No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, September 09, 2012

2012/41.5: various short stories by Hawthorne and Poe

Week 5 reading for the Coursera fantasy and SF course consisted of various short stories by Hawthorne and Poe.
I read Hawthorne's short fiction in, more or less, one fell swoop a few years ago, and wasn't especially hooked: however, reading a small selection of his tales, and alternating with selected Poe (all familiar from long ago, though I'd forgotten how utterly insane some of his protagonists are), was a more rewarding and pleasant experience. For my essay, I ended up comparing two stories with similar motifs ...


The Birth-mark' and 'The Oval Portrait' concern gifted men who bring about the deaths of their wives through their own knowledge and skill. There are obvious similarities between the two stories. Both Aylmer and the painter are married to their vocations (science in Aylmer's case, art in the painter's) until they wed beautiful young women. Each man shuts his wife away from the sunlight in order to remove or immortalise the 'tint' of her cheek.

The impact of each story depends on its perspective, or point of view. At the core of 'The Oval Portrait' is a brief, anonymous account of an unnamed painter and his beautiful young bride. This account is framed by the first-person narrative of a wounded man who has taken shelter in a deserted chateau. The story takes place in the single moment of the narrator's comprehension, when he realises that the subject of the oval portrait died at the moment the picture was completed. He neither knows nor speculates about the story he has read. The focus of the story is upon the narrator's reaction, not the events that provoked it.

'The Birth-mark', in contrast, is told from an omniscient point of view. Over a period of several months, the growth of Aylmer's obsession—which Georgiana comes to share—is illustrated bydetails: Georgiana's growing hatred of her birthmark, the servant Aminadab's asides, Aylmer's failed experiments. The omniscient viewpoint allows Hawthorne to reveal his protagonists' thoughts and feelings. Thus, we see that (unlike Poe's 'humble and obedient' heroine) Georgiana chooses to be the subject of her husband's ambitious experiment. And, unlike Poe's passive, oblivious painter (who 'would not see' his wife's decline), Aylmer's devotion to his wife is evident. Hawthorne's choice of viewpoint makes 'The Birth-mark' a tragedy, contrasting with the Gothic melodrama of 'The Oval Portrait'.

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