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The Modern Significance of Hawthorne’s Suspicion of Science
Many of Hawthorne’s characters are weighed down by inner conflicts that never resolve to a proper resolution. However, “The Birthmark” has a more clearly defined moral than some of Hawthorne’s other works. The social significance of this story, written over 150 years ago, endures into our modern era with alarming clarity. An obsession with physical perfection and the struggle between scientific progress and human morality is paramount in the minds of many in today’s society. This article will explore two primary points: first, it will focus on how “The Birthmark” compares to some of Hawthorne’s other works with similar themes; Next, it will weave these themes together to show how his work explores these questions in haunting detail and can serve as a mirror to today’s values.
Hawthorne’s distrust of science is evident in the “mad scientist” motif used in many of his stories. In “The Birthmark”, Aylmer is a megalomaniac scientist who believes himself to be all-powerful: “No king on his guarded throne could keep his life, if I should find in my private station that the welfare of millions justified me in depriving him of it” . In “Rappaccini’s Daughter” Dr. Rappaccini a “mad scientist” who conducts experiments on his daughter involving poisonous plants. And in “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” the main character experiments with a fountain of youth elixir on his friends. Although Heidegger’s results are not fatal, as in the other two stories, they are indeed bleak and are no less subject to ethical criticism.
To put the theme of “The Birthmark” into a modern perspective, we need only repeat that the pursuit of physical perfection and the willingness to go to great lengths to obtain it is one of the great themes of modern thought. Georgianna’s birthmark symbolizes her propensity for sin, sorrow, decay, and death, and she is willing to forego the danger of having it removed: “There is only one danger—that this terrible stigma will be left on my cheek… Remove it, remove it, whatever the cost”. We need only remember the Phen-phen and Redux debacle of a few years ago and reflect on the current “perfection” techniques now widely used, such as breast implants, liposuction and dozens of other questionably “safe” cosmetic surgical procedures for to see that the thinking of Aylmer and Georgianna is still quite relevant today. While it’s true that Georgianna didn’t seem to have a problem with her birthmark until Aylmer made it an issue, it has to be said that the influence of family and peers plays a significant role in the way people think about themselves and in their decision making. . Let’s compare Georgianna’s answer to that of a modern woman considering plastic surgery. Author Kathy Davis takes us into the examination room of a health insurance agency on the morning of applicants seeking coverage for cosmetic surgery:
I have no idea what to expect when the patient enters the room. She is a slim, beautiful woman in her early twenties who looks a bit like Nastassia Kinski… Bending over and with her eyes cast downwards, she begins to explain that she is “unsatisfied with what she has”. “I know I shouldn’t [compare] myself to other women,” she whispers, “but I just can’t help it.”
Today’s Aylmers are plastic surgeons and doctors who sell drugs that feed the unrealistic notion that a woman’s body is unacceptable unless it appears to be a jackpot winner in the “genetic lottery.” Despite the changes in cultural ideals of beauty over time, one trait remains constant according to Davis; namely that beauty is worth spending time, money, pain and maybe even life itself. The hand-shaped birthmark that permeated Georgianna and Aylmer’s world also has an obsessive vise-like grip on our century—squeezing the life out of some and the humanity out of others. As H. Bruce Franklin points out, “The Birthmark” is both an intricate piece of science fiction and a commentary on what Hawthorne saw as science fiction.
“Rappaccini’s Daughter” is another tale that explores research gone awry as the doctor has created a daughter who lives in a poisonous garden and is poisonous herself. Like Aylmer, Rappaccini sees himself as godlike. This argument is advanced by Franklin’s interpretation of the basic allegory of the tale: “Rappaccini, the maker of [poisonous Eden], in an attempt to be God exposes his daughter, the Adam of this inverted Eden, to a modern serpent in the grass, Baglioni, who persuades the Eve-like Giovanni to introduce the fatal food into the learned fool’s paradise.” Rappaccini’s delusions of greatness. are evident when he tries to justify his experiment to his dying daughter: “Do you sense it misery to be endowed with wonderful gifts… Misery to be able to subdue the mightiest with a breath? Misery, to be as terrible as you are beautiful.” This sense of omnipotence is nowhere more evident than among doctors today, whose life-extending machinery allows them to literally decide life and death. And of course, we can’t forget the good Dr. Kevorkian and the euthanasia issue, which has become a battle of rhetoric on which theologians and scientists will probably never agree. Aylmer and Rappaccini can best be compared by comparing Georgianna and Beatrice. In her critical response to the stories, Madison Jones notes: “Both women die in consequence of attempts devised by human science to purify their nature.” With both tales, Hawthorne sets human morality and science on a collision course that has not changed its way into the present.
“Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment” introduces a scientist who shares Aylmer’s confidence that he can reverse natural processes with the same result: bad science that endangers others. At first glance, Heidegger seems more playful and less dangerous than Aylmer and Rappaccini: “My dear old friends… I want your help with one of the little experiments that I amuse myself with in my study”. But according to Madison Jones, our reaction to his virtues does not make him any less diabolical. Heidegger’s attempt to manipulate nature by providing eternal youth can be paralleled with today’s issues of genetic engineering and cloning. Both are attempts to manipulate the natural order of things. The dichotomy between Hawthorne’s and our time can be merged when we consider a topic like cloning. Dr. Bruce Donald of the Church of Scotland offers: “Faced with such a fertile prospect, the human imagination runs wild… we can clone people to pick out genetic defects or select for desirable traits (Donald). Some would argue that this is a good thing, but Anders claims that the proposed motives turn out to benefit the person who wants the cloning done, not the person so produced. This sounds remarkably close to Dr. Heidegger’s motives because we have evidence to support that he created the elixir “for his own amusement” rather than primarily for the benefit of his friends.With these three tales, Hawthorne expands his list of scientific grievances.
While these three stories provide immediate insight into contemporary concerns, other Hawthorne tales do the same, although they may not be quite so straightforward. “Ethan Brand” introduces another scientist whose pride leads him astray. In this story, Hawthorne creates a model of self-destructive perfectionism; Brand destroys himself as surely as Aylmer kills Georgianna (Bunge 30-32). In “The Artist of the Beautiful”, Owen tries to make machinery look natural, but his art, like Aylmer’s science, is a hopeless attempt to evade reality. And “The Prophetic Pictures” introduces us to a painter who believes he can predict the future and thus control time. He has a madness not unlike Aylmer’s and with similar consequences. The modern significance of all these stories can be summed up with one observation by Richard Harter Fogle: “Man’s greatest temptation is to forget his limits and complexities…”
Hawthorne’s foresight into the future was quite remarkable. Although his work is dated, the ethical questions that he raises are still valid today. Georgianna’s absorption of Aylmer’s obsession is comparable to today’s women jumping on the bandwagon of fad diets and questionable cosmetic procedures. On another point, Hawthorne’s suspicion of science seems a little less unreasonable now, as it might have in his time, when we consider our ability to destroy the planet with nuclear weapons. Fogle comments that while Hawthorne’s view of science has generally been considered old-fashioned by his critics, the joke seems to have turned on them with the growth of modern science and technology. Aylmer, Rappaccini and Heidegger represent all the claims of modern science, from miracle diet pills, cosmetic surgeries and anti-aging creams and potions, to Minoxidil, to Viagra, which allows the “soldier” on permanent KP duty to finally issue a sharp military salute. Some of our “miracle” science seems to work, but some has serious consequences.
Finally, we have explored how Hawthorne’s themes form a common bond with contemporary practical and ethical issues. Hawthorne himself had an obsession with his ancestors’ past, so it is ironic that he produced works that would prove to be a prelude to the future. Hawthorne wants us to see that “human perfection” is an oxymoron. At this point, Fogle notes that Aylmer’s tragic flaw is not seeing the tragic flaw in humanity. Hawthorne’s “mad scientists” cannot accept that humanity and imperfection are inseparable. But still today, we are no less inclined to buy into the rants of our own mad scientists and snake oil salesmen on the late night infomercials that infect our society and promise us perfection. Madison Jones sums up Hawthorne’s foresight superbly: “Like many reformers in our day, Aylmer wanted human nature reconstituted or not at all. Hawthorne, if unconsciously, saw well ahead. But genius has always been at least one part prophecy”. Hawthorne’s moral encourages us to accept our own imperfections. This moral can be expressed through a quote from—of all people—David Letterman. In an interview I recall from a few years ago, Letterman was asked by an actress what he would change about his physical appearance if he could. Letterman’s response was, “Well, I wouldn’t change a thing. I guess those are the cards I was dealt – what the hell – I’ll play them”. Hawthorne would probably have liked Letterman.
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