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Were such a man once more to fall, what plea could be urged in extenuation of his crime? None; unless it avail him somewhat, that he was broken down by long and exquisite suffering; that his mind was darkened and confused by the very remorse which harrowed it; that, between fleeing as an avowed criminal, and remaining as a hypocrite, conscience might find it hard to strike the balance; that it was human to avoid the peril of death and infamy, and the inscrutable machinations of an enemy; that, finally, to this poor pilgrim, on his dreary and desert path, faint, sick, miserable, there appeared a glimpse of human affection and sympathy, a new life, and a true one, in exchange for the heavy doom which he was now expiating. (18.4)
Here, Dimmesdale is deciding whether or not to run off with Hester, choosing between being an "avowed criminal" and a "hypocrite." Obviously, we decides to remain a hypocrite—but it's close to a toss-up.
She had wandered, without rule or guidance, in a moral wilderness; as vast, as intricate and shadowy, as the untamed forest, amid the gloom of which they were now holding a colloquy that was to decide their fate. (18.2)
Living with her guilt for seven years has taught Hester a thing or two about life—like, if your community just wants to blame you, maybe they don't have all the answers. Coincidentally, at this moment we see Hester in the middle of a literal forest as well as a metaphorical one.
And be the stern and sad truth spoken, that the breach which guilt has once made into the human soul is never, in this mortal state, repaired. It may be watched and guarded; so that the enemy shall not force his way again into the citadel, and might even, in his subsequent assaults, select some other avenue, in preference to that where he had formerly succeeded. But there is still the ruined wall, and, near it, the stealthy tread of the foe that would win over again his unforgotten triumph. (18.4)
Once guilty, always guilty. That's the kind of idea that leads to hit musicals and unstable communities. Without a concept of forgiveness and redemption, it's too easy to keep on sinning.