Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

A New Reading of "Ethan Brand": The Failed Quest

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

A New Reading of "Ethan Brand": The Failed Quest

Article excerpt

Many analysts of Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" have agreed that the story is a cautionary tale about Hawthorne's Unpardonable Sin, divorcing one's head from one's heart and oneself from humanity. They read the story as a serious treatise, and Brand's commission of the Unpardonable Sin goes virtually unquestioned. The assumption that Brand has in fact "produced the Unpardonable Sin" (285) needs examination, however. I am convinced that Brand has failed and that his tale is as ironic as it is serious. Ethan Brand begins his search as nothing but a common man and returns from it a common failure, and this, rather than his successful commission of the Sin, drives Brand to suicide.

Several details in "Ethan Brand" have led readers to believe that Brand's search for the Unpardonable Sin succeeds: (1) At the kiln, just prior to his search, Brand meets with the Devil, who supposedly gets Brand started on his search; (2) there was always something special, even unique within Brand (the "solitary" and "meditative" limeburner) that led him to his search and is still evident in Brand when he returns to Graylock; (3) the narrator emphasizes the magnitude and importance of the Unpardonable Sin and Brand's commission of it; (4) late in the story, the narrator states what the Unpardonable Sin is and that Brand has committed it; and (5) Brand commits suicide because he has committed the Unpardonable Sin. A careful examination of the story, however, reveals that all of these "facts" are false. Ethan Brand does not realize his dream of finding the Unpardonable Sin.

One of the alleged proofs of Brand's finding the Sin is the supernatural help he gets from the Devil, with whom he has allegedly made a "compact" (Stein 102) at the limekiln, "the abode of the Devil" (Davison 261). However, nothing

supernatural takes place at the kiln, and neither does the kiln have any causal function in Brand's search. What we are told about Brand's pre-search musings at the kiln is that "he had thrown his dark thoughts into the intense glow of [the] furnace, and melted them, as it were, into the one thought that took possession of his life" (272). Brand's "thoughts" were "dark" before they ever entered the kiln; they entered the kiln, rather than entering Brand from the kiln; and be figuratively "melted" his "dark thoughts" into one obsessive Dream.

The common conception is that the kiln is a gateway to hell, but the narrator describes the kiln in language reminiscent of his description of Bartram, perhaps the most natural, unspiritual character in the story: "It was ... rude, round, ... heavily built of rough stones" (272). The limekiln is neither unusual nor unique; rather, it is a tourist attraction: "There are many such limekilns in that tract of country ... [which] afford points of interest to the wanderer among the hills" (272). And, when the narrator refers to the limekiln in conjunction with anything supernatural, he qualifies the reference: "[The limekiln] door ... seemed to give admittance to the hillside; it resembled nothing so much as the private entrance to the infernal regions" (272; emphasis added). Brand himself (who should know if he had met the Devil at the limekiln) belittles the significance of the kiln, claiming to "have looked into many a human heart that was seven times hotter with sinful passions than yonder furnace is with fire" (277). Like the tail-chasing dog, Brand begins his futile search "of his own mere motion, and without the slightest suggestion from anybody else" (282).

Thus, no outside agent, spiritual or otherwise, endorses Brand's dream or sets him on his search. And as Brand's search starts without supernatural instigation, if it succeeds it does so without outside intervention. After his search's alleged success, it is Brand alone who keeps himself from rejoining the ranks of humanity; he has "enveloped himself" in "the bleak and terrible loneliness" in which he is still encased after his search ends (284). …

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