractive Hawthorne finds the romantic option, they say, he knows it is wrong. Look: Hawthorne expresses his opinion clearly-in black and white- just so there won't be any mistake.
Still a third group of readers sense a split in Hawthorne himself. The artist in Hawthorne-the Romantic half, let us say- sympathizes with the lovers and recognizes the claims of emotional intensity. But the moralist in Hawthorne-or the Puritan half-believes that passion justifies nothing and that giving into it is sin.
You will have to decide where you think Hawthorne stands, weighing the drama of the forest scene against the didacticism, the force of the lovers' passion against their perilous moral position. But not just yet, for Hawthorne has returned to his story.
We rejoin the narrative to find Dimmesdale lifted up on a wave of joy. Surely, he feels, such happiness must have a blessing on it. He has flung himself down, "sin-stained" and "sorrow- blackened" on a bed of leaves. Now he has "risen up, all made anew." The minister feels, in the language of fundamentalist sects, born again - but in love, not in Christ.
Dimmesdale uses religious terms to express his sense of exhilaration. Hester, as we might expect, has a different method. She unpins the scarlet letter from her dress and tosses it toward a nearby stream. (The letter, we note for future reference does not quite make the water. It lands on the bank of the stream.) Hester's gesture is a proclamation: The past is dead and the slate is wiped clean. "'With this symbol, I undo it all,'" she says, "'and make it as it had never been!'"