Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Two of Hawthorne’s recurrent themes are the violation of a human heart or soul and the tragic subordination of the heart or emotions to the intellect. “Ethan Brand” represents one of the most important expressions of these themes because it is in this story that Hawthorne identifies the Unpardonable Sin—the one sin man might commit for which he cannot be forgiven—as the destruction of another’s soul. Ethan Brand is a philosopher-scientist, motivated only by his intellect. His heart has been so subordinated by his thirst for ultimate knowledge that he acts without regard for the sanctity of other people’s beings: He is a man without conscience or human sympathy. Thus, while he sets out to find the Unpardonable Sin in the breast of others, whom he apparently manipulates into crimes through his experiments, it is finally in his own breast that he finds what he sought. His own ruthless behavior is the ultimate sin.

Brand himself is a recurrent type in Hawthorne’s work. These scientist-philosopher figures—of whom the best known is Chillingworth in his novel The Scarlet Letter (1850)—are driven by a coldly empirical curiosity that, if not mitigated by human feeling, can drive them to a form of madness in which the Idea consumes their entire beings. No excess is then too great, no experiment beyond their scope in the pursuit of their goal to achieve ultimate knowledge. Like Ethan Brand, such figures are not bound by the natural sympathy that unites mankind.