Egotism; or, The Bosom Serpent by Nathaniel Hawthorne
[From the Unpublished "Allegories of the Heart."]
"Here he comes!" shouted the boys along the street. "Here comes the man
with a snake in his bosom!"
This outcry, saluting Herkimer's ears as he was about to enter the iron
gate of the Elliston mansion, made him pause. It was not without a
shudder that he found himself on the point of meeting his former
acquaintance, whom he had known in the glory of youth, and whom now
after an interval of five years, he was to find the victim either of a
diseased fancy or a horrible physical misfortune.
"A snake in his bosom!" repeated the young sculptor to himself. "It
must be he. No second man on earth has such a bosom friend. And now, my
poor Rosina, Heaven grant me wisdom to discharge my errand aright!
Woman's faith must be strong indeed since thine has not yet failed."
Thus musing, he took his stand at the entrance of the gate and waited
until the personage so singularly announced should make his appearance.
After an instant or two he beheld the figure of a lean man, of
unwholesome look, with glittering eyes and long black hair, who seemed
to imitate the motion of a snake; for, instead of walking straight
forward with open front, he undulated along the pavement in a curved
line. It may be too fanciful to say that something, either in his moral
or material aspect, suggested the idea that a miracle had been wrought
by transforming a serpent into a man, but so imperfectly that the snaky
nature was yet hidden, and scarcely hidden, under the mere outward
guise of humanity. Herkimer remarked that his complexion had a greenish
tinge over its sickly white, reminding him of a species of marble out
of which he had once wrought a head of Envy, with her snaky locks.
The wretched being approached the gate, but, instead of entering,
stopped short and fixed the glitter of his eye full upon the
compassionate yet steady countenance of the sculptor.
"It gnaws me! It gnaws me!" he exclaimed.
And then there was an audible hiss, but whether it came from the
apparent lunatic's own lips, or was the real hiss of a serpent, might
admit of a discussion. At all events, it made Herkimer shudder to his
"Do you know me, George Herkimer?" asked the snake-possessed.
Herkimer did know him; but it demanded all the intimate and practical
acquaintance with the human face, acquired by modelling actual
likenesses in clay, to recognize the features of Roderick Elliston in
the visage that now met the sculptor's gaze. Yet it was he. It added
nothing to the wonder to reflect that the once brilliant young man had
undergone this odious and fearful change during the no more than five
brief years of Herkimer's abode at Florence. The possibility of such a
transformation being granted, it was as easy to conceive it effected in
a moment as in an age. Inexpressibly shocked and startled, it was still
the keenest pang when Herkimer remembered that the fate of his cousin
Rosina, the ideal of gentle womanhood, was indissolubly interwoven with
that of a being whom Providence seemed to have unhumanized.
"Elliston! Roderick!" cried he, "I had heard of this; but my conception
came far short of the truth. What has befallen you? Why do I find you
"Oh, 'tis a mere nothing! A snake! A snake! The commonest thing in the
world. A snake in the bosom—that's all," answered Roderick Elliston.
"But how is your own breast?" continued he, looking the sculptor in the
eye with the most acute and penetrating glance that it had ever been
his fortune to encounter. "All pure and wholesome? No reptile there? By
my faith and conscience, and by the devil within me, here is a wonder!
A man without a serpent in his bosom!"
"Be calm, Elliston," whispered George Herkimer, laying his hand upon
the shoulder of the snake-possessed. "I have crossed the ocean to meet
you. Listen! Let us be private. I bring a message from Rosina—from
"It gnaws me! It gnaws me!" muttered Roderick.
With this exclamation, the most frequent in his mouth, the unfortunate
man clutched both hands upon his breast as if an intolerable sting or
torture impelled him to rend it open and let out the living mischief,
even should it be intertwined with his own life. He then freed himself
from Herkimer's grasp by a subtle motion, and, gliding through the
gate, took refuge in his antiquated family residence. The sculptor did
not pursue him. He saw that no available intercourse could be expected
at such a moment, and was desirous, before another meeting, to inquire
closely into the nature of Roderick's disease and the circumstances
that had reduced him to so lamentable a condition. He succeeded in
obtaining the necessary information from an eminent medical gentleman.
Shortly after Elliston's separation from his wife—now nearly four
years ago—his associates had observed a singular gloom spreading over
his daily life, like those chill, gray mists that sometimes steal away
the sunshine from a summer's morning. The symptoms caused them endless
perplexity. They knew not whether ill health were robbing his spirits
of elasticity, or whether a canker of the mind was gradually eating, as
such cankers do, from his moral system into the physical frame, which
is but the shadow of the former. They looked for the root of this
trouble in his shattered schemes of domestic bliss,—wilfully shattered
by himself,—but could not be satisfied of its existence there. Some
thought that their once brilliant friend was in an incipient stage of
insanity, of which his passionate impulses had perhaps been the
forerunners; others prognosticated a general blight and gradual
decline. From Roderick's own lips they could learn nothing. More than
once, it is true, he had been heard to say, clutching his hands
convulsively upon his breast,—"It gnaws me! It gnaws me!"—but, by
different auditors, a great diversity of explanation was assigned to
this ominous expression. What could it be that gnawed the breast of
Roderick Elliston? Was it sorrow? Was it merely the tooth of physical
disease? Or, in his reckless course, often verging upon profligacy, if
not plunging into its depths, had he been guilty of some deed which
made his bosom a prey to the deadlier fangs of remorse? There was
plausible ground for each of these conjectures; but it must not be
concealed that more than one elderly gentleman, the victim of good
cheer and slothful habits, magisterially pronounced the secret of the
whole matter to be Dyspepsia!
Meanwhile, Roderick seemed aware how generally he had become the
subject of curiosity and conjecture, and, with a morbid repugnance to
such notice, or to any notice whatsoever, estranged himself from all
companionship. Not merely the eye of man was a horror to him; not
merely the light of a friend's countenance; but even the blessed
sunshine, likewise, which in its universal beneficence typifies the
radiance of the Creator's face, expressing his love for all the
creatures of his hand. The dusky twilight was now too transparent for
Roderick Elliston; the blackest midnight was his chosen hour to steal
abroad; and if ever he were seen, it was when the watchman's lantern
gleamed upon his figure, gliding along the street, with his hands
clutched upon his bosom, still muttering, "It gnaws me! It gnaws me!"
What could it be that gnawed him?
After a time, it became known that Elliston was in the habit of
resorting to all the noted quacks that infested the city, or whom money
would tempt to journey thither from a distance. By one of these
persons, in the exultation of a supposed cure, it was proclaimed far
and wide, by dint of handbills and little pamphlets on dingy paper,
that a distinguished gentleman, Roderick Elliston, Esq., had been
relieved of a SNAKE in his stomach! So here was the monstrous secret,
ejected from its lurking place into public view, in all its horrible
deformity. The mystery was out; but not so the bosom serpent. He, if it
were anything but a delusion, still lay coiled in his living den. The
empiric's cure had been a sham, the effect, it was supposed, of some
stupefying drug which more nearly caused the death of the patient than
of the odious reptile that possessed him. When Roderick Elliston
regained entire sensibility, it was to find his misfortune the town
talk—the more than nine days' wonder and horror—while, at his bosom,
he felt the sickening motion of a thing alive, and the gnawing of that
restless fang which seemed to gratify at once a physical appetite and a
He summoned the old black servant, who had been bred up in his father's
house, and was a middle-aged man while Roderick lay in his cradle.
"Scipio!" he began; and then paused, with his arms folded over his
heart. "What do people say of me, Scipio."
"Sir! my poor master! that you had a serpent in your bosom," answered
the servant with hesitation.
"And what else?" asked Roderick, with a ghastly look at the man.
"Nothing else, dear master," replied Scipio, "only that the doctor gave
you a powder, and that the snake leaped out upon the floor."
"No, no!" muttered Roderick to himself, as he shook his head, and
pressed his hands with a more convulsive force upon his breast, "I feel
him still. It gnaws me! It gnaws me!"
From this time the miserable sufferer ceased to shun the world, but
rather solicited and forced himself upon the notice of acquaintances
and strangers. It was partly the result of desperation on finding that
the cavern of his own bosom had not proved deep and dark enough to hide
the secret, even while it was so secure a fortress for the loathsome
fiend that had crept into it. But still more, this craving for
notoriety was a symptom of the intense morbidness which now pervaded
his nature. All persons chronically diseased are egotists, whether the
disease be of the mind or body; whether it be sin, sorrow, or merely
the more tolerable calamity of some endless pain, or mischief among the
cords of mortal life. Such individuals are made acutely conscious of a
self, by the torture in which it dwells. Self, therefore, grows to be
so prominent an object with them that they cannot but present it to the
face of every casual passer-by. There is a pleasure—perhaps the
greatest of which the sufferer is susceptible—in displaying the wasted
or ulcerated limb, or the cancer in the breast; and the fouler the
crime, with so much the more difficulty does the perpetrator prevent it
from thrusting up its snake-like head to frighten the world; for it is
that cancer, or that crime, which constitutes their respective
individuality. Roderick Elliston, who, a little while before, had held
himself so scornfully above the common lot of men, now paid full
allegiance to this humiliating law. The snake in his bosom seemed the
symbol of a monstrous egotism to which everything was referred, and
which he pampered, night and day, with a continual and exclusive
sacrifice of devil worship.
He soon exhibited what most people considered indubitable tokens of
insanity. In some of his moods, strange to say, he prided and gloried
himself on being marked out from the ordinary experience of mankind, by
the possession of a double nature, and a life within a life. He
appeared to imagine that the snake was a divinity,—not celestial, it
is true, but darkly infernal,—and that he thence derived an eminence
and a sanctity, horrid, indeed, yet more desirable than whatever
ambition aims at. Thus he drew his misery around him like a regal
mantle, and looked down triumphantly upon those whose vitals nourished
no deadly monster. Oftener, however, his human nature asserted its
empire over him in the shape of a yearning for fellowship. It grew to
be his custom to spend the whole day in wandering about the streets,
aimlessly, unless it might be called an aim to establish a species of
brotherhood between himself and the world. With cankered ingenuity, he
sought out his own disease in every breast. Whether insane or not, he
showed so keen a perception of frailty, error, and vice, that many
persons gave him credit for being possessed not merely with a serpent,
but with an actual fiend, who imparted this evil faculty of recognizing
whatever was ugliest in man's heart.
For instance, he met an individual, who, for thirty years, had
cherished a hatred against his own brother. Roderick, amidst the throng
of the street, laid his hand on this man's chest, and looking full into
his forbidding face, "How is the snake to-day?" he inquired, with a
mock expression of sympathy.
"The snake!" exclaimed the brother hater—"what do you mean?"
"The snake! The snake! Does it gnaw you?" persisted Roderick. "Did you
take counsel with him this morning when you should have been saying
your prayers? Did he sting, when you thought of your brother's health,
wealth, and good repute? Did he caper for joy, when you remembered the
profligacy of his only son? And whether he stung, or whether he
frolicked, did you feel his poison throughout your body and soul,
converting everything to sourness and bitterness? That is the way of
such serpents. I have learned the whole nature of them from my own!"
"Where is the police?" roared the object of Roderick's persecution, at
the same time giving an instinctive clutch to his breast. "Why is this
lunatic allowed to go at large?"
"Ha, ha!" chuckled Roderick, releasing his grasp of the man.— "His
bosom serpent has stung him then!"
Often it pleased the unfortunate young man to vex people with a lighter
satire, yet still characterized by somewhat of snake-like virulence.
One day he encountered an ambitious statesman, and gravely inquired
after the welfare of his boa constrictor; for of that species, Roderick
affirmed, this gentleman's serpent must needs be, since its appetite
was enormous enough to devour the whole country and constitution. At
another time, he stopped a close-fisted old fellow, of great wealth,
but who skulked about the city in the guise of a scarecrow, with a
patched blue surtout, brown hat, and mouldy boots, scraping pence
together, and picking up rusty nails. Pretending to look earnestly at
this respectable person's stomach, Roderick assured him that his snake
was a copper-head and had been generated by the immense quantities of
that base metal with which he daily defiled his fingers. Again, he
assaulted a man of rubicund visage, and told him that few bosom
serpents had more of the devil in them than those that breed in the
vats of a distillery. The next whom Roderick honored with his attention
was a distinguished clergyman, who happened just then to be engaged in
a theological controversy, where human wrath was more perceptible than
"You have swallowed a snake in a cup of sacramental wine," quoth he.
"Profane wretch!" exclaimed the divine; but, nevertheless, his hand
stole to his breast.
He met a person of sickly sensibility, who, on some early
disappointment, had retired from the world, and thereafter held no
intercourse with his fellow-men, but brooded sullenly or passionately
over the irrevocable past. This man's very heart, if Roderick might be
believed, had been changed into a serpent, which would finally torment
both him and itself to death. Observing a married couple, whose
domestic troubles were matter of notoriety, he condoled with both on
having mutually taken a house adder to their bosoms. To an envious
author, who depreciated works which he could never equal, he said that
his snake was the slimiest and filthiest of all the reptile tribe, but
was fortunately without a sting. A man of impure life, and a brazen
face, asking Roderick if there were any serpent in his breast, he told
him that there was, and of the same species that once tortured Don
Rodrigo, the Goth. He took a fair young girl by the hand, and gazing
sadly into her eyes, warned her that she cherished a serpent of the
deadliest kind within her gentle breast; and the world found the truth
of those ominous words, when, a few months afterwards, the poor girl
died of love and shame. Two ladies, rivals in fashionable life who
tormented one another with a thousand little stings of womanish spite,
were given to understand that each of their hearts was a nest of
diminutive snakes, which did quite as much mischief as one great one.
But nothing seemed to please Roderick better than to lay hold of a
person infected with jealousy, which he represented as an enormous
green reptile, with an ice-cold length of body, and the sharpest sting
of any snake save one.
"And what one is that?" asked a by-stander, overhearing him.
It was a dark-browed man who put the question; he had an evasive eye,
which in the course of a dozen years had looked no mortal directly in
the face. There was an ambiguity about this person's character,—a
stain upon his reputation,—yet none could tell precisely of what
nature, although the city gossips, male and female, whispered the most
atrocious surmises. Until a recent period he had followed the sea, and
was, in fact, the very shipmaster whom George Herkimer had encountered,
under such singular circumstances, in the Grecian Archipelago.
"What bosom serpent has the sharpest sting?" repeated this man; but he
put the question as if by a reluctant necessity, and grew pale while he
was uttering it.
"Why need you ask?" replied Roderick, with a look of dark intelligence.
"Look into your own breast. Hark! my serpent bestirs himself! He
acknowledges the presence of a master fiend!"
And then, as the by-standers afterwards affirmed, a hissing sound was
heard, apparently in Roderick Elliston's breast. It was said, too, that
an answering hiss came from the vitals of the shipmaster, as if a snake
were actually lurking there and had been aroused by the call of its
brother reptile. If there were in fact any such sound, it might have
been caused by a malicious exercise of ventriloquism on the part of
Thus making his own actual serpent—if a serpent there actually was in
his bosom—the type of each man's fatal error, or hoarded sin, or
unquiet conscience, and striking his sting so unremorsefully into the
sorest spot, we may well imagine that Roderick became the pest of the
city. Nobody could elude him—none could withstand him. He grappled
with the ugliest truth that he could lay his hand on, and compelled his
adversary to do the same. Strange spectacle in human life where it is
the instinctive effort of one and all to hide those sad realities, and
leave them undisturbed beneath a heap of superficial topics which
constitute the materials of intercourse between man and man! It was not
to be tolerated that Roderick Elliston should break through the tacit
compact by which the world has done its best to secure repose without
relinquishing evil. The victims of his malicious remarks, it is true,
had brothers enough to keep them in countenance; for, by Roderick's
theory, every mortal bosom harbored either a brood of small serpents or
one overgrown monster that had devoured all the rest. Still the city
could not bear this new apostle. It was demanded by nearly all, and
particularly by the most respectable inhabitants, that Roderick should
no longer be permitted to violate the received rules of decorum by
obtruding his own bosom serpent to the public gaze, and dragging those
of decent people from their lurking places.
Accordingly, his relatives interfered and placed him in a private
asylum for the insane. When the news was noised abroad, it was observed
that many persons walked the streets with freer countenances and
covered their breasts less carefully with their hands.
His confinement, however, although it contributed not a little to the
peace of the town, operated unfavorably upon Roderick himself. In
solitude his melancholy grew more black and sullen. He spent whole
days—indeed, it was his sole occupation—in communing with the
serpent. A conversation was sustained, in which, as it seemed, the
hidden monster bore a part, though unintelligibly to the listeners, and
inaudible except in a hiss. Singular as it may appear, the sufferer had
now contracted a sort of affection for his tormentor, mingled, however,
with the intensest loathing and horror. Nor were such discordant
emotions incompatible. Each, on the contrary, imparted strength and
poignancy to its opposite. Horrible love—horrible antipathy—embracing
one another in his bosom, and both concentrating themselves upon a
being that had crept into his vitals or been engendered there, and
which was nourished with his food, and lived upon his life, and was as
intimate with him as his own heart, and yet was the foulest of all
created things! But not the less was it the true type of a morbid
Sometimes, in his moments of rage and bitter hatred against the snake
and himself, Roderick determined to be the death of him, even at the
expense of his own life. Once he attempted it by starvation; but, while
the wretched man was on the point of famishing, the monster seemed to
feed upon his heart, and to thrive and wax gamesome, as if it were his
sweetest and most congenial diet. Then he privily took a dose of active
poison, imagining that it would not fail to kill either himself or the
devil that possessed him, or both together. Another mistake; for if
Roderick had not yet been destroyed by his own poisoned heart nor the
snake by gnawing it, they had little to fear from arsenic or corrosive
sublimate. Indeed, the venomous pest appeared to operate as an antidote
against all other poisons. The physicians tried to suffocate the fiend
with tobacco smoke. He breathed it as freely as if it were his native
atmosphere. Again, they drugged their patient with opium and drenched
him with intoxicating liquors, hoping that the snake might thus be
reduced to stupor and perhaps be ejected from the stomach. They
succeeded in rendering Roderick insensible; but, placing their hands
upon his breast, they were inexpressibly horror stricken to feel the
monster wriggling, twining, and darting to and fro within his narrow
limits, evidently enlivened by the opium or alcohol, and incited to
unusual feats of activity. Thenceforth they gave up all attempts at
cure or palliation. The doomed sufferer submitted to his fate, resumed
his former loathsome affection for the bosom fiend, and spent whole
miserable days before a looking-glass, with his mouth wide open,
watching, in hope and horror, to catch a glimpse of the snake's head
far down within his throat. It is supposed that he succeeded; for the
attendants once heard a frenzied shout, and, rushing into the room,
found Roderick lifeless upon the floor.
He was kept but little longer under restraint. After minute
investigation, the medical directors of the asylum decided that his
mental disease did not amount to insanity, nor would warrant his
confinement, especially as its influence upon his spirits was
unfavorable, and might produce the evil which it was meant to remedy.
His eccentricities were doubtless great; he had habitually violated
many of the customs and prejudices of society; but the world was not,
without surer ground, entitled to treat him as a madman. On this
decision of such competent authority Roderick was released, and had
returned to his native city the very day before his encounter with
As soon as possible after learning these particulars the sculptor,
together with a sad and tremulous companion, sought Elliston at his own
house. It was a large, sombre edifice of wood, with pilasters and a
balcony, and was divided from one of the principal streets by a terrace
of three elevations, which was ascended by successive flights of stone
steps. Some immense old elms almost concealed the front of the mansion.
This spacious and once magnificent family residence was built by a
grandee of the race early in the past century, at which epoch, land
being of small comparative value, the garden and other grounds had
formed quite an extensive domain. Although a portion of the ancestral
heritage had been alienated, there was still a shadowy enclosure in the
rear of the mansion where a student, or a dreamer, or a man of stricken
heart might lie all day upon the grass, amid the solitude of murmuring
boughs, and forget that a city had grown up around him.
Into this retirement the sculptor and his companion were ushered by
Scipio, the old black servant, whose wrinkled visage grew almost sunny
with intelligence and joy as he paid his humble greetings to one of the
"Remain in the arbor," whispered the sculptor to the figure that leaned
upon his arm. "You will know whether, and when, to make your
"God will teach me," was the reply. "May He support me too!"
Roderick was reclining on the margin of a fountain which gushed into
the fleckered sunshine with the same clear sparkle and the same voice
of airy quietude as when trees of primeval growth flung their shadows
cross its bosom. How strange is the life of a fountain!—born at every
moment, yet of an age coeval with the rocks, and far surpassing the
venerable antiquity of a forest.
"You are come! I have expected you," said Elliston, when he became
aware of the sculptor's presence.
His manner was very different from that of the preceding day—quiet,
courteous, and, as Herkimer thought, watchful both over his guest and
himself. This unnatural restraint was almost the only trait that
betokened anything amiss. He had just thrown a book upon the grass,
where it lay half opened, thus disclosing itself to be a natural
history of the serpent tribe, illustrated by lifelike plates. Near it
lay that bulky volume, the Ductor Dubitantium of Jeremy Taylor, full of
cases of conscience, and in which most men, possessed of a conscience,
may find something applicable to their purpose.
"You see," observed Elliston, pointing to the book of serpents, while a
smile gleamed upon his lips, "I am making an effort to become better
acquainted with my bosom friend; but I find nothing satisfactory in
this volume. If I mistake not, he will prove to be sui generis, and
akin to no other reptile in creation."
"Whence came this strange calamity?" inquired the sculptor.
"My sable friend Scipio has a story," replied Roderick, "of a snake
that had lurked in this fountain—pure and innocent as it looks—ever
since it was known to the first settlers. This insinuating personage
once crept into the vitals of my great grandfather and dwelt there many
years, tormenting the old gentleman beyond mortal endurance. In short
it is a family peculiarity. But, to tell you the truth, I have no faith
in this idea of the snake's being an heirloom. He is my own snake, and
no man's else."
"But what was his origin?" demanded Herkimer.
"Oh, there is poisonous stuff in any man's heart sufficient to generate
a brood of serpents," said Elliston with a hollow laugh. "You should
have heard my homilies to the good town's-people. Positively, I deem
myself fortunate in having bred but a single serpent. You, however,
have none in your bosom, and therefore cannot sympathize with the rest
of the world. It gnaws me! It gnaws me!"
With this exclamation Roderick lost his self-control and threw himself
upon the grass, testifying his agony by intricate writhings, in which
Herkimer could not but fancy a resemblance to the motions of a snake.
Then, likewise, was heard that frightful hiss, which often ran through
the sufferer's speech, and crept between the words and syllables
without interrupting their succession.
"This is awful indeed!" exclaimed the sculptor—"an awful infliction,
whether it be actual or imaginary. Tell me, Roderick Elliston, is there
any remedy for this loathsome evil?"
"Yes, but an impossible one," muttered Roderick, as he lay wallowing
with his face in the grass. "Could I for one moment forget myself, the
serpent might not abide within me. It is my diseased self-contemplation
that has engendered and nourished him."
"Then forget yourself, my husband," said a gentle voice above him;
"forget yourself in the idea of another!"
Rosina had emerged from the arbor, and was bending over him with the
shadow of his anguish reflected in her countenance, yet so mingled with
hope and unselfish love that all anguish seemed but an earthly shadow
and a dream. She touched Roderick with her hand. A tremor shivered
through his frame. At that moment, if report be trustworthy, the
sculptor beheld a waving motion through the grass, and heard a tinkling
sound, as if something had plunged into the fountain. Be the truth as
it might, it is certain that Roderick Elliston sat up like a man
renewed, restored to his right mind, and rescued from the fiend which
had so miserably overcome him in the battle-field of his own breast.
"Rosina!" cried he, in broken and passionate tones, but with nothing of
the wild wail that had haunted his voice so long, "forgive! forgive!"
Her happy tears bedewed his face.
"The punishment has been severe," observed the sculptor. "Even Justice
might now forgive; how much more a woman's tenderness! Roderick
Elliston, whether the serpent was a physical reptile, or whether the
morbidness of your nature suggested that symbol to your fancy, the
moral of the story is not the less true and strong. A tremendous
Egotism, manifesting itself in your case in the form of jealousy, is as
fearful a fiend as ever stole into the human heart. Can a breast, where
it has dwelt so long, be purified?"
"Oh yes," said Rosina with a heavenly smile. "The serpent was but a
dark fantasy, and what it typified was as shadowy as itself. The past,
dismal as it seems, shall fling no gloom upon the future. To give it
its due importance we must think of it but as an anecdote in our