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From The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales by Michael J. Colacurcio, pp. 85-86.

From The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales by Michael J. Colacurcio, pp. 85-86.

The older tale, we are told, "opened darkly with the discovery of a murder." Evidently the desperate criminal had tried to hack a hole in the ice on a frozen lake, so as to "conceal his victim in a chill and watery grave"; but the solidity of the ice was "too stubborn for the patience of a man with blood upon his hand," and so the corpse had remained unburied. It would not bury, we critically surmise, any more than the moral guilt which Samuel Sewall found himself confessing five years after the legal fact. But then the snow comes to cover the corpse, ''as if nature were shocked at the deed, and strove to hide it with her frozen tears"; but even her cleanly concerns can only partly bury the body, so that a traveler soon makes an "affrighted" discovery." The corpse will not bury, we easily convince ourselves, any more than the remorse of the murderer will ever be forced down into un- consciousness: murder will out; nobody will hear heartbeats from inside a wall or crypt, but we will not be surprised to find the guilty party confessing the whole affair to his local wizard.

And yet somewhat more is at stake here than dramatic irony and depth psychology; there is a learned as well as an obvious significance to the incomplete burial of Walter Brome. For by it we are also put in touch with the most devastating attack on the logic and tactics of Cotton Mather drafted by any of his contemporaries. At something like the emotional climax of his case against the witchcraft proceedings, Robert Calef describes the final "appeal" and death--and partial burial--of Mather's most troublesome and anxious-making victim, George Burroughs. Burroughs appeals to the spectators, with a "Speech for the clearing of his Innocency," and with a prayer (concluded by a precise and perfect repetition of the Lord's Prayer) which was "so well worded," fervent, and affecting "that it seemed to some, that the Spectators would hinder the Execution." But Mather interposes with a resume of fact and theory: Burroughs is "no ordained minister," there is a legal case against him, and (besides) "the Devil has often been transformed into an Angel of Light." Thus "the People" are "somewhat appeased," and his execution is carried out. And then this: "When he was cut down, he was dragged by the Halter to a Hole. . . about two feet deep. . . [and] he was so put in. . . [that] one of his Hands and his Chin. . . [were] left uncovered." Apparently even contemporaneous observers wished to suggest, in a symbolic way, that the thing could not quite be covered over.

It might be too much to argue that Hawthorne's original tale had been intended as an "allegory" of the last-hour appeal of George Burroughs. But it can only be Burroughs who offers, in the narrator's "true" story, a "petition [not] for himself alone, but embracing all his fellow-sufferers and the frenzied multitude"; no other clergyman was counted among the accused; the reference to him as an "ordained pastor" is only Hawthorne's way of taking sides with Calef, against Mather, on the unhappily attendant question of the disputed validity of Burroughs' ordination. And, most clearly and cogently, the detail of incomplete burial is too meaningful to be accidental.

Source: Colacurcio, Michael J. The Province of Piety: Moral History in Hawthorne's Early Tales. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Page citation: http://www.hawthorneinsalem.org/page/11924/

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