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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 990

Old Bartram and his young son are burning marble into lime in their isolated kiln when they are disturbed by a strange, mirthless laugh. Soon the laugh is followed by the appearance of a mysterious man who identifies himself as Ethan Brand. Bartram recognizes him instantly, as he has heard village tales of a man by that name who left the village eighteen years earlier in search of the Unpardonable Sin. When Bartram asks if his search has been successful, Brand ruefully confesses that, after all of his wanderings and inquiries, he found the Unpardonable Sin in his own heart.

The lime-burner dispatches Joe to the village tavern to alert the “jolly fellows” there that Brand has returned. Left alone with the stranger, he feels acutely aware of the sins in his own heart responding to this man who “had committed the only crime for which Heaven can afford no mercy.” Sins, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes, are “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.” The legends of Brand that seemed comic to Bartram now seem deadly earnest.

Brand, whose search for the Unpardonable Sin actually began with thoughts and speculations during his lonely hours as a lime-burner, stokes up the fire as Bartram recalls tales that he is believed to have evoked the devil from the fire of his furnace. Brand silences his fear by telling him that he no longer has need of the devil, who concerns himself only with such halfway sinners as Bartram. Finishing his chore with the fire, Brand announces that he has looked into human hearts hotter with illicit passions than the fiery furnace, but that he did not find the Unpardonable Sin there. In answer to Bartram’s query as to what the Unpardonable Sin might be, Brand announces with pride born of madness,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! Freely, were it to do again, would I incur the guilt.

Bartram is relieved by the appearance of the villagers, summoned by Joe’s account of Brand’s return. Brand meets again his old companions from the tavern, who implore him to join their pursuit of the black bottle “in which, as they averred, he would find something far better worth seeking for, than the Unpardonable Sin.” Brand is offended by this offer of companionship and rejects their overtures with disdain, but not without momentary doubts that his life has been given to a delusion. The Doctor, spokesperson for Brand’s old tavern friends, tells him he is crazy.

Old Humphrey is a pathetic old man who wanders about the hills in search of his daughter, who is believed to have gone off with a circus. Confronting Brand, Humphrey asks if in all of his travels over the world he has seen the girl and if he knows when she is coming back. “Ethan Brand had made the subject of a psychological experiment, and wasted, absorbed, and perhaps annihilated her soul.” After this encounter with Humphrey, Brand’s self-doubt vanishes and he concludes, “Yes . . . it is no delusion. There is an Unpardonable Sin!”

An old German Jew carrying a diorama now enters the scene. He amuses the crowd more by the shoddiness of his exhibit than its quality. When he has finished his show, he invites Brand to look into the box. After doing so, Brand claims to recognize the old man. When this mysterious figure complains that it was a hard task to carry the Unpardonable Sin over the mountain in his show box, Brand admonishes him either to be silent or “get thee into the furnace yonder,” implying that this old Jew might be the devil Brand once invoked from its fiery bowels. This strange scene ends with an ancient dog madly chasing its own tail to everyone’s amusement. Brand, “moved, it might be, by a perception of some remote analogy between his own case and that of this self-pursuing cur . . . broke into the awful laugh, which . . . expressed the condition of his inward being.”

The fun over, the crowd departs, leaving Brand alone again with Bartram and Joe. He sends them to bed, promising to tend the kiln while they rest. During the night, he recollects his earlier speculations by the fire that gradually turned him from reverence for humanity and pity for the human condition to his search for the Unpardonable Sin. As his intellect grew through isolated philosophical speculation, his heart failed to keep pace and gradually the Idea consumed his whole being. In Hawthorne’s words, his heart “had withered—had contracted—had hardened—had perished. It had ceased to partake of the universal throb. He had lost his hold of the magnetic chain of humanity.” Brand became a cold scientific observer of humanity, manipulating people to serve the needs of his experiments. “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.”

Having finally found in his own heart the Unpardonable Sin, Brand has no further purpose. Unable or unwilling to rejoin the “magnetic chain of humanity” that might offer him salvation, he chooses instead to consign his body to the flames of the furnace. When Bartram and Joe awaken next morning, they first believe that Ethan Brand has left, allowing the fire to burn down. When the old lime-burner opens the furnace, however, he sees in outline form, on top of the heap of burned marble, the skeleton of Ethan Brand. “Within the ribs—strange to say—was the shape of a human heart.”

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