The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Context

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Scientific Discovery

The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment—an era when religion began to lose ground to reason, placing more emphasis on the analysis of empirical, testable data. This approach benefitted the objective aims of scientific study. By the early 19th century, the physical sciences were advancing rapidly. The development of electricity, the telegraph, and photography seemed to herald a more perfect future for humanity. Factories and manufacturing were established in Europe and the United States, sparking the Industrial Revolution. In America, people were also moving westward, building new cities and hubs of commerce in areas that had formerly been "wilderness." New railroad lines crisscrossed the country to transport people and goods more extensively than ever before.

However, all this rapid change had a darker side. There was concern that science and technology were encroaching upon areas normally governed by religion and that some essential part of humanity might be corrupted or lost. Rapid technological innovations were also seen as posing a threat to nature. Several writers responded to these concerns. In England Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein (1818) examined the cost of playing God by crossing the boundary between science and nature. In Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's drama Faust (published in two parts: 1808, 1832) described the fate of a man of science and philosophy who makes a bargain with the devil to acquire "secrets out of the spirit world." In America novelists such as James Fenimore Cooper wrote about the corrupting power of "civilization" upon the natural world, and Henry David Thoreau deliberately exiled himself from modern life in order to reconnect with nature, writing about his experience in Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (1854). Hawthorne also explores science's threat to nature and humanity in "The Birthmark."

Dark Romanticism

Romanticism is a cultural movement originating in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In many ways, it was a counter-argument to the Enlightenment's emphasis on reason over emotion. Romanticism considers the individual's subjective experience—especially emotion, imagination, and intuition—to be of greatest importance. Romantic writers and artists also tend to hold nature (often capitalized as "Nature") in extremely high regard as a powerful, awe-inspiring phenomenon that can ennoble human beings.

Romanticism was first established among English writers by the British poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Both poets contributed to the collection Lyrical Ballads (1798). The second edition of the collection, published in 1800, included a preface that described what would become some of the primary tenets of romanticism. Wordsworth wrote in the preface:

The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these Poems was to [choose] incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual way; and ... to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them ... the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement.

Prominent American writers who came to be identified with the romantic movement in America include Hawthorne, as well as Edgar Allan Poe and Moby-Dick author Herman Melville. These writers were considered "Dark Romantics" because their works emphasize bleaker aspects of human nature and a world defined by guilt, sin, and evil. Hawthorne's works, for example, are concerned with human flaws such as greed, deceit, and pride, and how these moral and ethical imperfections are passed down through generations. Like other Dark Romantics, Hawthorne was influenced by Gothic literature, which is characterized by horrifying events, the mystical and mysterious, and a sense of gloom and dread.

Transcendentalism

Transcendentalism was a 19th-century American philosophical movement influenced by British Romanticism. It is most closely associated with American writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson in particular was strongly influenced by the British poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Transcendentalism posits that humans are innately good. Intuition and emotion transcend logic and reason to help people reach greater spiritual perfection. For transcendentalists, all parts of creation are interrelated, and nature is a reminder of this relationship. According to Emerson, "nature is the symbol of spirit." Similarly, Coleridge in his poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," which had been published in Lyrical Ballads, presents a supernatural narrative of guilt and grace, personified by the nonsensical murder of an albatross.

Being in touch with nature means bringing one closer to spiritual perfection. As Emerson puts it, "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." The natural world is representative of the spiritual world, which "transcends" the physical but remains manifest in it. For example, transcendentalists argue that spiritual ideas such as love and beauty can be found in physical symbols in nature, such as in Georgiana's birthmark.

Transcendentalism is essentially optimistic in its view of humanity, but, like other Dark Romantics, Hawthorne took a dimmer view of human emotions and impulses. He adopted transcendentalist themes in his works, such as "The Birthmark," but his characters typically fall far short of the ideals they strive for, unable to "transcend" their natural human instincts. In fact Hawthorne seems to be critiquing the very idea that people can achieve anything like spiritual love or beauty—those qualities that Emerson promotes through transcendentalism. Rather, "The Birthmark" suggests that greed and selfishness are primary and unchangeable aspects of the human character; reform or "transcendence" is impossible.

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