Free Essay: Point of View in "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Published: 2022-02-21
Free Essay: Point of View in "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  Nathaniel Hawthorne
Pages: 5
Wordcount: 1292 words
11 min read

"The Birthmark" is, perhaps, one of the most popular and well-known short stories written by Nathaniel Hawthorne. The secret to its success lies within the complex combination of an intriguing plot, a central problem that is today as widely discussed as ever, attention to the aesthetic detail and genuine voice of the narrator. Third-person omniscient narration allows Hawthorne to paint convincing and rounded psychological portraits of his characters, sustain suspense, and simultaneously establish a closer contact with his readers involving them into the discussion of what it means to be human: for Hawthorne, being human is being somehow flawed and yet filled with higher aspiration.

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The plot of this short story is rather telling in itself, and yet it would not have had such a powerful influence upon the reader without the narrator's comments which help the reader form a strong opinion of the central situation described in the short story. "The Birthmark" opens with an idyllic picture of the brilliant scientist Aylmer and his beautiful wife Georgiana, who are a perfect match. It seems that this couple will enjoy years of cloudless happiness. One insignificant circumstance prevents Aylmer from completely dissolving into his family bliss - a tiny, barely noticeable birthmark on the cheek of his wife. He feels an irresistible desire to destroy it, so that her ideal beauty is revealed to the world perfectly. Georgiana insists on her husband's experiments. But the further they go, the more obvious it becomes that his passion has assumed a monstrous character. The idealist Aylmer in the pursuit of perfection has lost sight of a person, the "scientific" result has become an end in itself. With each passing day, Georgiana pales and loses strength, but Aylmer does not notice it. It only excites the scientist, reinforcing his blindness, and he continues with his experiments, until his wife's very death. This tragic search of a man for the perfection that a human being simply cannot achieve could have been interpreted differently, if the author did not provide insight into the characters' thoughts and feelings. Aylmer might have been seen by the reader simply as a villain, an ambitious scientist and a cruel, selfish man. Yet, his character is much more complex and ambivalent: he is both ambitious and loving, selfish and altruistic, indifferent and caring, foolish and intelligent. Georgiana could have been seen by the reader as a vain woman who is ready to do anything to polish her beauty to perfection. Yet, through psychological insight she is shown as a pure and genuine human being, capable of self-denial, sacrifice, forgiveness and mercy. In order to shape these two complex and intriguing characters, Hawthorne uses the third-person point of view with an external perspective.

Hawthorne's third-person narrator is accredited with omniscience which gives him three types of privileges. First, it is the psychological privilege, as he offers the reader an insight into the thoughts and feelings of both Aylmer and his wife. Secondly, Hawthorne's omniscient narrator possesses the spatial privilege of following the husband and the wife when they are not together. This allows for the co-existence of different perspectives within one short story which endows the reader with a kind of stereoscopic vision. Thirdly, it is the temporal privilege which lets the narrator travel back in time and reminisce of Aylmer's previous experiments, but also to be in the know as to what happens at the very end of the story and to endue the reader with a sinister anticipation through an early flashforward: "Such a union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly remarkable consequences and a deeply impressive moral" (Hawthorne). These three privileges are used by the author to convey the inner, psychological intrigue that develops as a parallel to the plot intrigue.

While the characters' explicit dialogues help move the plot and build the suspense, the psychological insights that the omniscient narrator offers constructs a kind of a hidden, internal, implicit dialogue into which the very souls of the characters are involved. At the beginning of the short story the narrator explains the profound nature behind Aylmer's dissatisfaction with his wife's birthmark as a "the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain" (Hawthorne). The narrator goes on to reveal that selecting the birthmark "as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death", Aylmer experienced "more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight" (Hawthorne). This insight helps the reader paint a portrait of a man nobly striving to make the world better and yet unable to appreciate it as it is. Georgiana, on the contrary, possesses a rare gift of seeing the best side of human nature which is revealed closer to the end of the short story: "Her heart exulted, while it trembled, at his honorable love-so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of" (Hawthorne). Aylmer's blind perfectionism and shallow faultfinding are seen by her as "highest and deepest conception": "Longer than one moment she well knew it could not be; for his spirit was ever on the march, ever ascending, and each instant required something that was beyond the scope of the instant before" (Hawthorne). These two perspectives work together to create a comprehensive, vivid and true-to-life portrait of a scientist whose nature is profoundly ambivalent. He is both reaching for the starts and unable to appreciate their beauty.

Authorial narrative situation creates a fruitful environment for Hawthorne to express his views on the subject he is writing about. The narrator appears as a concrete tangible speaker and presents himself as a fictive individual by means of personal interjections, comments and moral judgements on the events, address to the reader, flashforwards, and generalization. The most illustrative example is the very ending of the short story where Hawthorne explains to the reader that the tragic fault that caused the tragedy was not Georgiana's birthmark but Aylmer's spiritual shortsightedness intensified by his scholarly pride: "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" (Hawthorne). Here, the writer reveals that he is employing Aylmer's character to embody the general fatal fault of technological progress.

Thus, the chosen type of narration in this short story mediates Hawthorne's attitude to science. Without contradicting that the achievements of science life easier, Hawthorne, at the same time, believes that this way harbors danger both for a person and for the society as a whole. Losses are immeasurably superior to the benefits of technological advancement. The prospect of technical perfection, enjoyed by many of his contemporaries, is viewed by Hawthorne with skepticism. Though, Hawthorne does not give technical progress as such the overall negative assessment, he criticizes the impact that it has upon the development of the American society. The writer looks at the general for romantics belief that the conflict of a human being with Nature has tragic consequences and convinces the reader that this conflict is intensified under the influence of technical progress. While retaining loyalty to the romantic vision, the writer tries to discover and convey in his short story the origins of this conflict doing so through the exploration of different viewpoints integrated into a solid and persuasive authorial narrative.

Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Birth-Mark." The Birth-Mark | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing - eBooks | Read eBooks online, Project Gutenberg, /The_Birth-Mark.

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