After a minute Sarah seems recovered. She asks if she can finish her story. Varguennes left the next day, saying he would return, but she knew he was lying. She couldn’t lie to Mrs. Talbot about where she had been, and she couldn’t hide her despair. She told Mrs. Talbot that Varguennes was going to return to marry her. A month later he wrote to tell Sarah that he was married unhappily, and was still in love with her, but she told him she never wanted to see him again. She has hidden his marriage from everyone in order to be an outcast, as she must. Charles objects that if every woman who had been deceived were to act as she does, there would be outcasts everywhere. Sarah says there are, but the women are afraid to seem like outcasts.
Sarah admits that she has lied about her situation, which suggests she could lie again. Despite her despair and loneliness, she had the self-respect to refuse to accept a life as Varguennes’s second choice. Sarah argues that many women feel oppressed in similar ways to how she does, and many women are “fallen” but hide it in a way that she doesn’t. This idea of a common female experience of oppression is somewhat forward-thinking for a Victorian, belonging more to twentieth-century feminism. Sarah knows she can never fit in, so she’s decided to embrace being an outcast.
Charles remembers Dr. Grogan’s comment about patients who refuse to take medicine. He says that Sarah’s intelligence should allow her to overcome her circumstances. But before he can finish, she stands and goes to the edge of the bluff. Charles follows her, afraid she might jump. Her expression makes him think she regrets telling her story to someone so conventional. He apologizes and asks her to step back. She can tell he’s worried they’ll be seen, but she does step back.
Charles doesn’t realize that Sarah’s intelligence is, in fact, allowing her to overcome her circumstances—she just isn’t doing it in a way that he can recognize. She’s less of a victim than he thinks. This moment on the cliff edge initiates Charles’s continuous fear that Sarah will commit suicide, a fear that helps her bring him under her power.
Charles says that Sarah must leave Lyme. She replies that she would be leaving her shame behind, which she can’t do. She presses her finger on the thorn of a tree so that it bleeds. Charles asks why she refused to let Dr. Grogan help her, admitting that they talked about her. She says she didn’t choose to ask him for help. Charles points out that he and Dr. Grogan gave the same advice, and she has promised to follow it. She asks whether he still has the same advice, now he knows her story. He does. She asks whether he forgives her sin, but he says that it’s more important that she forgives herself. He thinks she’s done enough penance, and he forgives her. She replies that this means she can be forgotten.
Sarah defies all expectations, drawing comfort and strength from her shame rather than trying to get rid of it. Her self-mutilation on the thorn tree creates a visual image of this desire for others to recognize her pain. She seems to want to be seen in opposite ways to how others want to be seen; she doesn’t necessarily want anyone to forgive her because she needs some reason to be a known entity in society. If she’s not a tragic, fallen woman, she’s simply another unmarried governess who will easily fade to obscurity.
Sarah compares herself to the hawthorn tree, saying that it only offends people if it’s in the town, not here. Charles says that she can’t mean it’s her duty to offend society. Sarah replies that society wants her to go be lonely in another way, in another place. Charles says it will get her nowhere to question the justice of existence. He realizes that Sarah’s thoughts and feelings are so intimate with his own that they seem naked; he’s never been able to fathom such a thing in a relationship with a woman. He feels like it’s a waste that no man has seen how amazing she is.
Sarah doesn’t really believe that she’s done anything wrong; she knows that society is faulty, not her. Thus, she does seem, in some sense, to feel it’s her duty to offend society—only by making people uncomfortable can she help them see the problems with the conventions that have brought her down. Charles begins to feel about Sarah similarly to how Sam has recently felt about Mary: that they understand each other on some deeper level.
Sarah asks again whether Charles thinks she should leave. He says she must, and her friends will help her financially. She asks for a couple days to think about it. He concedes, saying that Mrs. Tranter must take charge now. Sarah seems about to cry, insisting she doesn’t deserve their kindness. Charles feels like he has succeeded. Sarah says she’ll go to Mrs. Tranter’s, and she won’t mention their meetings. Charles imagines how he’ll act in a detached way when he hears about Sarah’s visit. He tells Sarah that now that she’s shared her secret, her life will improve greatly. She seems slightly hopeful, and he suggests that they leave.
Though Charles has heard Sarah’s justifications for her actions, he hasn’t really understood them, because he’s unable to imagine himself into her situation. Thus, he’s still operating within his old conventional frame of reference, and he still thinks she should leave Lyme, despite the fact that her life revolves around staying there. Charles thinks of himself as a hero, Sarah’s savior, the wise and rational male. Sarah plays along, but her later actions suggest that she isn’t acting genuinely here.
Sarah leads the way down the bluff. Charles feels slight regret at the idea of not seeing her again, but he knows he’ll hear about her through Aunt Tranter. Suddenly, in the tunnel of ivy, they hear a woman’s laughter from the main path below. They stop. Charles is alarmed, but he can’t imagine they’ve been seen. Sarah creeps to the end of the tunnel and then beckons him on. They hear the laugh again, and it’s getting closer. Charles is blushing, realizing that they can give no good excuse for their meeting.
At this point, Charles truly believes that he and Sarah are parting for good—their story is over—and he’s not terribly affected by it. But he’s struck by the terrible irony of the idea that in this moment when he’s entirely ready to give her up, they could be caught together and the shame he feels he’s saved her from could be brought down on his own head.
Sarah stands against a tree, and Charles looks through the leaves to see Sam and Mary coming towards them, Sam’s arm around Mary. They’re clearly young lovers. Sam kisses Mary and they hold hands. They sit on a bank of grass, and Sam kisses her eyelids. Charles is embarrassed, but Sarah is looking at the ground. After a few minutes, Charles is relieved to realize that Sam and Mary aren’t paying attention to their surroundings. Sarah is watching them now, and she looks at Charles and does something terribly shocking—she smiles.
It’s sexuality that interrupts the neat ending that Charles imagines to his story of saving Sarah—the freer sexuality and more genuine love of the lower class characters. Though Charles is afraid of being seen with Sarah, he in fact becomes the voyeur, and it’s the gaze of Sarah herself that is turned on him and causes him embarrassment. It’s impossible not to imagine Sarah and Charles in Sam and Mary’s situation.
Sarah’s smile is incredibly complex; it seems like she’s been waiting for the right moment to throw it at Charles. It shows that she’s not completely miserable, and there’s irony in her eyes. They seem to ask, where are all the trappings of society now? The smile excuses Sam and Mary and undermines everything that’s happened between Sarah and Charles. It shows a much deeper understanding of their connection. Charles unconsciously smiles back, feeling strangely excited, as though he’s found a locked door.
Sarah’s smile in this moment suggests an unladylike comfort with sexuality. It also seems to reveal and strip away the pretenses of her interactions with Charles up until now, perhaps even retrospectively changing everything that’s happened between them and making it more sexual, less proper, though Charles has been so careful to tell himself it’s proper. This smile suggests that she wants them to be kissing like Sam and Mary.
After several moments, Sarah lowers her eyes, and Charles sees that he’s about to fall over a cliff. He knows that Sarah would reciprocate any embrace he initiated. He whispers that they must never meet alone again. She nods and turns away. Charles watches Sam bent over Mary, filled more and more with feelings he tries to reject. Suddenly Mary pushes Sam away and runs laughing down the hill. Sam runs after her, and they disappear into the forest. Five minutes of silence pass, with Charles avoiding looking at Sarah. He says she should leave, and he’ll wait half an hour. Only when she’s in the forest does she turn and look back with that same look that pierces Charles.
The oft-repeated metaphor of the cliff shows that Charles won’t be able to turn back once he’s given in to his desire for Sarah; not only will he have betrayed Ernestina, but he will have turned his back on the society that structures his life. Even by saying they must never meet again, Charles acknowledges the sexual tension between himself and Sarah. Watching Sam and Mary seems to show Charles what his love life could be like. For now, he resists temptation.