Knowledge is gained and discoveries are made when we push our limits in life. Ideas and discoveries that were once radical and controversial are now commonplace and widely accepted. From sailing around the world without falling off the edge to soaring to the moon, man has pushed the boundaries of known science time and again. At times the quest for knowledge can lead men to extremes that can only be described as madness. Nathaniel Hawthorne seemed very interested in what overstepping our bounds can lead to. Several of his works focus on themes of man pushing his boundaries of knowledge to dangerous extremes.
Ethan Brand,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “The Birthmark” are all excellent examples of how Hawthorne explores the fanaticism of these men and the dire consequences involved. “Ethan Brand” is a tale of a lime-burner who abandoned his kiln and went in search of the unpardonable sin. In the meantime, a new lime-burner moved into the town and began using the kiln. Ethan Brand became a sort of legend in the area and it was rumored that he had been involved in some sort of evil rituals at his kiln and went mad as a result.
Several years pass and Brand returns one night to his kiln and meets the new lime-burner there. The scene is an eerie one, with the kiln blazing and casting slits of light out of the door into the night. The lime-burner’s son is afraid of Brand, something doesn’t seem right about him. He has indeed found the unpardonable sin and has now returned to his kiln. The unpardonable sin is never specifically explained by Hawthorne, but it is clear that it involves the quest for too much knowledge.
The overstepping of his bounds has led Brand to commit the unpardonable. 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. Unshrinkingly, I accept the retribution! ” (427-428) Ethan Brand has done something truly terrible in his quest for knowledge, so terrible that he is willing to suffer the consequences for eternity.
He hints at looking into sinful hearts and doing terrible things in his quest, but Hawthorne leaves the actual sin up to the reader to determine. In the end, after the kiln has cooled, Brand’s skeleton and heart are found in the kiln, composed of lime, showing that his sin had been letting his heart turn to stone in his quest for knowledge. Hawthorne also casts a critical view on the scientific pursuit of knowledge in “Rappaccini’s Daughter. ” Rappaccini is a doctor in Padua who has a beautiful garden and a seemingly perfect daughter. The odd thing is that the doctor never touches any of the flowers in his garden.
He wears a mask and thick gloves whenever he is in the garden to avoid directly touching anything. His daughter, however, walks freely in the garden and is not afraid to touch the flowers. In fact, she spends a lot of time in the garden tending to them. All of this is observed by Giovanni Guasconti, a young man staying in an apartment with a view of the garden. Inquiring about Rappaccini, we learn that he is much like Ethan Brand. “He cares infinitely more for science than for mankind. His patients are interesting to him only as subjects for some new experiment.
He would sacrifice human life, his own among the rest, or whatever else was dearest to him, for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard-seed to the heap of his accumulated knowledge” (394). Hawthorne is again using the relentless pursuit of knowledge to represent the most evil of sins. Rappaccini’s daughter is a creation of his garden, so much a part of it that she may not ever be able to leave even if she wanted to. The poisons that he has created in the garden in the name of medicine have become part of her. Restricting her to the garden in this way was his first sin against her.
At the end of the story, when she drinks a formula to try to rid herself of the poison she dies. She is in love with Guasconti and is tormented by not being able to touch him or ever leave. She would rather risk death than go on living in the state inflicted upon her by her father for his own experiments. Hawthorne emphasizes the inherent evil in placing one’s own advancement of knowledge before humanity. Like Ethan Brand, Rappaccini has forsaken all that is precious for knowledge that is not his to posses. The most evil of all three is Aylmer in “The Birth-mark,” a scientist who has come to believe in man’s ability to control nature.
He has fallen in love with a woman and yet cannot love her without his science. “He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies, ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to its own”(289). Georgiana is described as being a nearly perfect beauty, with one small imperfection. On one of her cheeks is a small mark that deeply troubles Aylmer.
It is a small reddish hand-shaped birth-mark that he cannot bear to see on her face as long as science exists that can remove it. The longer the two are together, the more the mark torments him as the only mark of imperfection on his otherwise perfect wife. Nature, however, insists that no creature be perfect, and Aylmer believes that he can control nature with science. “The Crimson Hand expressed the ineludible grope, in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust.
In this very manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s somber imagination was not long in rendering the birth-mark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight” (261-262). Aylmer’s revulsion by the mark is so terrible to Georgiana that she finally asks him to rid her of it. He has caused her so much pain by hating it that she insists he use his science to remove it, whatever the cost. “And, Aylmer, spare me not, though you should find the birth-mark take refuge in my heart at last” (264).
Georgiana’s mark indeed does go straight to her heart, and nothing Aylmer tries will remove it, forcing him to try more and more powerful treatments until she dies from the treatment. Aylmer’s disgust for the birth-mark led to the most terrible of circumstances. He caused Georgiana to hate the mark so much that she wanted to die rather than live with it any longer. Rappaccini imprisoned his daughter and caused her death in the name of medicinal knowledge. Ethan Brand forsook mankind to know what the unpardonable sin is, and Hawthorne addresses it in each of these stories.
Man pushing his boundaries to the point where mankind no longer matters and knowledge is of the utmost importance is Hawthorne’s unpardonable sin. When, in the quest for knowledge, man steps out of his bounds, terrible things happen. Of these three, none realized what the point of science was and lost touch with their humanity because of it. Hawthorne states it best at the end of “The Birth-mark. ” “The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of Time, and living once for all in Eternity, to find the perfect Future in the present” (278).