Essay: Hawthorne and Poe

Clockwork butterfly by Mike LibbyThe Week 5 reading assignments for my online class on Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World were Nathaniel Hawthorne‘s short stories “The Birthmark,” “Rappaccini’s Daughter,”  and “The Artist of the Beautiful,” found in Mosses from an Old Manse, and “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment,” found in Twice-Told Tales; and Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Black Cat,” “The Oval Portrait,” “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” “The Bells,” “The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee,” found in The Portable Poe.

The best known of these is undoubtedly “The Raven.”   It is the first poem I fell in love with in English.  I was the right age, a brooding teenager, when I found a volume of poems for some long-forgotten class on the early 20th century.  The old textbook had a faded dark blue cloth cover and was tucked with other books in a box found by my uncle in an old house he had bought.  He was going to throw the books away, but I thumbed through a few and decided to salvage them.

I remember standing there in front of his garage, reading “The Raven” and feeling my brooding teenager soul, lately fed on J.R.R. Tolkien, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, gasp with delight.  The gloom!  The pathos!  The supernatural!  If we’d had Romantic Goths back then, that would have been my tribe, at least that year.  I didn’t like Hawthorne, I didn’t care to read his musings on sin.

Now I’m older, and I find that while I still like Poe, I don’t love him as much; and I got much more interested in Hawthorne than I did long ago.  I guess I’ve grown up despite my best efforts!  Like many others on the class forum, I particularly enjoyed Hawthorne’s tale “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, an interesting reversal of the Grimm Brothers’ “Rapunzel.”

Anyhow, here is my 300-word essay on one aspect of the tales (we were free to focus on only one or a few tales.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne places sin at the intersection of power, knowledge, the Self, and integrity.

All four of his stories in this week’s readings features a learned old master exerting his influence to change others under the power differential of age and authority. In every case, one’s inner truth ultimately prevails.

In both “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, the scientist-alchemist wants to change a good woman; Georgiana and Beatrice seem as close to perfection as humans can be, but Aylmer and Rappaccini still try. Aylmer believes the birthmark on his wife’s cheek, which other people even find charming, “ruins her perfection”; and in his eyes a woman’s beauty is the ultimate measure of her worth. Although his experiments to change her are killing her, he stubbornly persists – and loses her. Similarly, Rappaccini tinkered to make his daughter lethal to the world – perhaps to protect her, perhaps to control her – but here again, his very success causes him to lose her.

In “The Artist of the Beautiful”, everyone wants to change Owen Warland, especially his old master Peter Hovenden, but Owen resists and manages to follow his own inner truth. The master, the blacksmith’s and even Annie’s touch or influence are too rough for Owen’s impractical but beautiful project. Again and again, the mechanism is damaged and rebuilt; every time, Owen’s spirit seems broken too, but reawakens unexpectedly. Butterflies are usually symbols of the soul; when Owen makes his perfect clockwork butterfly, he creates an expression of the perfect artistic soul, the soul of Beauty.

In “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the alchemist figure simply gives four old sinners, who know the consequences of their actions, a chance to change – which they fail to seize. He alone of the four masters in these tales refrains from forcing the change; this time, it is the vessels who are unworthy instead – they lose themselves.

Clockwork butterfly by Mike Libby at Insect Lab Studio.

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