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Nathaniel Hawthorne and the unpardonable sin.

During his leisure hours while serving as the American consul at the port of Liverpool, England, Nathaniel Hawthorne frequented the sites of Europe. One day in 1857, while attending an art exhibition in Manchester, he was informed by a friend that Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was present. Hawthorne already had achieved modest fame in both America and England with the publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850, so it is likely Tennyson would have enjoyed meeting the American novelist.

Hawthorne, however, refused to introduce himself or to be introduced; he chose instead to observe the poet laureate from afar. As Tennyson perused the gallery, Hawthorne watched him, later noting that the Englishman was dressed in black, a "picturesque figure" with "shy and secluded habits" and a "morbid painfulness in him, a something not to be meddled with." The voyeuristic Hawthorne concluded that he "liked him well,"(1) as well he should have, for Hawthorne saw in the figure of Tennyson a mirror of himself.

It is difficult to know what turns a man inward to the extent that the amenities of an introduction could strike a sort of terror to the heart. Nevertheless, this was the mien of Nathaniel Hawthorne. More an observer of life than a participant, the New Englander was morbidly shy and reclusive, and probably never would have married if not doggedly pursued by his wife. He also dressed in black, and often concealed his frame and face from onlookers by wearing a black cloak, perhaps as "a symbol of a fearful secret between him and them."

Indeed, from Melville to modern Freudians, Hawthorne's fearful secret has been the subject of speculation. But whatever it was and whatever were the factors that shaped his disposition, the novelist felt a deep sadness tinged with sympathy for the human condition. "If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough," says Hawthorne's Reverend Hooper, who throughout his adult life veiled his face with a black crape, "and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?"(2)


The Puritan colonialists were are that appearances deceive: the almsgiver, the churchgoer, the virtuous maiden, the upright minister, each may still be harboring beneath the sunshine musty and foul desires. The influential Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards wrote in 1758 that humankind is "born into the world with a tendency to sin, and to misery and ruin for their sin, which actually will be the consequence unless mere grace steps in and prevents it."(3)

Nothing sounds more alien to the modern ear than the above sentence. Even in Hawthorne's age the doctrine of original sin was beginning to sound like backwater theology. The new outlook was optimism, whether in the form of Emersonian Transcendentalism or in the materialistic strivings of the wide-eyed entrepreneur.

Hawthorne was suspicious of the optative mood gripping the nation and undercut it in his short stories and novels. In The Blithedale Romance (1852), Hawthorne laid bare the flaws of the associative communities springing up throughout New England and their goal of world reform. As a member of Brook Farm, the novelist witnessed firsthand how "godlike benevolence [was soon] debased into all-devouring egotism."(4) A disillusioned member says: "I suddenly found myself possessed by a mood of disbelief in moral beauty or heroism, and a conviction of the folly of attempting to benefit the world."(5)

In a short story by Hawthorne, Ethan Brand leaves his common life to begin a twenty-year search for the Unpardonable Sin. Upon returning, he watches a dog chase its tail. "Never was seen," Hawthorne wrote, "such headlong eagerness in pursuit of an object that could not possibly be attained."(6) The dog chasing its tail is symbolic of the futility of both the entrepreneur, in quest of satisfaction through material gain, and the self-absorbed intellectual Ethan Brand, in pursuit of self-knowledge.

It would be incorrect to say Hawthorne dissented from the spirit of the age by calling for a recrudescence of Puritan doctrine. In fact, the New Englander despised the Puritans' rigid dogma and intrusive social structure.

But Hawthorne was ill equipped to see the full breadth of the faith. The atrocities his direct ancestors perpetrated in the name of Puritan law tainted his view. His great-great-great-grandfather was a member of the General Court of Massachusetts. According to the old court records, which Hawthorne studied, a burglar was sentenced to have his ear cut off and a "B" branded on his forehead; after receiving thirty strokes, an adulteress had to stand in public wearing upon her bosom a paper with the words, "Thus I stand for my adulteress and whorish carriage." Hawthorne's great-great-grandfather was a judge at the Salem witch trials.

In his works and notebooks, the novelist dwelt extensively on the cruelty of the Puritans, sometimes to the point of morbid fascination. Indeed, throughout life he was an avid reader of sensational literature, such as the penny papers, similar to today's supermarket tabloids, and gory trial reports. Though he claimed to read them for story ideas, a part of him no doubt was drawn, as many of us are, to the lurid and freakish aspects of human nature described in this type of literature.

The knowledge of his own dark tendencies and those he saw in others led him to write: "In the depths of every heart, there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the lights, the music, the revelry above may cause us to forget their existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide."(7) Believing if not doctrinely in original sin then at least in what it suggests, Hawthorne was convinced that all people have a dark side, a tendency to sin. This is what Reverend Hooper means when on his deathbed he tells the townspeople: "I look around me, and lo! on every visage a Black Veil!"s

What makes Hawthorne so modern is that he took the Puritan doctrine and psychologized it. He did this by pointing out the dark motives--self-righteousness, quest for power--that lie beneath many outwardly benevolent actions. Even more disturbing, he at times suggested that our unconscious holds the strings that make us react like puppets, and that there is nothing we can do about it. In The House of the Seven Gables (1851), there is a scene in which two elderly people try to escape the gloomy mansion where they have lived for years as hermits. The mansion represents the ingrained injurious habits and damaged personality traits all of us exhibit to one degree or another. But as they stood at the doorway to freedom, for some unknown reason "their hearts quaked within them at the idea of taking one step further." (This may remind some readers of Luis Bunuel's great 1962 film masterpiece The Exterminating Angel.) As Hawthorne writes,

They could not flee; their jailer had but

left the door ajar, in mockery, and stood

behind it, to watch them stealing out.

At the threshold, they felt his pitiless

grip upon them. For, what other dungeon

is so dark as one's own heart! What

jailer so inexorable as one's self!(9)

Anyone who has repeatedly tried and failed to make a meaningful change in life can relate to this passage. One might say the passage is a secular version of the puritanical belief that we cannot save ourselves, that only God's grace can save us.


There has been a tendency among scholars since the 1950s to turn Hawthorne's best-known work, The Scarlet Letter, into a resurrection story, and a character in it, Arthur Dimmesdale, into a Christ-like figure. When on the scaffold the guilt-ridden Dimmesdale confesses his affair with Hester Prynne, a married woman, say these scholars, the minister's redemption in the eyes of God is complete. But this implies a happy ending to the novel, which contravenes Hawthorne, who called the book a "hell fired story, into which I found it almost impossible to throw any cheering light."(10) A more correct view of the general theme of The Scarlet Letter comes in a sentence that could have been the novel's epigraph: "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."(11)

The story begins with Hester holding her baby, Pearl, while standing on the scaffold in the marketplace to receive the derision of the townspeople. Embroidered upon her garment over her bosom is the letter "A," a symbol she is sentenced to wear the rest of her life. Dimmesdale is afraid to confess that he is the father of the child, and for seven years he acts the part of holy minister while within his guilt festers.

Because Hester arrived in Boston alone, Dimmesdale and the townspeople do not realize that the newly arrived town physician, Roger Chillingworth, is Hester's husband. A perceptive man, Chillingworth realizes Dimmesdale is the adulterer. But rather than reveal Dimmesdale, and his own identity as the wronged husband, he arranges to move in with the minister as his personal doctor. It is in such close proximity that Chillingworth psychologically torments Dimmesdale to, as the minister says in the scaffold confession, "keep the torture [of my guilt] always at red heat."(12)

Even after years of rejection and mockery by the community, a lonely Hester has not in her heart repented of her sin. She tries to convince the minister to flee with her and the child to Europe to begin a new life, to which Hawthorne interjects: "Shame, Despair, Solitude! These had been her teacher's,--stern and wild ones,--and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss."(13) Hester had not learned that guilt cannot be escaped by flight.

Dimmesdale, in his libidinal excitement, agrees to Hester's plan. He soon changes his mind, however, and in the climax to the novel confesses his sin on the scaffold with a chagrined Hester and little Pearl by his side. The minister, mentally and physically exhausted from his battle with guilt, then dies.

But has he been saved in the eyes of God? It is apparent that Dimmesdale thinks he has been; but Hawthorne likes to suggest the self-delusion of his characters. The minister's confession is laced with spiritual egotism. He calls himself "the one sinner in the world," negating the doctrine of original sin. So morbidly obsessed is he with his iniquity that he thinks it the center of the universe. "God's eyes beheld it] The angels were forever pointing at it! The Devil knew it well!" He even takes time to judge the wronged husband. "Thou too hast deeply sinned," he says to Chillingworth. And finally, Dimmesdale presumptively declares his confession a "triumphant ignominy,"(14) that God has saved him.

All of this suggests that the minister has not actually repented of his sin. Though he scourges himself in his study as penance, he still longs for Hester and, in the scaffold confession, sublimates his longing into religious fanaticism. A statement by Dimmesdale earlier in the novel is true until his death: "Of penance I have had enough! Of penitence, there has been none!"(15)

Chillingworth dies a few months later, destroyed by his obsession with revenge. Hester flees Boston only to return to place the "A" back on her bosom. Unable to escape her guilt by flight, she now begins "her penitence."(16)


F.O. Matthiessen says a great tragic writer "must be as far from the chaos of despair as he is from ill-founded optimism."(17) Based on my discussion of Hawthorne's work, it would appear the novelist's pendulum is stuck on despair. But like the great tragic writer Shakespeare, Hawthorne too allowed a few streaks of sunshine to play about the gloomy stage.

Hawthorne agreed with the Puritan colonialists that a person should practice self-awareness before searching out the sins of one's brethren. But this is easier said than done, for it is much easier to judge others than find fault in ourselves. In the short story "Young Goodman Brown" (1846), Hawthorne explores the effect on one's soul of projecting upon others one's own darkness. Through a pact with the Devil, Goodman Brown becomes obsessed with the supposed sins of the townspeople. Consequently, "a stern, a sad, a darkly meditative, a distrustful, if not a desperate man did he become." To use a word descriptive of many people today, Goodman Brown became a cynic. When he died, the townspeople "carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom."(18)

Before Ethan Brand began his search for the Unpardonable Sin, he was sympathetic toward the sufferings of humankind. But during the odyssey, though his intellect grew, his heart withered. Hawthorne makes passing reference to a girl Brand "made the subject of a psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process." Recklessly searching the inner sanctuary of others, Brand committed "the Unpardonable Sin," which Hawthorne defines in his journal as a "want of love and reverence for the Human Soul."(19) When a contrite Brand is asked if he had found the Unpardonable Sin, he said he had "and laid a finger on his own heart."(20)

Ethan Brand is just one of many Hawthorne characters that is a cold intellectual. Antebellum America was full of them, according to the novelist, from the man of science to the progressive spiritual thinkers like the Transcendentalists. Hawthorne also considered the old Puritan magistrates, the most learned members of the colonies, to be cold intellectuals. While Hester stood on the scaffold with her baby in her arms, the observing magistrates were, says Hawthorne, "the least capable of sitting in judgment on an erring woman's heart."(21)

Where is the hope for positive human change in Hawthorne's works? Admittedly, there is not much. For example, Brand, after realizing his want of love, does not resolve to open his heart; rather, he despairs that he can never recapture his sympathy and casts himself into the fires of a lime-kiln. In The Scarlet Letter, Dimmesdale dies a self-deluded man; Hester begins her penitence; Chillingworth dies angry and broken.

And yet in these stories there is something that may help the reader better understand human nature, and therefore themselves. In Dimmesdale's self-delusion, in Hester's dream of a normal family life, in Chillingworth's desire to get even, we discover our own self-delusions, impossible dreams, and anger at wrongs against us. And when Hawthorne writes of Ethan Brand--that he "was no longer a brother-man, opening the chambers or the dungeons of our common nature by the key of sympathy"(22)--we feel the accusation. We pity and forgive these characters because their foibles are so much our own.

None of these characters is one-dimensional. Dimmesdale does not seek to rekindle the affair with Hester and, like Brand, possesses a developed conscience that will not allow him to make light of his actions. Hester shows goodwill toward the poor and the sinful, and Chillingworth bequeaths to Pearl his legacy.

Hawthorne acknowledged that there is both good and evil in all of us. "This contrast, or intermingling of tragedy with mirth, happens daffy, hourly, momentarily."(23) And the best way to come to terms with this is not by judging others; it is by being self-aware of the frigid regions of our own heart. Only then may we avoid the error of Ethan Brand: "the infinite absurdity of seeking throughout the world for what was the closest of all things to himself, and looking into every heart, save his own."(24)

(1.) Quoted in Edwin Haviland Miller, Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press), 405.

(2.) Selected Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alfred Kazin, ed. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1983), 28.

(3.) Jonathan Edwards: Basic Writings, "Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended," Ola Elizabeth Winslow, ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1966), 228.

(4.) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (New York: W.W. Norton & Company), 66.

(5.) Hawthorne, Blithedale, 94.

(6.) Selected Short Stories, 231.

(7.) Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Haunted Mind," in The Oxford Book of Essays, John Gross, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 189.

(8.) Selected Short Stories, 33.

(9.) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1964), 146-47.

(10.) Quoted in Frederick Crews, The Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne's Psychological Themes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 144.

(11.) Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (New York: Bantam Books, 1986), 184.

(12.) Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 233.

(13.) Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 183.

(14.) Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 231-33.

(15.) Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 176.

(16.) Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 234.

(17.) F.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), 344.

(18.) Selected Short Stories, 111-12.

(19.) Quoted in Matthiessen, American Renaissance, 345.

(20.) Selected Short Stories, 224.

(21.) Hawthorne, Scarlet Letter, 60.

(22.) Selected Short Stories, 233.

(23.) Hawthorne, Seven Gables, 253.

(24.) Selected Short Stories, 224.

Mark Richard Barna is a freelance writer with a special interest in American literature of the nineteenth century. He lives in Berkeley, California.
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Date:Mar 1, 1998
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