by London Koffler
In the short stories “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allan Poe and “The Birth-Mark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, both authors claim that the Transcendentalist belief in the attainability of human perfection is fundamentally impossible. These two dramatized stories specifically demonstrate how the obsessive pursuit of perfection can seize and destroy a person and, in turn, his or her loved ones.
Poe and Hawthorne, known for their gloomy but poignantly honest portrayal of humanity, may be categorized as Dark Romantics. This movement derived from opposition to the Transcendentalism of the nineteenth century (“Dark Romanticism”). Both authors were primarily skeptical of the idea of human goodness and perfection, which Transcendentalists believed “[was] an innate quality of mankind” (“Dark Romanticism”). Dark Romantics, however, “focused on the dark side of the soul” by depicting humans as corrupt and prone to immorality (“Dark Romanticism”). Poe and Hawthorne fundamentally opposed Transcendentalist theories, believing that sin is intrinsic and inescapable (“Dark Romanticism”).
While men’s obsessions in both tales are ultimately the cause of their own misery, the submission and docility of their wives play a role as well. In “The Oval Portrait” when the painter expresses his desire for his wife to model for a portrait, she submits, happy to finally spend time with her neglectful husband and be included in his work. While she sits there for weeks withering away, she does not draw her husband’s attention because she does not want to distract him from something that gives him such joy. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark,” Aylmer is untroubled by the small, hand-shaped mark on his lover’s face until they are married, at which point he becomes obsessed with the “visible mark of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne 5). His repulsion causes Georgiana to also hate the mark she previously accepted and she begs that “the attempt be made at whatever risk” (Hawthorne 8). While both women are content with imperfection, their own deaths result from their submission to their husbands’ desires.
As the husbands try to attain their perfect images, perfection seems to drain their wives’ lives. In “The Oval Portrait,” the painter appears to transfer the life from his wife to his portrait of her. As the portrait appears to develop the flawless representation of humanity, the life drains from the artist’s wife. Similarly, in “The Birth-Mark,” Georgiana’s life fades as her birthmark does. Before they realize their mistakes, both men cry out in celebration: “You are perfect!” (Hawthorne 19) and “This is indeed Life itself!” (Poe).
By sacrificing love for their obsessive drive for perfection, the men inadvertently kill the women who love them. One theory of the authors’ intentions is that physical and psychological imperfection is inherently from nature and should not be challenged. In “The Birth-Mark,” Aylmer believes the imperfection of his wife’s face is “the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature…stamps ineffaceably on all her productions” (Hawthorne 6). Once she attains what Aylmer considers perfection, Georgiana is no longer a cultivation of nature but a product of man. Hawthorne appears to be commenting on the idea that man cannot change the beauty of nature into the beauty of man because human ideas of beauty are flawed—what is natural is beautiful, and imperfection coexists with nature. On the other hand, the painter’s obsession is not focused on perfecting his wife’s corporeal beauty but on creating the perfect representation of her in a portrait. Because he is first and foremost married to his art, the painter becomes absorbed in his task, not even acknowledging the passage of time. Poe’s story appears to be claiming that neglecting reality and focusing on creating perfection will only cause heartache.
In their portrayal of the men themselves, Poe and Hawthorne demonstrate the anti-Transcendentalist concept of the darkness of human souls (“Dark Romanticism”). Both husbands are presented with near-perfection, but they insist on changing something that most people already see as perfect. They ruin themselves and destroy their wives in an obsessive attempt to improve upon what they have been given.
“Dark Romanticism.” New World Encyclopedia, New World Encyclopedia, 10 Sept. 2015, www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Dark_romanticism.
Fusco Richard. “Poe and the Perfectibility of Man.” Poe Studies / Dark Romanticism, vol. 19, no. 1, June 1986, pp. 1-6. www.eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1986/p1986101.htm.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Birth-Mark. Paris, Feedbooks, www.lem.seed.pr.gov.br/arquivos/File/livrosliteraturaingles/birthmark.pdf.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Oval Portrait.” American Studies at the University of Virginia, University of Virginia, xroads.virginia.edu/-HYPER/POE/oval.html.
Edited by Klancy Hoover