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Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent".


The young sculptor George Herkimer and his cousin Rosina Elliston pay a visit to Roderick Elliston, Rosina's husband. The couple has been separated for four years. Roderick used to be a brilliant man, now he is a wretched thing, moving and hissing like snake whom he believes to have in his breast. First Roderick's marriage deteriorated, then his social connections, finally he has estranged himself from all companionship.

After learning from his servant that he is being talked about, Roderick's behaviour swung to the other extreme. He craved for notoriety and presented his snake (the symbol of his monstrous egotism) to the faces of passers-by. He also sought brotherhood with similarly affected people, finding his own disease in every breast. He created his own system of describing people's snakes in which each vice had a snake of its own.

Because of his hanging around and showing the ugliest truth of people, Roderick was removed to a mental asylum. There he was communicating with his serpent, loving and loathing him at the same time. He sat the whole day in front of a mirror with his mouth open, waiting to catch a glimpse of the snake and to kill him. He was reported to have succeed and was released home.

The narrator returns to the point when the young sculptor and his companion came to meet the snake-obsessed. The sculptor finds him reading a book on the history of a serpent tribe. Roderick explains that his black servant claims the snake to have come from the fountain. It was once swallowed by Roderick's grandfather and exists since then as a heirloom in their family. Although he claims he does not believe the story, when his wife appears and gives him the medicine which he needs, that is forgetting for a moment himself, there is waving motion through the grass, hissing, and then as if something has plunged into the fountain. Roderick immediately recovers.

The moral of the story is that although the Egotism is the greatest enemy that ever has occupied a man's heart, the heart can be still purified. Then the serpent is just a dark fantasy and should be thought of as a mere anecdote in our Eternity.



(from Portable Hawthorne)

- a symbolic plight of a man who cannot forget himself for a moment

- in the end healed by his wife (as Hawthorne himself had been healed by his marriage)

- Hawthorne held egotism, or the pride of oneself, for the unpardonable sin, and thought himself being guilty of it

- according to Hawthorne, the heart (and so the bosom in this story) is by nature a solitude where each man dwells alone with his pride and selfishness


  • Author

    Hawthorne, Nathaniel. (1804 - 1864).
  • Full Title

    "Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent".
  • First Published

    In: The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. 1843.
  • Form

    Short story.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "Egotism; or, the Bosom Serpent". (1843). In: The Portable Hawthorne. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. New York: The Viking Press, 1974.

Cowley, Malcolm, ed. The Portable Hawthorne. New York: The Viking Press, 1974.


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