Nathaniel Hawthorne's ‘The Birthmark’ and Edgar Allan Poe's ‘The Oval Portrait’ as Prime Examples of Dark Romanticism
Both Romanticism and Dark Romanticism values emotions as more important than knowledge and logical thinking. However, Dark Romanticism uses different forms of expression. Most popular representatives of this genre, such as Herman Melville or Edgar Alan Poe, believed that there is no stronger emotion than fear. That is why Dark Romanticism is often associated with horror stories. In order to express emotions and beliefs, authors decided to use supernatural creatures, such as demons, ghosts, werewolves etc., but sometimes the worst creatures are people themselves. That is why in many works, the main characters are humans struggling with obsession or other mental problems. The main topics of stories and other pieces of work from this period are human sinful nature, fallibility, and proneness to self-destruction. Authors also touch on other aspects of life such as the meaning of life, temporariness, love, and art. Works, which I am going to analyze, at first sight, may not resemble the ones form Dark Romanticism period because their main topics are seemingly positive. ‘The Birthmark’, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a story about love and road to perfection. ‘The Oval Portrait’ written by Edgar Allan Poe touches on love, art, and beauty. This only presents the genius of authors, who were able to present a completely different aspect of these beliefs than the one we normally associate.
Love so strong that it kills. Perfection leading to destruction. ‘The Birthmark’ is a short story about the relationship between Alymer, the scientist, and his wife Georgiana. Shortly after getting married, Alymer notices, that for some reasons hard to explain, he cannot stand the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek. Although she is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, the one red (later described as “crimson”) spot, in the shape of a small hand, infuriates him. He insists on removing it (he claims that he is able to do it), and his wife agrees. She believes that this is the only way for them to be happy, even if the risk of failure is high. What is worth mentioning, Alymer justifies himself, that he pursues the perfection, when at the beginning of the story, when narrator introduces him, we get to know him as a scientist, who wasn’t very successful. He simply denies himself. There is no good reason for him to have such obsession (quite like the obsession on the Evil Eye form ‘Tell-Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe). What is even more interesting, we get to know, that Alymer had a dream about the removing of the mark, and it ended in failure. Georgina died, because, as it turned out, the crimson spot was connected to her heart, and scientist was so determined that he decided to cut it out. Nevertheless, he decided to perform the operation in real life and to administer her the potion. At first sight, it looked like it was effective, but it turned out that at the same time it killed Georgina. Her last words may be treated as a sort of moral of the story: ”Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer”. Alymer was so lost in admiration of science and perfection (not exactly his perfection) that he killed what he had loved the most. He wanted more than the world could give him.
The narrator in ‘The Oval Portrait’ by Edgar Allan Poe, tells us a similar story. On the wall of an abandoned mansion in the Apennines hangs an oval-shaped portrait of beautiful woman. The Narrator couldn’t stop watching it: “But it could have been neither the execution of the work, nor the immortal beauty of the countenance, which had so suddenly and so vehemently moved me”, and decided to search for information about the history of the painting in the book. The volume described the story of a young and beautiful woman, who married a painter. He was obsessed with art and asked her if she would allow him to paint her portrait. She accepted. Unfortunately, the painter has been so focused on creating a perfect piece of work, that he didn’t notice women’s fading health, and on the other side, she loved him so much, that she didn’t want to interrupt him. The process lasted a few weeks and when he finally finished, he screamed: ”This is indeed Life itself!”, but when he looked at his wife, she was dead. Similarly to the first-mentioned story, love and road to perfection led to a tragedy. However, this story mentions another interesting topic and it is the conflict of art and reality. Art which pursues perfection and the reality, which is not perfect. In order to achieve perfect art, catch a perfect moment, in reality, we have to stop life, and that equals death.
Edgar Allan Poe, in his essay ‘The Philosophy of Composition’ noticed, that ‘unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world”, and this quote makes a great summary of my essay. In both these texts we come across the seemingly positive motifs, like love, trust, and the pursuit of perfection, but eventually, we get to know them from a very different perspective than usual. And at the end beautiful woman dies. A quintessence of Dark Romanticism.
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