October 31st, 2012
As children prepare to go trick-or-treating tonight to celebrate Halloween–the evening before All Hallows (Saints’) Day–we have some suggested reading for the holiday: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Ethan Brand.” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) was born into an old, established New England family, and his great-great-grandfather, John Hathorne, was one of the judges who presided over the Salem Witch Trials. Enduring moral and religious questions, as they emerged in the life of the Puritans and their New England descendants, are the focus of many of Hawthorne’s writings, including his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter. His marvelously crafted stories also take us deeply into the American soul, with its dark motives, conflicting aspirations, and moral struggles. As such, many of his stories are wonderfully suited for Halloween.
In “Ethan Brand,” originally published in the Boston Weekly Museum in January 1850, Hawthorne tells the story of a lime-kiln worker, Brand, who, eighteen years before the story opens, sets off on his quest for the “Unpardonable Sin”–some act that will extend “man’s possible guilt beyond the scope of Heaven’s else infinite mercy.” In the story, Brand returns to the lime-kiln he left and discusses his (successful) journey with Bartram, the current worker, and Bartram’s son, Joe.
In an essay for The New Atlantis, What So Proudly We Hail co-editor Diana Schaub explains the significance of Brand’s quest:
Even the “dull and torpid” Bartram, unconsciously reminded of his own sins, begins to sense the horror of Brand’s “Master Sin.” Bartram’s fears take a conventionally supernatural shape, as he remembers the stories told about Ethan Brand: how he “conversed with Satan himself” and summoned a fiend from the furnace “to share in the dreadful task” of finding the sin that surpasses God’s understanding. What Bartram fails to understand is that Brand now regards himself as beyond good and evil. Thus, Brand rebukes him, saying: “what need have I of the devil? I have left him behind me, on my track. It is with such half-way sinners as you that he busies himself.” Whereas Bartram had been frightened by a heartfelt kinship based on universal human sinfulness, Brand denies the connection. On his reckoning, his sin is not of the same “family.” Asked by Bartram what “the Unpardonable Sin” is, he answers: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!” Brand speaks “with the pride that distinguishes all enthusiasts of his stamp” — a textual indication that Brand’s sin is perhaps not as special as he believes. His pride may indeed be the “Master Sin” (or the original sin), without being the “Unpardonable Sin.”
Nonetheless, there is a sense in which Brand’s sin, especially his self-murder, is unpardonable. One suspects that, for Brand, self-murder was a feasible substitute for the murder of all mankind. […] Through suicide, Brand murders the world he despises, along with the self. Moreover, suicide is a form of murder by which he willfully removes himself from the realm of remorse and redemption. Perhaps because it was understood as a declaration of the most profound and radical alienation, suicide was long punished under the civil law, and suicides were denied the solace of the church graveyard, populated with fellow sinners. […]
How did Ethan Brand arrive at this paroxysm of misanthropy? Hawthorne suggests a surprising genealogy, tracing the development of misanthropy out of philanthropy. We are told that Brand began with “love and sympathy for mankind,” and more especially with “pity for human guilt and woe.” Like the reformers of “Earth’s Holocaust,” [another Hawthorne story] he sought to free men from their burdens. In Brand’s case, it was human guilt in particular that he wanted to assuage or remove. The quest for the unpardonable sin was conceived as instrumental to that goal. While Hawthorne does not reveal the precise steps in Brand’s reasoning, we might speculate that Brand was led to the thought that men will be plagued by guilt so long as they believe in the need for divine pardon. If there were an unpardonable act, one might move beyond guilt, beyond good and evil, beyond God. What Hawthorne does tell us is that Brand’s quest (initially entered upon with reluctance) triggered a “vast intellectual development” that “disturbed the counterpoise between his mind and heart.” He becomes “a cold observer, looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment, and, at length, converting man and woman to be his puppets, and pulling the wires that moved them to such degrees of crime as were demanded for his study.” Whatever their crimes, they pale in comparison to Brand’s. It is he, the manipulator, who becomes “a fiend.”
Read Hawthorne’s story for yourself in this annotated edition at The New Atlantis, and then continue reading Diana Schaub’s essay, “From Hearth-Fires to Hell-Fires,” here.
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Tags: Diana Schaub, Halloween, Nathaniel Hawthorne