Hawthorne and the Unpardonable Sin - 4/8/08

As an American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne was keenly aware of the status of the United States as a young country. He was also a New Englander, and knew the region's Puritan history well. Though he was writing in a period some time after the Puritan way of life had vanished, he was able to inject many of his stories with a sort of Puritan mystique that fascinated him. He did not particularly agree with many of their practices or beliefs, but still found ample fodder in their religious heritage to combine with his own views to create rich stories of moral ambiguity. In particular, he found that the idea of the "Unpardonable Sin" was fascinating, and attempted to explore it in many of his writings. His short stories "The Man of Adamant" and "Ethan Brand," along with his longer romances The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, all demonstrate his fascination with the Unpardonable Sin, and the ruinous effect it has on people.
            The "Unpardonable Sin" in Hawthorne's works can be defined as the rejection of both human kind and the ability to share kindness with each other. In some instances, it can also be thought of as the objectification of humans. Typically, a character appears that believes he is better than others, or at least apart from them due to some higher moral obligation. He believes his vain quest to be so important that he will shun the affection and attention of others to achieve his goal.  It does not particularly matter what he is searching for; all that matters is the consequences of human rejection, which the character suffers after his quest fails. While the Unpardonable Sin has its foundations in religion, Hawthorne's exploration of it, most of the time, is not particularly religious. While he was a religious man, his primary interest was the interaction between people that did not involve religious sentiment. Since he rejects self-reliance and is skeptical of man's goodness, the Unpardonable Sin has a place in his writing because he does not believe people can achieve it without dire consequences.
            "The Man of Adamant" is a prime example of Hawthorne's use of the Unpardonable Sin. Richard Digby wanders away from his town and decides to dwell in a cave because he believes he is the sole human being who knows truth through God's word. Instead of attending church service with everyone else, he thinks that he is above them and knows the absolutely correct way to worship. He believes, as Hawthorne describes, "that Providence had entrusted him, alone of mortals, with the treasure of true faith" (421). He seeks no one else's approval and does not wish to be interfered with. As he turns his back on the town, he even wishes its destruction, hoping it will be "consumed is the storm of fire and brimstone, or involved in whatever new kind of ruin is ordained for the horrible perversity of this generation" (Hawthorne 421).
            On his journey, he "pray[s] to himself," until he finally stumbles upon a "tomb-like den." As Hawthorne says, "If Nature meant this remote and dismal cavern for the use of man, it could only be, to bury in its gloom the victims of a pestilence, and then to block up its mouth with stones, and avoid the spot forever after" (422). However, Digby takes it as a sign from God that he has found such a solitary and quiet spot for his brand of worship. Here, he thinks, he "can offer up acceptable prayers, because [his] voice will not be mingled with the sinful supplications of the multitude" (422). Digby shuns human interaction, yet does not realize that it is necessary for his survival. If his assumptions about knowing the only way to connect with God are true, then he should be sharing his knowledge with others instead of keeping it to himself.
            In true Hawthornean fashion, Digby's head is not in line with his heart. Hawthorne describes the way in which Digby has a predisposition for a stony heart that turns him away from his brethren:

It was a deposition of calculous particles within his heart, caused by an obstructed circulation of the blood, and unless a miracle should be wrought for him, there was danger that the malady might act on the entire substance of the organ, and change his fleshy heart to stone. (423)

Of course, Digby pays no heed to any advice from "skilful physicians," or the notice that anyone else has given to this malady. Instead, he is contented sitting in his cave and drinking the water that drops from the ceiling, or, "his own destruction," for a few days. During these few days he reads the Bible aloud and most likely starts to go slightly crazy. When an angel, Mary Goffe, appears to him and says that she has brought a cure from a "great Physician," he scoffs at her and rejects her entreaties for him to rejoin his community. All hope is lost for him, and he drops dead as soon as he says, "Tempt me no more, accursed woman… lest I smite thee down also! What hast thou to do with my Bible? - what with my prayers? - what with my Heaven" (Hawthorne 426). His heart finally turns to stone ultimately due to the fact that he has rejected not only human sympathy but has objectified the entire human race as heathen sinners.
            Digby is not the only one of Hawthorne's characters with a heart of stone due to the Unpardonable Sin. While he Digby is rash and selfish, Ethan Brand from "Ethan Brand" actually goes on a quest for the Unpardonable Sin. The story picks up where he has been away for many years, and finally returns to where he once lived. A man and his son inhabit Brand's house now, tending to his limekiln. When he appears, they think he is drunk or crazy. When the man asks Brand where the sin lies, Brand points to his heart and says "Here!," before laughing maniacally. Indeed, the sin lies within him, because he has sought the ultimate knowledge of evil. His quest was a prideful one, as he explains, "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" (Hawthorne 1057).
            Brand believes himself above those around him because he has sought the ultimate knowledge. In his pursuit, he has forgotten what it means to be human. It turns out that Brand had perhaps encountered a girl from the village near the house, and had made her "the subject of a psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process" (Hawthorne 1060). This is the closest Hawthorne comes to revealing what the Unpardonable Sin actually is. He leaves it to the reader to imagine exactly what horrible things Brand has done in the name of his quest. Regardless, that little matters. Brand's rejection of human emotion and his quest for the ultimate sin have cemented within him the final human evil. He says he has found what the sin is, and knowing something absolutely puts him above God and above other men, and he must perish because of it. There is no way for him to live with such evil, as some things should never be known.
            Brand was once an ordinary man. In solitary fashion, he had once sat around his fire to

contemplate those ideas which afterwards became the inspiration of his life; with what reverence he had then looked into the heart of man, viewing it as a temple originally divine, and however desecrated, still to be held sacred by a brother; with what awful fear he had deprecated the success of his pursuit, and prayed that the Unpardonable Sin might never be revealed to him. (1064)

However, after having so much time to think for so long, his mind begins to wander. He becomes enormously curious and starts to think too much. His mind takes hold of him while his heart dwindles; it "ha[s] ceased to partake of the universal throb" (1064). He becomes a "cold observer," never again to assimilate back into the human race. Like Roger Digby, he rejects the good of others in favor of a solitary quest for something that he thinks is better than any human relationship. This presumption leads him to destruction, and like Digby, his heart had turned to stone.
            Hawthorne tends to avoid such obvious imagery in his longer, later works, but the idea of the Unpardonable Sin still pervades them. In The House of the Seven Gables, the theme underlies the entire story and explains many of he occurrences throughout it. It is perhaps most important in explaining how the Pyncheon family comes into possession of their land. The Pyncheon land originally belongs to a man named Matthew Maule, and is considered the best land in town because of a natural well. Colonel Pyncheon, the family patriarch, accuses Maule of being a witch, which is an accusation not to be taken lightly in Puritan times. This accusation leads to Maule's execution, before which, he curses the Pyncheons. Colonel Pyncheon, being the upper crust of society, assumes that he can get away with murder, and this is his Unpardonable Sin. His lack of sympathy for Maule, as well as his objectification of him simply as someone in the way, brings about certain death for the Colonel, who is found later with blood all over his neck.
            Other members of the Pyncheon family meet their demise in a similar way to the Colonel's. While Maule's curse seems to bring about the deaths of many family members, it is really left to the reader to establish why the various Pyncheons die unexpectedly. Their deaths are more of a metaphor for their mistakes, and everyone that dies is particularly greedy and guilty of the Unpardonable Sin. There is the death of Gervayse Pyncheon, who cares so much about striking a deal with the grandson of Matthew Maule over a land deed, that he inadvertently lets his daughter, Alice, fall under Maule's spell. Maule is able to control Alice, which eventually leads to her untimely death. Jaffrey Pyncheon, who seems like an upstanding citizen, keeps a dark secret that leads to his destruction. When he was young, he had found his father dead in the same manner as the Colonel. Blaming his brother, Clifford, for the death, Jaffrey also commits the Unpardonable Sin. It is Clifford who is innocent of the family's curse of greed and corruption, and he eventually realizes that, "Matthew Maule, the wizard, had been foully wronged out of his homestead, if not out of his life" (Hawthorne 370).
            The Pyncheon family, through their greed and selfishness, commit the Unpardonable Sin through the generations, because of the "absurd delusion of family importance, which all along characterized the Pyncheons" (Hawthorne 367). In a way, the Maule curse seems to be a scapegoat for the circumstances regarding the various deaths in the family. A better explanation is left for the reader to decide, but it seems that Hawthorne is trying to communicate the fates of those that commit the Unpardonable Sin. It is only Clifford who turns out to be a respectable Pyncheon male, because he realizes the errors his family has committed. Therefore, he is wrongfully and traitorously punished early in the novel, but it is due to the greed of Jaffrey, and not his own shortcomings. Though he suffers for most of his life, Clifford, along with his sister Hepzibah, are able to make amends with the Maule family because they are kind people, and not bound by the evil ambitions of former generations.
            In a way, the majority of the plot of The Blithedale Romance is an exercise in committing the Unpardonable Sin. After all, it seems that everybody that goes to live on a commune is separating himself or herself from society. Even Hawthorne, who lived on a commune for a while, finally denounced it. However, the idea remains that a commune is a place where people help each other, if only exclusively away from the conventional standards of modern society. The paradoxical nature of the commune is explored somewhat in The Blithedale Romance. For the most part, the characters are well meaning, but the exception is Hollingsworth. In his quest to do what he thinks right, he alienates almost everyone he knows.
            When the story begins, Hollingsworth seems to be a man of integrity and conviction. Coverdale, the narrator, takes a great liking to him and talks of him in an admirable way. However, it starts becoming clear that Hollingsworth is looking for something more than life on an experimental commune. He talks often of plans to construct an asylum where he could reform prisoners. This appears to be a commendable idea, but Hollingsworth is too blind to see that he is hurting people in trying to achieve his goal. Coverdale and Hollingsworth, after initially being good friends, separate one day when Coverdale refuses to help Hollingsworth with his plan. Coverdale asks him at one point, "have you no regrets, in overthrowing this fair system of our new life, which has been planned so deeply, and is now beginning to flourish so hopefully around us?" (Hawthorne 748). Hollingsworth replies that he sees through the system, and that "there is not human nature in it!" (Hawthorne 748). Hollingsworth makes it clear to Coverdale that he can only be with him or against him. His ultimatum to Coverdale is one of one-sided thinking: "What I desire to know of you is... whether I am to look for your cooperation in this great scheme of good." (Hawthorne 749). Coverdale refuses, even at the expense of losing what once was a good friend, because he sees the dark path that Hollingsworth is being drawn down by his self-righteousness.
            Concordant with Coverdale's suspicion, it later becomes clear that Hollingsworth is using Zenobia to get at her money. During the conversation between the two, Coverdale observes, "it could only be her wealth which Hollingsworth was appropriating so lavishly" (Hawthorne 748). Hollingsworth wants to build his reformation center on the site of the commune. He believes his task is so righteous that nothing can stand in his way. It is true that Hollingsworth and Zenobia become partners, but what kind of love really exists between them is unknown. It is more apparent that he is using Zenobia for other ends. Hollingsworth lets nothing stand in his way. He does not care about the community, or Coverdale, or Zenobia for that matter. Even when Coverdale asks him what is to happen to Zenobia's sister, Priscilla, Hollingworth explodes at him, saying, "Why do you bring in the names of these women? What have they to do with the proposal which I make you?" (Hawthorne 750)

In the fashion of the Unpardonable Sin, Hollingsworth rejects almost every possible human relationship there is: friends, community, and partners. He not only brings about his own fall, but also ends up destroying Zenobia in the process. In the final confrontation between Hollingsworth and Zenobia, she points out that, "because Coverdale could not quite be your slave, you threw him ruthlessly away. And you took me too, into your plan, as long as there was hope of my being available, and now fling me aside again, a broken tool!" (Hawthorne 822). She drowns herself, because Hollingsworth loves Priscilla, and not her. Surprisingly, Hollingsworth does not die as a consequence of his sinful behavior. However, he is a broken man by the end of the story, with only Priscilla by his side. His rejection of those who loved him was his Unpardonable Sin. Coverdale sums it up most brilliantly when he says to Hollingsworth,

cannot you conceive that a man may wish well to the world, and struggle for its good, on some other plan than precisely that which you have laid down? And will you cast off a friend, for no unworthiness, but merely because he stands upon his right, as an individual being, and looks at matters through his own optics, instead of yours? (Hawthorne 751).

Hawthorne's "Unpardonable Sin" can be found is many more of his works. It was a fascinating topic for him to explore, and to open up the imaginations of readers. His definition is flexible, but he believes such a sin is one that is completely devoid of human relations, sympathies, and compassion. "Ethan Brand" is his most literal work about it, in which the Unpardonable Sin is actually mentioned, but the other stories rely heavily on the human capacity for evil just as well. The sin of each of the characters is the rejection of human kind, the inability to share goodness with each other, and the objectification of fellow men. The same is true for Roger Digby as it is Ethan Brand, the dead Pyncheons, and Hollingsworth. Their quests for greater things destroy them, and many of those around them. If they would allow themselves to let others in, and to share their knowledge and feelings, perhaps the consequences of their actions would not be so dire.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Ethan Brand." Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches.
12th Edition. Eds. William Charvat, et al. Ohio State UP: 2007. 1051-1067.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Man of Adamant." Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches.
12th Edition. Eds. William Charvat, et al. Ohio State UP: 2007. 421-429.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The House of the Seven Gables." Hawthorne: Collected Novels.
12th Edition. Eds. William Charvat, et al. Ohio State UP: 2007. 347-629.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Blithedale Romance." Hawthorne: Collected Novels.
12th Edition. Eds. William Charvat, et al. Ohio State UP: 2007. 629-849.