Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Hawthorne and Sin

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Hawthorne and Sin

Article excerpt

[This solicited essay is published with the kind permission of its author, Henry James Professor of English and American Letters and University Professor at New York University, who presented it on 29 December 2002 at a session in his honor arranged by the Conference on Christianity and Literature for the 118th MLA Annual Convention. On the preceding day CCL recognized Professor Donoghue with its Lifetime Achievement Award, as described in the "News and Announcements" section of this issue.--Ed.]


When I first read The Scarlet Letter, I found it bewildering. That impression has not entirely receded, but I think I understand how it came about and why it has to some extent persisted. The title of the book implied a story about sin, a scarlet woman, and indeed the book often refers to sin and sinfulness; none of the characters, however, has a convinced sense of sin. Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to equivocate among the values he brings forward. I acknowledge, without regarding the acknowledgment as a major concession, that my understanding of sin is the one I was taught in Catholic elementary and secondary schools in Northern Ireland. In the Christian Brothers School in Newry, where I was a day pupil, I was instructed that a sin is "any thought, word, or deed contrary to the Law of God." A mortal sin is "a thought, word, or deed which violates one of the essential prescriptions of God's law, and results in the loss of His friendship and of sanctifying grace" (Kelly 25). By committing a grave sin I break my relation to God, which remains ideal, an axiom of faith, till it is activated by prayer and the sacraments, especially penance and the Eucharist. I estrange myself from God in the most drastic way by committing a mortal sin. Three conditions are required that a sin be mortal: "grave matter, full advertence to what one is doing (perfect knowledge), and full consent of the will" (Kelly 26).

When I left secondary school, I went to Dublin as an undergraduate student at University College. There I exacerbated my sense of sin by reading with notable intensity the novels of James Joyce, Graham Greene, Francois Mauriac, and Georges Bernanos. I had not yet read Andre Dubus's "Adultery," a story that might have had much the same excruciating effect on me. I recall with particular clarity The Diary of a Country Priest and the conviction of sin it exposed. Joyce was even closer to home. In the fourth chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is pondering the priest's suggestion that he might have a vocation to the priesthood, but he reflects at the same time that the priest's appeal has not really touched him:

      [...] He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others
   or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares
   of the world.

      The snares of the world were its ways of sin. He would fall. He
   had not yet fallen but he would fall silently, in an instant. Not
   to fall was too hard, too hard: and he felt the silent lapse of his
   soul, as it would be at some instant to come, falling, falling but
   not yet fallen, still unfallen but about to fall. (188)

Those sentences had for me the true scholastic clarity. They enforced a sense of sin that survives every urge on Stephen's part to make it yield to the aesthetic swoon of syllables, "falling but not yet fallen." The snares of the world were not merely figurative, as if fulfilling the logic of "wandering"; they waited to trap you into sin.

When I read Greene's The Heart of the Matter, I found Scobie's sense of sin so acute, unbeliever as in many respects he is, that I could even understand the moment in which he feels as temptation the possibility of doing the right thing: giving up his mistress, going to confession, and taking communion. His mistress Helen Rolt is so blank that she can't appreciate what it means for Scobie to be doomed to believe that he is in a state of sin:

      "Well then" she said triumphantly, "be hung for a sheep. … 
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