An Abortive Romance
By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
A Study Guide
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2009
.......Shortly thereafter, a man emerges from bushes.
.......The kiln is the same one that a villager named Ethan Brand tended before he embarked on a worldwide search for “the Unpardonable Sin.” He has been gone for eighteen years. The kiln, made of stone, is round and about twenty feet high. A dirt ramp running to the top of the kiln allows carts carrying marble blocks and chips to drop their cargo into it. At the bottom of the kiln is a heavy iron door that Bartram opens now and then to stir the fire with a long pole and feed it with oak logs. When the door is closed, smoke and flames escape through “chinks and crevices, making the door look like the entrance to hell." It is one of many kilns in the marble-rich region, some no longer in use and overgrown with vegetation, others still roaring with fire that burns marble into lime.
.......Bartram threatens to brain the man with a piece of marble if he does not come forward and reveal himself. Then he opens the kiln door to cast light on the visitor, who is approaching. He is a tall, thin man in brown clothes. He carries the staff of a traveler.
......."Good evening, stranger," said the lime-burner; "whence come you, so late in the day?"
......."I come from my search," answered the wayfarer; "for, at last, it is finished."
.......Bartram tells Joe the man is drunk or crazy; he will try to get rid of him. The child asks his father to close the kiln door, for the man’s gaze is frightful. Oddly, though, it is a gaze that both attracts and repels the viewer with “an indescribable something in . . . deeply sunken eyes, which gleamed like fires. . . .” Bartram closes the door. The man speaks in a calm voice that suggests there is little to fear.
......."Your task draws to an end, I see," said he. "This marble has already been burning three days. A few hours more will convert the stone to lime."
.......He identifies himself as the aforementioned Ethan Brand. Bartram says people in the village still talk about him after so many years. He asks Brand whether he has found what he was looking for: the Unpardonable Sin. Brand says yes and points to his heart: “Here!” And then he laughs again, seeming to sum up “the infinite absurdity of seeking throughout the world for what was the closest of all things to himself. . . .”
.......While he sits on a log and gazes at the iron door, Bartram sends his son to the village tavern to announce that Ethan Brand has returned after finding the Unpardonable Sin. After the boy hurries off, Bartram becomes uneasy, for now he is alone with this strange man. Stories about him say that conversations between him and Satan would take place before this same kiln after the archfiend emerged from the kiln fire through the iron door. At dawn, he would go back inside.
.......When Brand got up and opened the iron door, fear seized Bartram.
.......“Hold, Hold!” he says. “Don’t, for mercy sake, bring out your devil now!”
.......But Brand tells him, “I have left the devil behind me, in my track. It is with such halfway sinners as you that he busies himself.” He further says he wants only to tend the fire, as he once did, then pokes at the coals, throws in wood, and closes the door. On his travels, he says, he met people with hearts blazing with sin far hotter than the kiln fire, but he did not find in them the Unpardonable Sin. It was in his own heart that he found it—“A sin that grows nowhere else! 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.” It is the only sin that damns a man eternally. However, he says, if need be he would freely commit the sin again and accept its penalty. Bartram begins to think Brand is crazed.
.......At that moment, Bartram hears talking and laughing as the men from the tavern begin to arrive, to his relief. He opens the iron door to cast the fire’s light on Brand. Among the villagers is the stage agent, smartly dressed in a coat with brass buttons, puffing on a cigar. Drinking brandy tended to stimulate his dry sense of humor. Another is Lawyer Giles, an elderly man wearing tow-cloth pants and a soiled shirt. He had once been a practicing lawyer, a good one; but drink got the better of him. So did misfortune: He lost a hand to a steam engine and part of a foot to the wayward chop of an axe. However, he has the spirit to carry on and now works as a soap boiler. There is also the town doctor, a man of fifty made crude and savage by drink but retaining his remarkable skills as a healer. He had once visited Ethan Brand when the latter was thought insane. These men offer Brand a drink from a black bottle, but he rejects it, saying, "Leave me ye brute beasts, that have made yourselves so, shrivelling up your souls with fiery liquors! I have done with you. Years and years ago, I groped into your hearts, and found nothing there for my purpose."
.......“Why, you uncivil scoundrel,” the doctor replies. Then he says Brand has not found the so-called Unpardonable sin. He is simply a crazy man who would make good company for “old Humphrey, here”—a man with white hair who was also rousted from the tavern. The old fellow had spent many years traveling in search of his daughter, who had joined a circus. It is said that she can perform dazzling feats on a tightrope and on the back of a horse. Humphrey asks Brand whether he encountered his daughter on his worldwide travels. Brand cannot look him directly in the eye, for he had used the girl as a “subject of a psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul, in the process.” Turning away, Brand says it is true—he has discovered the Unpardonable Sin.
.......Meanwhile, several young villagers arrive to look at Brand but are disappointed to see an ordinary man in unremarkable clothes. However, they find amusement in a diorama show put on by a passing traveler—a Jew from Nuremberg, Germany—to make a few extra coins. Looking into his box through openings covered with a magnifying glass, they see painted pictures of scenes from Europe—public buildings, castles, scenes of Napoleon’s battles, cities. The pictures are wrinkled and dirty—in short, unspectacular. The showman then asks Joe to place his head through the opening in the back of the box. When he does so, viewers see a gigantic smiling head. However, the mirthful countenance suddenly takes on a look of terror when the boy sees Ethan Brand’s eye peering through the glass.
.......“You make the little man to be afraid, Captain,” says the showman. (He addresses all the men as Captain.) "But look again, and, by chance, I shall cause you to see somewhat that is very fine, upon my word!"
.......When Brand again looks in, he sees nothing. Brand then says he remembers the showman from his travels. The latter replies that he has been bearing a great burden in the box he carries from place to place—the Unpardonable Sin. He is mocking Brand; for, as Brand saw, the box was empty when he looked in.
.......“Peace,” Brand says, “or get thee into the furnace yonder.”
.......An old dog that had wandered onto the scene attracts everyone’s attention when it begins to chase its tail—much shorter than it should be—while barking and gnarling and biting at that which it cannot catch. It keeps up the chase, amid roars of laughter, until exhaustion turns it back into a normal, quiet dog.
.......Ethan Brand laughs too, because the dog’s pursuit of his tail was not unlike his own pursuit. But the laugh is the same unnerving laugh that Bartram and Joe heard just before Brand arrived at the kiln. It so frightens the visitors that they all depart, leaving only Bartram and his son with Brand, who suggests that he tend the fire while Bartram gets some sleep. Brand says he has “matters that it concerns me to meditate upon.” Bartram, who has grown bold after nipping from the black bottle brought by the villagers, says, “And call the devil out of the furnace to keep you company, I suppose. But watch, if you like, and call as many devils as you like.”
.......He and Joe then go off. The boy now feels sorry for Ethan, for he senses that the man suffers from a “terrible loneliness.” As he sits before the fire, Brand recalls the days many years ago when he sat in this same place feeling sympathy for humankind and “pity for human guilt and woes.” It was at that time that he was planning to go on a quest for the Unpardonable Sin but prayed that he would never discover it. In his deep contemplation, he entered the realms of philosophy, educating himself to the point that he stood at a pinnacle of intellectual power far above that of university-educated philosophers. In the meantime, his heart had “hardened” and “perished” so that he became a “cold observer” of humankind, using men and women as subjects for experiments in which he manipulated them into committing sins that he needed to study. And then he achieved his goal of finding the Unpardonable Sin—in himself.
.......Now there is nothing left to do; his task is finished. He walks to the kiln and up the ramp to the top, then looks down into the fire and bids farewell to “mankind, whose brotherhood I have cast off, and trampled thy great heart beneath my feet” before hurling himself in.
.......Nightmares about Ethan Brand invade the sleep of Bartram and his son. In the morning, they head off to the kiln. It is a bright, cheerful day, prompting Joe to comment, “Dear father, that strange man is gone, and the sky and the mountains all seem glad of it!”
.......When they near the kiln, Bartram complains that Brand has let the fire die down. Consequently, he says, the expected yield of lime—five hundred bushels—may be spoiled.
......."If I catch the fellow hereabouts again," he says, "I shall feel like tossing him into the furnace!"
.......After he and Joe go up the ramp and look into the kiln, they see a perfect batch of pure-white lime. In the middle is the skeleton of a man. In the rib cage is small mass of lime in the shape of a heart. Bartram asks, “Was the fellow’s heart made of marble?” Realizing that Ethan Brand's bones have made "my kiln . . . half a bushel the richer," he uses his pole to pulverize the skeleton.
Ethan Brand: Mysterious man from western Massachusetts who travels the world in search of what he calls the Unpardonable Sin. After eighteen years, he returns home to report that he has found the sin. Ironically, he says, it is in his own heart. He presents his findings at the scene of a lime kiln on Mount Greylock, (spelled Gray-lock by Hawthorne) near his home village. He tended the kiln before going on his quest.
Bartram: Man who now tends the kiln on Mount Greylock. His job is to keep the fire hot while it burns marble into lime. He greets and talks with Brand after the latter returns from his quest.
Joe: Bartram's obedient and loving child.
Stage Agent: Tavern patron in the village near Bartram's lime kiln. He favors brandy and cigars and has a dry sense of humor.
Giles: Tavern patron in the village near Bartram's lime kiln. Heavy drinking caused him to fail as a lawyer. He now makes soap.
Village Doctor: Fifty-year-old tavern patron in the village near Bartram's lime kiln. He is a bad-tempered man whom "brandy possessed . . . like an evil spirit." However, he is a skillful practitioner who regularly visits his patients.
Humphrey: Elderly tavern patron in the village near Bartram's lime kiln. He asks Ethan Brand whether he encountered his daughter on his world travels.
Humphrey's Daughter: Young woman from the village who ran off to join a circus. Before she left, she was the subject of an evil experiment conducted by Brand before he set out on his quest for the Unpardonable Sin.
German Jew: Traveler who stages a diorama show in a box he carries.
Young Townspeople: Residents of the village near Bartram's lime kiln. News of Ethan Brand's return attracts them to the kiln, but they soon become more interested in the traveling showman's diorama.
Type of Work and Year of Publication
......."Ethan Brand: an Arbortive Romance" is a short story centering on the moral and psychological condition of a man who has spent eighteen years attempting to discover the one sin that God will not forgive. It was first published in 1851 in the May issue of Holden's Dollar Magazine under the title of "The Unpardonable Sin." It is believed to have been written in 1848.
.......The name of the title character conveys meanings consistent with his mentality and temperament and with the mood and themes of the story. When lower-cased, the surname Brand becomes a common noun that can mean (1) a burning piece of wood, (2) a mark burned into the skin to identify a slave or a criminal, or (3) a mark of shame or disgrace. Let us consider each of these:
1. Ethan Brand burns figuratively with an unholy desire during his eighteen-year quest and burns literally when he hurls himself into the kiln.The given name Ethan is biblical. The most famous Ethan in the Bible is Ethan the Ezrahite, a man thought to be supremely wise but who was eclipsed in his wisdom by King Solomon. Brand views himself as exceedingly wise; the villagers regard him as a fool. The German Jew gets the better of him when he tells him to look into the diorama box to see the Unpardonable Sin. When Brand presses his eye to a viewing glass set into the box, he sees nothing.
.......The subtitle of the story may refer to a romantic relationship Ethan Brand could have had with Humphrey's daughter. One can imagine that as his interest in the Unpardonable Sin deepened, he aborted the romance to conduct his evil experiments on the young woman.
.......The story is set on Mount Greylock (spelled Gray-lock by Hawthorne) in northwestern Massachusetts. At 3,491 feet, the mountain is the highest point in Massachusetts. The Greylock region is rich in marble deposits. Because the name of the mountain was not widely used until after 1830, the action in the story probably takes place between 1830 and 1848, the year Hawthorne was believed to have written the story. Hawthorne himself visited the region in 1838, when he climbed the mountain. Click here to see a modern map of the Mount Greylock region.
.......Hawthorne tells the story in omniscient third-person point of view. This approach enables the narrator to reveal the thoughts of the characters, as in the following passage in which the narrator tells the reader what Bartram is thinking:
He felt that the little fellow's presence had been a barrier between his guest and himself, and that he must now deal, heart to heart, with a man who, on his own confession, had committed the one only crime for which Heaven could afford no mercy. That crime, in its indistinct blackness, seemed to overshadow him. The lime-burner's own sins rose up within him, and made his memory riotous with a throng of evil shapes that asserted their kindred with the Master Sin, whatever it might be, which it was within the scope of man's corrupted nature to conceive and cherish.Symbolism
.......Examples of symbols in the story include the following:
Fire: Obsession; passion. When tending and looking into the kiln fire, Ethan Brand becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the Unpardonable Sin. When drinking in the tavern or from the black bottle they carry with them, the village men feed their passion for what Brand calls "fiery liquors." When observing the subjects of
his research, Brand "looked into many a human heart that was seven times hotter with sinful passions than yonder furnace fire," he says.
.......Hawthorne ranks as one of the great writers in the English language. He was particularly adept at crafting imagery that vivifies an ominous incident or an eerie atmosphere. In the following passage, the narrator reports the effect of the unsettling laughter that Bartram and little Joe hear when the story opens:
The solitary mountain-side was made dismal by it. Laughter, when out of place, mistimed, or bursting forth from a disordered state of feeling, may be the most terrible modulation of the human voice. The laughter of one asleep, even if it be a little child—the madman's laugh—the wild, screaming laugh of a born idiot—are sounds that we sometimes tremble to hear, and would always willingly forget. Poets have imagined no utterance of fiends or hobgoblins so fearfully appropriate as a laugh. And even the obtuse lime-burner felt his nerves shaken, as this strange man looked inward at his own heart, and burst into laughter that rolled away into the night, and was indistinctly reverberated among the hills.Notice that Hawthorne uses solitary to emphasize isolation and dismal to set the mood. He then turns a normally cheerful sound into a horrifying one, making the reader wonder about the frame of mind of the man from whom the laughter issued. He next presents concrete images—of a sleeping child, a madman, and an idiot, then fiends and hobgoblins—that progress from the earthly to the unearthly. The laughter becomes all the more unsettling when it invades the nighttime landscape and echoes in the hills.
.......To evoke a sense of mystery and suggest the presence of evil, Hawthorne skillfully manipulates the interplay of fire and shadow, light and darkness, as in the following passage:
At frequent intervals, he [Bartram] flung back the clashing weight of the iron door, and, turning his face from the insufferable glare, thrust in huge logs of oak, or stirred the immense brands with a long pole. Within the furnace were seen the curling and riotous flames, and the burning marble, almost molten with the intensity of heat; while without, the reflection of the fire quivered on the dark intricacy of the surrounding forest, and showed in the foreground a bright and ruddy little picture of the hut, the spring beside its door, the athletic and coal-begrimed figure of the lime-burner, and the half-frightened child, shrinking into the protection of his father's shadow. And when again the iron door was closed, then reappeared the tender light of the half-full moon, which vainly strove to trace out the indistinct shapes of the neighboring mountains; and, in the upper sky, there was a flitting congregation of clouds, still faintly tinged with the rosy sunset, though thus far down into the valley the sunshine had vanished long and long ago........The following passage presents imagery of another sort—a beautiful golden morning as Bartram and little Joe walk toward the kiln.
.......He issued from the hut, followed by little Joe, who kept fast hold of his father's hand. The early sunshine was already pouring its gold upon the mountain-tops; and though the valleys were still in shadow, they smiled cheerfully in the promise of the bright day that was hastening onward. The village, completely shut in by hills, which swelled away gently about it, looked as if it had rested peacefully in the hollow of the great hand of Providence. Every dwelling was distinctly visible; the little spires of the two churches pointed upwards, and caught a fore-glimmering of brightness from the sun-gilt skies upon their gilded weather-cocks. The tavern was astir, and the figure of the old, smoke-dried stage-agent, cigar in mouth, was seen beneath the stoop. Old Gray-lock was glorified with a golden cloud upon his head. Scattered likewise over the breasts of the surrounding mountains, there were heaps of hoary mist, in fantastic shapes, some of them far down into the valley, others high up towards the summits and still others, of the same family of mist or cloud, hovering in the gold radiance of the upper atmosphere. Stepping from one to another of the clouds that rested on the hills, and thence to the loftier brotherhood that sailed in air, it seemed almost as if a mortal man might thus ascend into the heavenly regions. Earth was so mingled with sky that it was a day-dream to look at it.Note the many figures of speech that enliven the passage. Among them are these:
Alliteration: fast hold of his father's hand
Inordinate Thirst for Knowledge
.......Ethan Brand lives uprightly and respects others until the day that he becomes obsessed with a question: Of all the sins that man commits, which is the only one that God will not forgive? Researching this question intensifies his obsession to the point that he fiendishly manipulates others into committing sin in order to find his answer. In so doing, Brand does the work of the devil—or, in a sense, becomes a devil. Desire for knowledge is good, but inordinate desire that cancels morality is evil.
Unprincipled Scientific Research
.......Like scientists of the Enlightenment, scientists in the first half of the nineteenth century generally conducted objective research that emphasized reason over emotions and religious faith. Such objectivity in scientific experimentation is good. However, any experimentation that goes beyond the bounds of morality is evil. Ethan Brand, with his "marble heart," reflects the attitude of scientists who seek answers without regard to the morality of their actions. Perhaps in "Ethan Brand" Hawthorne—a man of faith who was committed to the ideals of romanticism, including the importance of the heart and the imagination—was taking a jab at coldly objective, and sometimes unethical, scientific research.
.......Ethan Brand’s unholy undertaking hardens his heart; he cares only about the knowledge he seeks. As a result, he isolates himself from the rest of humanity. At the end of his search, his alienation gnaws at him, and he returns to Western Massachusetts to renew his bond with humanity by announcing the result of his quest. But his listeners regard him as crazed and frightful—a man to stay away from.
Sin and Its Consequences
.......Nathaniel Hawthorne focused many of his stories on sin (including the concept of original sin) and its consequences. For example, his short story "Young Goodman Brown" and his novel The Scarlet Letter both center on sin and its moral and psychological consequences. How the characters in these and other Hawthorne stories, including "Ethan Brand," respond to their own sins or the sins of others becomes a major issue that drives the plot. In "Ethan Brand," Bartram's awareness of his own sins links him as a fallen creature with Ethan Brand and kindles in him memories of the frightening stories about this night visitor.
The lime-burner's own sins rose up within him, and made his memory riotous with a throng of evil shapes that asserted their kindred with the Master Sin, whatever it might be, which it was within the scope of man's corrupted nature to conceive and cherish. They were all of one family; they went to and fro between his breast and Ethan Brand's, and carried dark greetings from one to the other........Hawthorne goes on to describe other characters as fallen creatures as well. The doctor and Giles, for example, both drink to excess and nearly ruin their lives. However, the doctor continues to practice medicine effectively, and Giles carries on as a soap boiler. Neither allows his moral weaknesses to conquer him totally. Brand, of course, is a special case. He deliberately causes others to sin and, in so doing, commits what he believes is the Unpardonable Sin. His diabolical experimentation and his severance of his bond with humanity reap for him a terrible loneliness and great despair. Ultimately, he commits suicide.
Brand as a New Faust
.......In many ways, Ethan Brand's motivations and desires resemble those of the title character in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's great work, Faust. But Brand is a new Faust in that he willingly condemns himself to hellfire. Click here to review the study guide on
.......The climax of the story occurs when Ethan Brand hurls himself into the kiln fire. The conclusion, or denouement, begins immediately afterward. Bartram and little Joe awaken from nightmares to go forth into a sunny day and discover Brand's remains in the lime kiln.
.......The story reports only what Ethan Brand believes to be the Unpardonable Sin, not what the Bible or the consensus of scholarly research says it is. From Brand's perspective, it "is a sin that grew within my own breast . . . [a] sin that grew nowhere else! 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! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony! " He committed this sin, he believes, when he manipulated others into iniquity as part of his empirical research and, in so doing, severed his relationship not only with the rest of humankind but also with God.
Does God Save Ethan Brand?
.......Is it possible that God saves Ethan Brand even though Brand committed what he calls the Unpardonable Sin?
Old Gray-lock was glorified with a golden cloud upon his head. Scattered likewise over the breasts of the surrounding mountains, there were heaps of hoary mist, in fantastic shapes, some of them far down into the valley, others high up towards the summits and still others, of the same family of mist or cloud, hovering in the gold radiance of the upper atmosphere. Stepping from one to another of the clouds that rested on the hills, and thence to the loftier brotherhood that sailed in air, it seemed almost as if a mortal man might thus ascend into the heavenly regions.When Bartram and little Joe look into the kiln, they see the skeleton of Ethan Brand. Everything in the kiln is bright white; the marble had been burned into perfect lime. Within Brand’s rib cage is his heart in the form of pure lime. This physical transformation could suggest a spiritual transformation in which his soul has been purged of the stain of sin.
.......A lime kiln is a type of furnace that burns marble, limestone, or another material to produce lime, a solid made up of calcium oxide (CaO). If it is free of impurities, it is white and is called pure lime or quicklime. When mixed with water, lime turns into a powder, calcium hydroxide—Ca(OH)2. Lime is used in the production of cement, paper, glass, whitewash, and agricultural preparations that reduce the acidity of soil.
Click here to see a picture of lime and read an article on its uses.Study Questions and Essay Topics