Ethan Brand. Symbols and Themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Short Story

Seminar Paper, 2010

15 Pages, Grade: 2


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Nathaniel Hawthorne

3. Ethan Brand
3.1. Plot
3.2. Characters

4. Symbolism and Themes in Ethan Brand
4.1. Symbolism in “Ethan Brand”
4.1.1. The plot as a symbol
4.1.2. The name as a symbol
4.1.3. Fire, light and darkness as symbols
4.1.4. The dog and the German Jew
4.2. Themes in “Ethan Brand”
4.2.1. The Unpardonable Sin
4.2.2. Puritan Ideology in Ethan Brand

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

This paper should show an analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Ethan Brand, published in 1850. First of all it should give an overview of the plot and the characters of the short story as well as symbols and themes in Ethan Brand. Some of the most important symbols should be analyzed from different point-of-views, as well as the themes which are the essence in the short story. What is the Unpardonable Sin and what does Hawthorne want do show the reader by depicting it? Why are Puritan and Romantic elements so important in this short story?

The paper should show its reader some aspects and various answers to these questions, always in context to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s life and the values he wanted to submit.

2. Nathaniel Hawthorne

(*1804 - 1864)

Nathaniel Hawthorne is known as a key figure in American literature. Born into a family of Puritans, nearly all of his short stories are dealing with moral allegories and Puritan inspiration. Because of this fact, they contain moral messages and mention deep psychological problems. His themes often center the evil in humanity, as well as the Unpardonable Sin. But Nathaniel Hawthorne did not live the Puritan ideology like his ancestors: he had his own belief. He was of the opinion, that there exist both good and evil in Puritanism, as well as in every person itself. He was aware of his roots, but questioned the behavior and beliefs of his forefathers. Hawthorne was a master of the imagery of the fine and minor arts as well as of using symbols.

His masterpieces were The Scarlet Letter, The House of the Seven Gables and The Marble Faun. (c.f. Arvin vii-xviii)

3. Ethan Brand

3.1. Plot

The story is set on an August evening near Graylock mountain. The main characters are Bartram, “a rough heavy looking man” (Arvin 1946 375), who’s profession is a lime-burner. His little son Joe and the former lime-burner Ethan Brand, with his “thin, rugged, thoughtful visage, with the grizzled hair hanging wildly around it, and those deeply sunken eyes, which gleamed like fires” (Arvin 378). 18 years ago he went away, looking for the Unpardonable Sin, which he had finally found in his own heart. Bartram, thinking of Ethan being a mad man, sends his boy Joe down to the village to bring some villagers with him. In the meantime, Brand explains him, that the Unpardonable Sin is “the sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God” (Arvin 381), and how proud he is about discovering that. After a while the villagers come closer. Among them are the stage agent, “a smoke dried man, winkled and red nosed” (Arvin 382), who’s a drunkard, Lawyer Giles, “an elderly ragamuffin” (Arvin 382) but courageous fellow; the village doctor and Old Humphrey “a white haired relic demented because of his lost daughter Esther, whom Brand ruined in a psychological experiment” (Gale 59). While they are talking to Ethan Brand, a German Jewish diorama entertainer arrives and shows Joe and the others pictures of cities, castles and battles, “a series of the most outrageous scratchings and daubings, as specimens of the fine arts” (Arvin 385). Then he shows it to Brand, telling him that the Unpardonable Sin is inside the diorama. At this point, suddenly arrives an old dog, who “without the slightest suggestion from anybody else, begins to run round after his tail” (Arvin 386). Brand sees an analogy between him and the dog and “brake into the awful laugh, which, more than any other token, expresses the condition of his inward being” (Arvin 386): consequently all the villagers leave frightened, even Bartram and his son enter the house, leaving Brand alone. Ethan stands near the kiln, thinking about himself being a simple man, who changed his character and attitude to life while he was gaining more and more intellectual power. He is proud of himself and knows that his life has to end at this point, so he throws himself into the lime kiln. In the morning everything is different. “The strange man is gone, and the sky and the mountains all seem glad of it” (Arvin 390). Bartram draws near the fire and sees a human skeleton, lying on the lime. Within it was Ethan Brand’s stony heart, made of marble. (cf. Gale 59-60)

3.2. Characters

Ethan Brand is a strange man, who travelled around the world in search of the Unpardonable Sin, finding it in his own heart. (cf. Gale 182). It’s said that Ethan Brand has fixed a pact with the devil, who forced him to commit sin and gain more and more knowledge, regardless of the consequences. Love and emotion are foreign words for him.

Bartram replaced Ethan Brand as lime-burner on Mount Graylock and is Brand’s first contact person during the whole short story. (cf. Gale 178). He works a lot and cannot understand people, who simply live for knowledge and even for emotion (like e.g. his own son)

Joe is the antagonist to Ethan Brand, being shocked about Ethan Brand’s life and frightened of him. He is sensitive and obedient. (cf. Gale 220)

Jew of Nuremberg is convinced of having the Unpardonable Sin in his diorama. It is said that he could be the embodiment of the devil. (cf. Gale 220)

Humphrey is an old, demented man, because of the abandonment of his daughter Ester, who was ruined then by Brand during a psychological experiment. (cf. Gale 217)

4. Symbolism and Themes in Ethan Brand

4.1. Symbolism in “Ethan Brand”

Hawthorne is an expert when it comes to symbolism. As a romanticist he represents his themes in “a kind of symbolic magic-lantern show.” (Porte 96). To describe his characters, being in search of their own personal meaning of life, he uses allegories and exaggerated pictures to attract attention. The romantic parts are visible, but you can see the Puritan heritage in Hawthorne’s works. Every story has a symbolic moral, which shows the evil sights of human existence and should evoke improvement and amelioration.

4.1.1. The plot as a symbol

Already the plot could be seen as a symbol, considering the “lime-out-of-marble” process, a process of purification. This process is the one Ethan Brand has to undergo during his lifetime, while he is in search of the Unpardonable Sin. In the end of his life, he’s able to purify himself, to become “marble” and to wipe off everything he has done during his life. (cf. Burke 78). Marble does also have a negative connotation in Hawthorne’s work: Ethan Brand’s heart is made of marble: he has a heart of stone. This shows Ethan Brand’s negative character, his coldness towards his fellow men and his ignorance when it comes to love and feelings. For Hawthorne the heart has to be in line with the mind of a person: a heart made out of marble cannot fulfill this requirement.

4.1.2. The name as a symbol

Even the name of Ethan Brand can be seen as a symbol for his character and his mood, supporting the denouement of the short story. When you see Brand as a typical noun it could be seen as “a burning piece of wood”, “a mark burnt into your skin” or even “a mark of shame and disgrace” (cf. Macmillan Dictionary Online). All of the three definitions match with Ethan Brand’s character.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


Ethan Brand. Symbols and Themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Short Story
University of Innsbruck  (American Studies)
19th Century American Short Stories
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ISBN (Book)
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ethan, brand, symbols, themes, nathaniel, hawthorne, short, story
Quote paper
Anna Rauch (Author), 2010, Ethan Brand. Symbols and Themes in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Short Story, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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