2 December 2004 This essay is short but is a nice comparison-contrast example
The Riddle of Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand”
With its heavy symbolic undertones, Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand” easily falls into the category of a literary riddle. The tale leaves the reader with two interdependent questions: What was the Unpardonable Sin and did Brand successfully discover and ultimately commit this act lack redemption. The resolutions of these queries ultimately depend upon one’s perspective and method of analysis. In effect, Brand’s interaction with the variety of subjects as well as their symbolic reference becomes part of the analysis.
The assumption that “Ethan Brand” shares many similarities with Goethe’s Faust is unquestionable and such is commonly assumed that Faust played a significant role in the development of the characters and world of Brand. One of the strongest similarities encountered between the two is the association of comical dog’s entrance marked by the Wandering Jew’s exit to the devil’s entrance as a simple black dog (Klingel). This similarity could lead one to interpret “Ethan Brand,” from a faustian perspective, as “…an inversion dealing with a man who is damned by his own rather than saved by prevenient grace” (Klingel 76). Through this interpretation Klingel offers a solution to the riddle by using the inverted similarities between Faust and “Ethan Brand.”
From a harshly critical view with a detailed and unforgiving analysis, one may view Brand and his quest simply as a misguided failure. Through this analysis, one could perceive Brand as a person who arrogantly refuses to accept his own failure and castigates those who disbelieve him with unfavorable labels and judgments. With illustrations indicating his failure presented in a multitude of forms alternative results are gained from the study of similar symbolical elements. A symbolic representation of failure remains evident from the comical dog chasing an impossible goal to the Wandering Jew when “[he] ridicules Brand’s search and its object by having Brand look into the empty diorama and telling him the Unpardonable Sin is there, implying that nothing is the Unpardonable Sin” (Harris). By investigating the elements of “Ethan Brand” with an unforgiving basis, the riddle is answered by implying that Brand in essence failed to find the Unforgivable Sin. Although many of the symbolic elements identified by Harris and Klingel were similar, the conclusion is governed by the original approach.
Alternatively as detailed in “’Ethan Brand’: A Portrait of the Artist” by Christopher Brown the entire tale could easily be evaluated as an artistic exercise in the perception of sin and the sinner. Based on a study of Hawthorne’s other works wee see that his curiosity and concern in the essence of sin, temptation, and forgiveness remain readily evident. Through an approach from an artistic perspective “Brand makes him self the subject of his art” (Brown 173). Similarities between Brand and Hawthorne are apparent. Brown provides and eloquent view in this matter as follows: “Ethan Brand may thus be viewed as an artwork treating the production of and art work, a portrait of an author by an author. That microcosm reflects macrocosm and that Brand’s self-purgation within the story corresponds to Hawthorne’s similar act by means of the story are at least possibilities worth raising because of the resemblances Brand bears his maker” (Brown 173). This performance art approach solves the riddle by implying that there is no riddle. Instead, through Brand, Hawthorne is expressing his concerns and curiosities about sin and his own forgiveness.
Although the many of the metaphors share similar symbolic representations from one interpretation to the next, the conclusions can vary drastically. Like the doomed Ahab, Greylock itself provides symbolic vista to impress upon an unfortunate individual a hopeless path. Thus Greylock may become a metaphor to a path to despair. It is reader who ultimately decides the target of this despair. A cynical approach may lead one to the solution of Brand’s ultimate failure or while retaining the same symbolic base, Greylock could easily represent unpleasant nature and results of his quest. Just as the approach can effect the impact of an agreed upon metaphor, the approach could just as easily effect the translations of the symbols themselves. The character Brand easily offers himself as reflection of Hawthorne creating a literary hall of mirrors, an inverted representation of Faust, or a biblical reference to Cain’s brand. Through one’s approach and method of analysis the meanings of the symbolic representations and the symbolic representations themselves change
Of the many explorations, suggestions of the underlying question have included through an inversion of Faust “Refusing prevenient grace and divine love, Ethan is indeed the Unpardonable Sinner, and he leap into the flame of Hell to join the devil” (Klingel 76). Contrasting in an explanation of his apparent suicide as the final indication of failure we are offered the solution “Having failed to embrace the Unpardonable Sin and to convince anyone else that he has realized it, he ends his life still refusing to admit failure” (Harris 77). From a biblical approach the enigmatic action is accomplished by speaking against the Holy Ghost “But his like style denies the validity of the concept that God’s spirit is at work in the world, in the hearts of man” (Stock). Finally one may refuse to conform to a position between the opposing views and view the text as an exercise in thought and expression. Like an artist painting himself in the act of painting himself “Ethan Brand” possibly represents an exercise of Hawthorne himself questioning the nature of sin, corruption, and forgiveness. Some riddles posses but one answer, crafted by someone with this in mind. “Ethan Brand” represents a literary riddle with no single answer. A symbolic rich tale with extensive biblical and literary references, the Brand’s search for the Unpardonable Sin offers the masses an infinite variety of solutions and interpretations.
Brown, Christopher. “‘Ethan Brand’: A Portrait of the Artist.” Studies in Short Fiction 17 (1980): 171-174.
Klingel, Joan E. “‘Ethan Brand’ as Hawthorne’s Faust.” Studies in Short Fiction 19 (1982): 74-76.
Harris, Mark. “A New Reading of ‘Ethan Brand’: The Failed Quest.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (1994): 69-77.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “Ethan Brand.” Rest of citation here.
---.“Young Goodman Brown.” Textbook citation here.
McElroy, John. “The Brand Metaphor in ‘Ethan Brand’.” American Literature 43.4 (1972): 633-667.
Stock, Ely. “The Biblical Context of ‘Ethan Brand’.” American Literature 37.2 (1965) 115-134.
von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust. Rest of citation here.