Egotism, or. the Bosom Serpent
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
[From the Unpublished "Allegories of the Heart."]
 The physical fact, to which it is here attempted to give a
moral signification, has been known to occur in more than one
"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
"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 heart's core.
"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 thus?"
"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 your wife!"
"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 fiendish spite.
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
"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
"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 divine
"You have swallowed a snake in a cup of sacramental wine," quoth
"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
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 Roderick.
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
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 nature.
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 George Herkimer.
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
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 two visitors.
"Remain in the arbor," whispered the sculptor to the figure that
leaned upon his arm. "You will know whether, and when, to make
"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
"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
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
"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
"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,
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
"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 Eternity."