Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Unpardonable Sin

By Barna, Mark Richard | The World and I, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Nathaniel Hawthorne and the Unpardonable Sin


Barna, Mark Richard, The World and I


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)

ON EVERY VISAGE A BLACK VEIL

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. …

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