Pride of Intellect Punished in the Short Fiction of Nathaniel Hawthorne

From the first date of their publishing, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s works have never been dismissed as purely entertaining, or fodder for the masses. Both his earliest writing under pen names and his accredited

later works have always been respected; early admirers include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allen Poe. Poe said of one of Hawthorne’s short stories that “Every words tells, and there is not a word which does not tell.” Each word “tells” because the stories are packed with symbols of the day and allegories for our lives- he saw in his own work what he frankly described as “an inveterate love of allegory” (Arvin xii).

While never representing himself as a moral authority or openly espousing traditionally Protestant values, Hawthorne’s short fiction reads as a series of illustrations about human joy and human folly. The allegories are quite clearly understandable in his stories involving science and scientists, particularly Aylmer in “The Birthmark” and Rappaccini in “Rappaccini’s Daughter.” Both stories portray men of secular learning who use their knowledge not to cure or truly heal, but to alter that which they deem unworthy, and with disastrous results. In “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter,” Hawthorne condemns mankind’s prideful idolization of science as damaging to all that is good in humanity and spirituality.

Both fascinating to ponder and very relevant in any examination of Hawthorne’s work is the environment that spawned both his genius and his values. Repetitive themes and tendencies can be better understood by exploring what Hawthorne was exposed to as a youth. He was born in 1804 in Salem, Massachusetts, into a culture still strongly influenced by its Puritan ancestry, and few aspects of his writing can be described as untouched by it. Peter Conn characterizes the relationship in his article “Finding a Voice in a New Nation” by telling us that “the Puritan ancestors who provided Hawthorne with his amplest materials also gave him his angle of vision and instructed him in his technique” (83). Maintaining a morally pure lifestyle was for centuries surrounding his lifespan of paramount importance in New England- ample material indeed, for works very much centering on sexual morality, such as The Scarlet Letter. His “angle of vision” and “technique,” while subtler, are still products of a Calvinist set of ideas, where mankind is generally undeserving, and many of the stories illustrate our various failings. Certainly “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” do nothing to praise human efforts, with one scientist killing off his lovely wife and the other his pretty daughter. In discussing Hawthorne’s studies of human nature, Newton Arvin describes the state of mind that gave birth to such tales:

What he found made it impossible for Hawthorne to share the great glad conviction of his age that, as Emerson had told it, ‘love and good are inevitable, and in the course of things’; he came closer to feeling that guilt and terrible wrong are inevitable; that at any rate, they are terribly deeply meshed in the texture of human experience. (Intro XV.)
Humanity and their efforts seemed more generally apt to failure than success, for Nathan; considering this, and the nonexistence of any higher considerations in his upbringing other than God’s sovereignty, it is unsurprising that we should read two short stories about tragedy and failure resulting from scientists attempting to alter Creation.

More specifically, Hawthorne condemned human efforts and endeavors that he saw as prideful or self-superior. “To pride himself on one’s intellectual powers or attainments, to cultivate the intellect at the expense of the sympathies… this was for Hawthorne the deadliest form that human guilt could take” (Arvin XVI). What could be more ‘intellectual at the expense of human sympathy’ than one person performing dangerous cosmetic procedures on another, harming that person’s body and mind? This is the picture that Hawthorne paints in “The Birthmark,” with the main character, Aylmer, pridefully failing his young wife in several ways. We are told that “he had devoted himself… too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion.” The author that we have met cannot possibly approve of his hero loving his science more than his wife, and he goes on to set us up for a powerful outcome later: “Such a union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly remarkable consequences and a deeply impressive moral.” Whatever happens will be remarkable and bring home to us a “moral,” which is no less than we would expect from the New Englander. Aylmer almost immediately shows us how he feels about God’s creation, telling his young wife that her birthmark “shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” The husband hurts his wife here, declaring a feature of her body unattractive and goes on to declare an intention of removing the shocking mark. A mark of earthly imperfection would not be appropriate for humans to try and alter, but he makes the attempt. Knowing what we do about Hawthorne’s disapproval of “pride of intellect,” Aylmer’s arrogance must be condemned. He exhorts his wife “doubt not my power. I have already given this matter the deepest thought- thought which might almost have enlightened me to create a being” (152). His belief in his own abilities is continually set up for us, even to claims of being able to create life- surely God’s province alone- with no consideration for his wife’s true welfare. Barbara Eckstein comments that science has become religion for Aylmer, and so surely attempting to modify his wife through his science is akin to worship for him (Eckstein 511).

The scientist Rappaccini in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” is even less kind than misguided Aylmer, railing against one who condemned the turning of his own daughter to poison, in the name of science, “Wouldst thou, then, have preferred the condition of a weak woman…?” (209). Even prior to learning of his daughter’s impending death, we cannot like or sympathize with this man who used his daughter as a scientific experiment.

Humankind is not perfect- Biblically, since the sin in Eden, perfection is out of our reach, and considering the two men of science that strive to create perfection in their subjects adds another element to Hawthorne’s condemnation of such practices. Leland S. Person Jr. distills the point that examining these characterizations brings up: “Hawthorne depicts character after character who destroys what is human” (Person 437). Our two examples, Aylmer and Rappaccini, bear this out dramatically. Early in the story, we learn that Dr. Rappaccini creates an incredibly beautiful garden, but is not content to cultivate for medicine the fruits and flowers that he finds; rather, he engineers new and terrible breeds, as another story character tells:

It is his theory that all medicinal virtues are comprised within those substances which we term vegetable poisons. These he cultivates with his own hands, and is said even to have produced new varieties of poison, more horribly deleterious than Nature, without the assistance of this learned person, would ever have plagued the world withal (186).

The scientist who uses his learning to alter nature is suspect already, but Rappaccini deliberately creates harmful plants, perverting the earth’s bounty. He has gone farther, however, in changing his young daughter according to his purposes: she has “been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until… she herself has become the deadliest poison in existence” (201). Natural, unaltered flowers wither at her touch.

Butterflies fall dead from the sky when she breathes on them. At this point in the tale, Rappaccini has already destroyed his daughter, although she lives. He claims that he has improved on what God created, but his version of perfection deprives the girl of all human contact, and ultimately results in her death.

“The Birthmark” also depicts a scientist seeking the perfection that is denied to humans, inevitably failing. Hawthorne repeatedly describes Aylmer’s view of his wife’s birthmark as an “imperfection,” and the only thing holding Georgiana back from being the ultimate physical specimen. The cure takes her young life, but that is a risk that the husband/physician declared that he was willing to take, by applying his admittedly imperfect science to a piece of his wife- science that the “large folio” wherein he records all experiments shows to fail as often as it succeeds (158). But when Georgiana says that she worships her husband, he demonstrates that he has not learned from earlier failures, telling her that if he succeeds in removing the birthmark, she can “worship me if you will. I shall deem myself hardly unworthy of it” (159.) This arrogance is offensive even to a modern reader, and would have read as nearly blasphemous when it was published; nowhere is Hawthorne sympathetic to his learned characters: “mechanists like Aylmer [and] Rappaccini sinfully assume that knowledge of mechanism gives them power over life” (Person 437).

Examination of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s early environs has shed light on his disdain for personal pride in human endeavors and his creation of characters that meet tragedy once they committed this sin, but the short fiction considered herein more specifically showcases the grievous punishments meted out to men of science who got beyond themselves. Interestingly, the America of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was not one likely to produce writers with immense respect for the fields of scientific research; only in the 1840s did the term “scientist” come into popular usage, as a descendant and variant of ‘philosopher’ or ‘chemical experimenter.’ Glen Scott Allen describes the state of American science in these decades by telling readers that “many university professors of the time moonlighted as ‘consultants,’ offering their services as soil analysts, patent advisers… and the like.” He goes on to quote a European naturalist’s characterization of the state of science in the US, that neither a man of the day “’nor any other American have a mind for purely scientific researches; they look for practical result” (Allen 6). Few favors were done for the indifferent reputation of scientists by the hawking of pseudosciences such as phrenology and mesmerism. The great Puritanical inheritance of dependence on the will of the Almighty, coupled with the perception of a narrow distinction between unregulated charlatans and ‘men of science,’ was enough to produce a nation with little adoration for the profession. In the eyes of his first readers, contemporaries, Hawthorne’s blaspheming scientists may very much have deserved their punishments.

While science and medical treatment are not condemned wholesale as flouting God’s will in the twenty-first century, traces of the attitudes of Hawthorne’s ancestors can be found today. A unique perspective on two old short stories recently surfaced in American politics: George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics began their first meetings with a reading of “The Birthmark.” The executive director of the committee, created to address moral and ethical (even Biblical) questions surrounding cloning and stem cell research, is a zealous Christian and selected the tale for his fellow committee members to examine. Discussing the story and its likely applications in the meetings, Fred Edwords elaborates:

Here we have an image of science as inadequate because it fails to consider the supernatural- and an image of scientists as prideful and self-defeating perfectionists who should be satisfied with nature. Such was a common literary view in 1843. But the advance of both time and science hasn’t helped much… biological research continues to suffer from a negative literary image (Edwords 2).

Modern Americans, in a culture far more permissive, less devout, and more centered on self esteem- a form of that deadly pride- love to consume tales wherein people who manipulate biology fail miserably; Jurassic Park and The Island of Dr. Moreau come to mind. Certainly Hawthorne found no less sympathetic an audience in his day.

Our close examination of language, setting, plot and nearly any other elements of “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” yields a condemnation of worshipping science and of the arrogance of humans who do so, neglecting what is human and what is spiritual. Men who use their superior scientific knowledge to pervert, but not to heal, are painted as selfish and punished; concurrently, the notion of ‘perfecting’ humanity is destroyed. They got beyond themselves and suffered for it. Stepping back from these two short stories and considering other major works of Hawthorne’s bears out this conclusion. The Scarlet Letter is more commonly recalled as a moral tale, where the mores of Puritan New England and human frailty are masterfully portrayed, but it also speaks of the dangers assuming “life is strictly a function of ‘mechanism; and that having knowledge of the mechanism is to have power over life itself” (Trepanier 317). Chillingworth is the vehicle for this lesson in the novel; he too feels the pride of the scientist, and Hawthorne does not reward him for it.

While admittedly removed from our lives by the span of a century and a half, the author’s personal views and fiction defining them on science, human failings, pride and the necessity of respect for nature (creation) are still fascinating today. Our own political system today echoes with the uniquely American struggle to define what is important and acceptable, and what is crossing the line of what is divine: congressional committees are making decisions on biological research and bioethics with a dead advisor, born two hundred years ago, and this policy is cheered on by many. Certainly Hawthorne never foresaw an outcome like this, but a reading of his work from this frame of reference is modern and relevant, whatever the personal beliefs of the reader.

Works Cited

Allen, Glen Scott. “MASTER MECHANICS AND EVIL WIZARDS: SCIENCE AND THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION.” Massachusetts Review, Winter 92/93, Vol. 33. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. 1 March 2007. .

Arvin, Newton. Introduction. Hawthorne’s Short Stories. By Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Random House, 1946.

Conn, Peter. “Finding a Voice in a New Nation.” Readings on Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996.

Eckstein, Barbara. “HAWTHORNE’S ‘THE BIRTHMARK’: SCIENCE AND ROMANCE AS BELIEF.” Studies in Short Fiction, Fall 1989, Vol 26. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. 1 March 2007. .

Edwords, Fred. “GETTING STARTED ON THE WRONG FOOT.” Humanist, March/April 2002, Vol 62. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. 1 March 2007. .

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Ed. Newton Arvin. New York: Random House, 1946.

—. “Rappacini’s Daughter.” Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Ed. Newton Arvin. New York: Random House, 1946.

Person Jr., Leland S. “HAWTHORNE AND HIS CULTURE: THREE RECENT VIEWS.” Studies in the Novel, Winter 1992, Vol 24. Academic Search Elite. EBSCOhost. 1 March 2007. .

Pfister, Joel. “Hawthorne as a Cultural Theorist.” The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ed. Richard Millington. Cambridge, UK: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 2004.

Trepanier, Lee. “THE NEED FOR RENEWAL: NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE’S CONSERVATISM.” Modern Age, Fall 2003, Vol. 45. Academic Search Elite.
EBSCOhost. 1 March 2007. .