Romancing a Mark Upon Thy Cheek - A peek at Nathaniel Hawthorne
Romanticism bled into the literary culture of Early America with its persistence for truth and imagination. This subgenre of literature is often tied together with Transcendentalism which emerged in the mid-1800s with authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller (Baym, Levine et al. 464). Nathaniel Hawthorne, another romantic writer from this era, displayed the genre’s acute demonstration of mystery in his short story, “The Birthmark” through which he interconnects the relationship between science and spirituality. It is a common expression of romantics to link nature and spirit as well as spirit and man in their quest to search beyond the material face of reality. By examining excerpts from Hawthorne’s, “The Birthmark” the true identity of the American Romantic can be brought to the surface.
“…tends to prefer action to character, and action will be freer in a romance than in a novel, encountering, as it were, less resistance from reality”
What is a Romantic?
Richard Chase, author of, The American Novel and Its Tradition, states that the romance, “…tends to prefer action to character, and action will be freer in a romance than in a novel, encountering, as it were, less resistance from reality” (qtd. in Campbell 1). Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is a perfect example of this. In this passage Aylmer, a scientist, is mysteriously painted, creating a vague representation of science interfering with nature; “The latter pursuit, however, Aylmer had long laid aside, in unwilling recognition of the truth, against which all seekers sooner or later stumble, that our great Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results.” (qtd. in Baym, Levine et al. 648). This technique, using characters as larger representations for reality, is directly related to romanticism. Chase goes on to explain how this literary directly reflects the motives of a romantic; “Being less committed to the immediate rendition of reality than the novel, the romance will more freely veer toward mythic, allegorical, and symbolistic forms.” (qtd. in Campbell 1). Another example of this from “The Birthmark” would be the “Crimson Hand” (qtd. in Baym, Levine et al. 646). The mark Aylmer’s wife bore on her face was shaped like a hand and Aylmer believed it radically reduced her aesthetic. Hawthorne described it as, “the fatal flaw of humanity” (646) which is another perfect example of the symbolism at work.
“Thus ever does the gross Fatality of Earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence, which, in this dim sphere of half-development, demands the completeness of a higher state.”
Another aspect of romanticism is character involvement and interaction with other characters. Richard Chase highlights this in an excerpt from, The American Novel and Its Tradition; “Human beings will on the whole be shown in an ideal relation--that is, they will share emotions only after these have become abstract or symbolic. To be sure, characters may become profoundly involved in some way…” (qtd. in Campbell 1). In “The Birthmark” Hawthorne uses Georgiana, Aylmer’s wife, as a representation of a spirit being hindered by worldly ties. Her mark is what separates her from perfection, and once the mark is removed she dies because matter cannot obtain perfection. The relationship between Aylmer and Georgiana is consistently that of a person so close to discovering the truth, just to be shattered by the answer. In this passage, Hawthorne enlightens the reader to this concept; “Thus ever does the gross Fatality of Earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence, which, in this dim sphere of half-development, demands the completeness of a higher state.” (qtd. in Baym, Levine et al. 656). It is possible to view every character from this narrative as a representation of the same system or the same mind searching for answers in reality.
The concluding line of, “The Birthmark” is abstract and beautiful. Hawthorne leaves the reader with this thought; “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.” (qtd. in Baym, Levine et al. 656). One cannot read this story without coming away with an ignited spark of imagination. Perhaps this is the plan of every romantic; leave the reader thinking.
Chase, Richard. qtd. in Campell, Donna. "Novel, Romance, and Gothic: Brief Definitions." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University. 2012. Web. 23 May 2014.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Birthmark." The Norton Anthology of AmericanLiterature: Shorter Eighth Edition. Ed. Baym, Nina. Levine, Robert. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013. 464-656. Print.