(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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,...

(The entire section is 990 words.)