I have written many essays in my day, and on occasion I will post one here for anyone interested in literary scholarship.
The second essay I will post is something I wrote for an American Literature course. Its focus is several works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it discusses such Enlightenment-era works as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy (a favorite of mine!). The overarching theme of this essay, however, is Hawthorne’s near obsession with the unpardonable sin, necessarily starting and ending with The Scarlet Letter. I hope you enjoy.
“That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin”:
Hawthorne and the Unpardonable Sin
The idea that there exists a sin so abhorred and so shameful that it is in fact unforgivable is a topic that Nathaniel Hawthorne explored in many of his writings. Besides being a focus of his most well-known work, The Scarlet Letter, this unpardonable sin is an embodiment of several of Hawthorne’s villains: Ethan Brand of “Ethan Brand,” Lady Eleanore in “Lady Eleanore’s Mantle,” Aylmer in “The Birthmark,” Rappaccini in “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Judge Pyncheon in The House of the Seven Gables, Hollingsworth and Westervelt in The Blithedale Romance, and the list can go on (Miller 91). In his essay “Nathaniel Hawthorne and The Scarlet Letter,” D. H. Lawrence explains his understanding of sin:
When Adam went and took Eve, after the apple, he didn’t do more than he had done many a time before, in act. But in consciousness he did something very different. So did Eve. … They wanted to Know. And that was the birth of sin. Not doing it, but Knowing about it. … The sin was the self-watching, self-consciousness. The sin, and the doom. Dirty understanding. (90-91)
Clearly for Lawrence, as is true for Hawthorne, the unpardonable sin is directly related to the pursuit of knowledge.
In order to fully appreciate a discussion of the unpardonable sin, it is useful to trace its biblical reference. Versions of the story appear in both Mark and Matthew, but the general events are identical. One day when Jesus was teaching the people, a poor blind man possessed by a demon came upon the crowd, and Jesus healed him. The Pharisees, a separate denomination, were filled with rage and jealousy, so they proclaimed that Jesus’s powers came from evil spirits. Mark 3:22-30 reads:
And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebub, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And [Jesus] called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. … Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for [the Pharisees] had said, “He has an unclean spirit.” (Christiananswers.net)
In the parallel passage in Matthew 12: 32, Jesus’s words clarify that “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come” (Christiananswers.net). Essentially, the one unforgivable sin is permanently rejecting the Holy Spirit or deliberately refusing God. The Pharisees committed that sin because their schemes and intentions were not simply passing thoughts but were deliberate and unchanging.
In his collection of essays titled Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence includes two pieces regarding Hawthorne and his implications about sin. He comments, “No other book of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s is so deep, so dual, and so complete as The Scarlet Letter: this great allegory of the triumph of sin” (“Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance” 108). He explains the source of the lovers’ sin:
Sin is a queer thing. It isn’t the breaking of the divine commandments. It is the breaking of one’s own integrity.
For instance, the sin in Hester and Arthur Dimmesdale’s case was a sin because they did what they thought it wrong to do. If they had really wanted to be lovers, and if they had had the honest courage of their own passion, there would have been no sin, even had the desire been only momentary. (108)
Though Lawrence recognizes Hester and Dimmesdale’s sins, it is to their child, Pearl, that he ultimately attributes the unpardonable sin. He explains that the girl’s parents did believe in the Divine Father and sinned against him anyway. However, “Pearl no longer believes in the Divine Father. … Disowns Papa both big and little. So she can’t sin against him. What will she do then if she’s got no god to sin against? Why, of course, she’ll not be able to sin at all” (109). Lawrence states that the world is filled with these types of people, especially in America, who believe they have no god to sin against. Lawrence believes that they do:
When you don’t have a Divine Father to sin against; and when you don’t sin against the Son; … then there’s nothing left for you to sin against except the Holy Ghost. …
The same if you make a breach with your own Holy Ghost. You go soul-rotten. Like the Pearls. (110-11)
The Holy Ghost doesn’t forgive because the Holy Ghost is within you. The Holy Ghost is you: your very You. So if, in your conceit of your ego, you make a break in your own You, in your own integrity, how can you be forgiven? You might as well make a rip in your bowels. You know if you rip your own bowels they will go rotten and you will go rotten. And there’s the end of you, in the body.
While Lawrence makes a case that the unpardonable sinner in The Scarlet Letter is Pearl because she has no father to sin against, the case does not stand up by the end of the novel. Whereas before, Pearl had disowned “Papa both big and little,” the conclusion of the novel shows the little girl regaining her trust in a father. Dimmesdale asks her if she will kiss him now in front of the town, and Hawthorne reveals: “Pearl kissed his lips. A spell was broken. The great scene of grief, in which the wild infant bore a part, had developed all her sympathies; and as her tears fell upon her father’s cheek, they were the pledge that she would grow up amid human joy and sorrow, nor for ever do battle with the world, but be a woman in it” (209).
In singling out young Pearl as the perpetrator of the unpardonable sin, Lawrence overlooked one of the most consistent traits of Hawthorne’s villains—the corrupting pursuit of knowledge. In his tale that most directly confronts the unpardonable sin, “Ethan Brand,” Hawthorne unveils a character who only commits it because of his unrelenting quest to find it. The narrator describes Ethan Brand’s situation:
The Idea that possessed his life had operated as a means of education; it had gone on cultivating his powers to the highest point of which they were susceptible; it had raised him from the level of an unlettered laborer to stand on a star-lit eminence, whither the philosophers of the earth, laden with the lore of universities, might vainly strive to clamber after him. So much for the intellect! But where was the heart? That, indeed, had withered—had contracted—had hardened—had perished! … [H]e was now a cold observer, looking on mankind as the subject of his experiment, and, at length, converting man and woman to be his puppets, and pulling the wires that moved them to such degrees of crime as were demanded for his study. (10)
This passage from the story leaves no question that, for Hawthorne, the pursuit of knowledge, whether in one man or a university or otherwise, is a dangerous endeavor that can consume a man and cause him to lose all touch with his humanity.
Hawthorne’s censure of the reckless hunt for knowledge was not his original idea. Many writers, particularly in the 18th century, criticized Enlightenment-era thinking and warned of the backlash of new experiments and discoveries. In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift notoriously satirizes the Royal Society when Gulliver travels to Laputa’s academy. The research being done there includes one man engaged in a project to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, one trying to turn excrement back into food, another scientist writing a treatise about the malleability of fire, and still another group insisting that they are teaching blind students to mix certain colors according to smell and touch. Swift detested the useless experimentation that sprang out of the age of reason and squandered so much of the country’s money and resources. On Gulliver’s visit, he remarks, “The only Inconvenience is, that none of these Projects are yet brought to Perfection; and in the mean time, the whole Country lies miserably waste, the Houses in Ruins, and the People without Food or Cloaths. By all which, instead of being discouraged, they are Fifty Times more violently bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair” (165). Alexander Pope felt the same about man’s senseless pursuit of things that he was not given the natural ability to see. In his Essay on Man he writes, “Why has not man a microscopic eye? / For this plain reason, man is not a fly. / Say, what the use, were finer optics giv’n, / To inspect a mite, not comprehend the Heav’n? … What finds not Providence all good and wise / Alike in what it gives and what it denies?” (The Universe, Part VI lines 21-34). Standing with Swift and Pope, one of the cleverest arguments against the age of reason is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in which the title character’s entire life is essentially ruined by Enlightenment “advancements,” especially in science. During his birth, Tristram’s father insists that a progressive doctor (Dr. Slop) who uses forceps deliver the baby instead of the trusted midwife. Consequently, the forceps crush Tristram’s nose, and he is disfigured and ridiculed for the rest of his life. When Tristram is five, he is left to the attention of the careless Susannah and, in an unfortunate accident, a window sash falls and castrates him. The window as a source of light can be taken as Sterne’s jab at the Enlightenment that has now cut off the genitals of his title character. What is equally as important to the situation is that Tristram is only left to the care of Susannah because his father is engrossed in writing a “Tristra-paedia”—a book outlining the system under which Tristram is to be educated. So while his father is busy pursuing knowledge for his son’s education, Tristram loses his manhood. These three writers, plus Hawthorne, are only the tip of the iceberg of people objecting to the Enlightenment era’s insistence on improving the world by gaining information.
The Scarlet Letter, though full of sinners, can only boast one true unpardonable sinner based on the criterion that he is led to its commission by the wicked chase of knowledge and subsequent loss of humanity. Many people associate the book’s primary sinner with the bearer of the scarlet A, Hester; however, Mistress Prynne never denied the Holy Ghost. Her conversation with Governor Bellingham, who is debating removing Pearl from her custody, proves that she has learned from her sins. She tells him, “I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this! … This badge hath taught me, — it daily teaches me, — it is teaching me at this moment, — lessons whereof my child may be the wiser and better, albeit they can profit nothing to myself” (92). Still, Arthur Dimmesdale makes the most convincing argument that Hester is not beyond salvation:
“[Pearl] was meant, above all things else, to keep the mother’s soul alive, and to preserve her from blacker depths of sin into which Satan might else have sought to plunge her! Therefore it is good for [Hester to have Pearl…] to teach her, as it were by the Creator’s sacred pledge, that, if she bring the child to heaven, the child also will bring its parent thither!” (95).
Dimmesdale later utters perhaps the most revealing lines in the book regarding the unpardonable sin: “May God forgive us both! We are not, Hester, the worst sinners in the world. There is one worse than even the polluted priest! That old man’s revenge has been blacker than my sin. He has violated, in cold blood, the sanctity of a human heart. Thou and I, Hester, never did so!” (161).
“That old man” to whom Dimmesdale refers is of course Roger Chillingworth, Hester’s legal husband and the perpetrator of Hawthorne’s unpardonable sin. Chillingworth, a medical doctor with an air of the occult (The Scarlet Letter 100), comes to Hester’s colony and assumes an alternate personality upon learning of his wife’s transgressions. As James E. Miller, Jr., comments,
Chillingworth has devoted his entire career to study, to the pursuit of that particular knowledge which is most concerned with the alleviation of human suffering—medical science. … And it is these very studies, altruistic as they seem to be, that lead him, finally, to hold in contempt the spiritual values of life. Even his intense scrutiny of Dimmesdale’s soul is, at first, undertaken because he is ‘desirous only of truth’.” (93)
From the beginning, the reader should be suspicious of Chillingworth who describes himself as “misshapen from my birth-hour” (63), a characteristic of villains such as Shakespeare’s Richard III. His quest to know the identity of his offender and his subsequent loss of humanity then come as little surprise. When Chillingworth discovers the A on Dimmesdale’s chest, the narrator reports, “Had a man seen old Roger Chillingworth, at that moment of his ecstasy, he would have no need to ask how Satan comports himself, when a precious human soul is lost to heaven, and won into his kingdom” (114-15). Though his sin is irreversible, Chillingworth does appear to recognize it in his discussion with Hester: “All my life had been made up of earnest, studious, thoughtful, quiet years, bestowed faithfully for the increase of mine own knowledge, and faithfully, too, … for the advancement of human welfare. … And what am I now? I have already told thee what I am! A fiend!” (142). This passage runs parallel to Hawthorne’s disclosure in “Ethan Brand”: “Thus Ethan Brand became a fiend. He began to be so from the moment that his moral nature had ceased to keep the pace of improvement with his intellect” (10). Perhaps like the women who commit adultery or people who discover their homosexuality in many works, both Roger Chillingworth and Ethan Brand must die. Brand throws himself into the furnace because his life’s passion of finding the unpardonable sin has been fulfilled. Chillingworth’s death is described in terms of this loss:
This unhappy man had made the very principle of his life to consist in the pursuit and systematic exercise of revenge; and when, by its completed triumph and consummation, that evil principle was left with no further material to support it, —when, in short, there was no more devil’s work on earth for him to do, it only remained for the unhumanized mortal to betake himself whither his Master would find him tasks enough, and pay him his wages duly. (212-13)
In his intricate studies of Hawthorne and the unpardonable sin, Miller has constructed a useful summary of sinful characters throughout Hawthorne’s works, tracing their sin from initial desire through attempting to play God:
Once consumed with a passionate desire to set the world aright, … Hawthorne’s men of little vision start down that byway to the pit, a byway whose route is marked by a number of clearly defined stages. The sinner first elevates his intellect to a triumphant position over his heart, an act which invariably results in a consuming passion, or monomania, in which all values are sacrificed to a single overruling purpose; the sin then manifests itself in pride, or egotism, which deprives the sinner of the common human sympathies, thereby bringing about his isolation from humanity; the transgressor, intent on accomplishing his one single purpose, imposes his will, without regard for the sanctity of the human heart and soul, on others, diabolically forcing them to do his bidding; at some point along his path, the sinner reveals his allegiance to the devil, his devotion to evil, and, conversely, his hatred of good, his revolt from God: in his monomania he attempts to usurp the role of God. (95)
This excerpt from Miller’s essay “Hawthorne and Melville: The Unpardonable Sin” reveals the method behind the madness of Hawthorne’s villains. Additionally, while Hawthorne clearly devoted much of his fiction to elaborating on this unpardonable sin, Miller believes Herman Melville’s Moby Dick provides yet another portrait of the unforgivable sinner. He elaborates, “The central action of Moby Dick is Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of the great white whale, and it is central in the true sense that all of the remainder of the action revolves about it, all of the rest of the characters are subordinate to Ahab. Ahab’s character is, then, the key to Moby Dick, and the key to Ahab’s character is the unpardonable sin” (106).
Though conceived of in slightly different ways, the unpardonable sin is a topic pursued by many authors and investigated incessantly by Hawthorne who, in his pursuit of understanding it, may have been in jeopardy of committing it himself. If there is any doubt after this discussion of what exactly constitutes the unpardonable sin, Ethan Brand may enlighten: “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 in its own mighty claims! The only sin that deserves a recompense of immortal agony!” (5).
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Ethan Brand.” From The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-told Tales, 1850. 20 July 2006 <http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/nh/eb.html>.
—. The Scarlet Letter. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2003.
Lawrence, D. H. Studies in Classic American Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.
Miller, Jr., James E. “Hawthorne and Melville: The Unpardonable Sin.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 70 (1955): 91-114.
Pope, Alexander. Essay on Man. Poets’ Corner Bookshelf. 15 Mar 2006 <http://www. theotherpages.org/poems/pope-i.html#design>.
Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
“What is the ‘unpardonable sin?’” Christian Answers. 17 July 2006 <http://www. christiananswers.net/q-eden/unpardonablesin.html>.
Up first is a seminar paper I wrote for an independent study course I created about Thomas Wolfe. My professor, Harold Woodell, gave me the idea to write about dreams in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and the rest is history. This essay won the Kennedy Prize and was published in Volume 31, Number 1 of the Thomas Wolfe Review. It’s long! See what you think.
This essay is available here as a PDF.