Ignorance Is Bliss: Hawthorne and Atwood on Love and Death
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Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” are distinctly different stories, divergent in plot, style, structure, and setting. Hawthorne’s piece, written in 1843, addresses a desire for perfection in a time when perfection felt feasible. On the contrary “Happy Endings”, as Atwood cleverly titled the story in 1983, explores the basic woes of love after the sexual revolution of the 1970’s. Despite the distinct differences between the two, “The Birthmark” and “Happy Endings” maintain a similar honesty towards love and death. Although these novelists have virtually nothing in common spare their love for the written word, these stories both have successfully written about how humans handle romantic relationships while ignoring or masking the mortality of humans.
While the two authors share a connection through their view of humanity’s struggle with love and death, their stories reflect contradictory plots. In “The Birthmark” characters Aylmer and Georgiana, a recently married couple, are presented. Aylmer, “a man of science”, is determined to fix the small blemish remaining on his wife’s cheek. In the end, this actually destroys her life but does not ruin Aylmer’s resolve to achieve excellence despite killing his wife. “Happy Endings”, on the other hand, deals directly with the simplest realities of love, sex, and everything in between. The only certainty is that Atwood’s two main characters, John and Mary, meet; after this there is no clear answer, only a variety of scenarios that all end the same way, “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die” (626). Atwood and Hawthorne manage to express common themes regardless of the differences between their stories.
Atwood and Hawthorne both utilize the way a woman’s psyche works to reveal how relationships may unfold. In a portion of Atwood’s piece, Mary is “Run-down” and “Hurt” (625) by a lack of emotional connection to her partner, John. The character is used and ignored by John, her hope of true love and happiness fade and eventually, Mary commits suicide. Similarly, in “The Birthmark”, Hawthorne describes Georgiana as “A healthy though delicate bloom” (421) at first, but as the narrative progresses Georgiana becomes unsettled and anxious; she becomes so troubled that at the mention of her birthmark she “Shrank as if a red-hot iron had touched her cheek” (426). Also deeply affected by the man in her life, Georgiana lost herself in the possibility of being approved by him. Lynn Shakinovsky points this out in her article “The Return of the Repressed: Illiteracy and the Death of the Narrative in Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark’” stating: “It is therefore as much a product of Georgiana’s vision as Aylmer’s that the removal of the mark results in her death. For Georgiana as well as for Aylmer, the mark is all there is” (269). In this way, the two authors aggressively illustrate the idea that women are controlled by how men perceive them.
Along the same notion, there is a distinct focus on interpersonal communication and ideas in regards to romantic relationships. In the various possibilities Atwood lays out in “Happy Endings”, most if not all are centered on perception, “John and Mary fall in love”, “Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary,” and the stories unfold accordingly. Zach Woodsen, in an analysis of the story, comments that the characters are “dull and undeveloped” (1), making it more obvious how general these perceptions are by the writing style presented. It is very evident in Hawthorne’s Georgiana, who felt flattered by the suitors who called her birthmark “A charm” and that it came about by “some fairy at her birth hour” (421), but because her husband’s opinion was warped by his scientific endeavors, her beauty was overlooked, causing her self-perception to be similarly altered. Atwood and Hawthorne demonstrate how humans may define themselves based upon what another individual thinks of them and how this can influence matters of the heart, even if the person’s thinking is distorted.
Through the two narratives it becomes clear how these characters are influenced by the fear of death. Aylmer is driven by his fear of it, his incentive for removing the mark on Georgiana’s cheek being his personal reminder and symbol for imperfection. The description in Atwood’s story seems to point directly at death, relating, “The endings are the same however you slice it” (626). Woodsen mentions her verbal brutality in his article with equal honesty, “. . . At the end of every person’s life, regardless of how they lived it or what they experienced, they will encounter death. Atwood notices that people tend to not think quite like this” (1). While Atwood is so intent on pointing out the ignorance of the characters, and therefore humankind in general, Hawthorne reveals it more subtly; he focuses on how the fear of death actually caused his wife to pass as Aylmer was so intent on creating “The perfect future in the present” (431). Through different avenues Hawthorne and Atwood both shed light on the perception of death and the concealing of its cruelty.
In dealing with marriage, the two writers seem to display differing levels of knowledge on the subject but have clear ideas on the role that marriage plays in motives and developing trust. Hawthorne and Atwood address the intentions of marriage that may be marred by personal gain; Hawthorne describes Aylmer as marrying with the hope of “intertwining [love for his wife] with his love of science, and uniting strength of the latter to his own” (421), likewise, all of Atwood’s possibilities of matrimony seem affected by convenience over affection. In addition, the couples in their respective stories could be confident in their relationship due to the impure motives behind them. With the exception of Option A, the only actual happy ending Atwood provides, all of the scenarios given show mistrust and insecurity in the characters, in some cases to the point of death. Georgiana could never feel safe with Aylmer in “The Birthmark” as his main focus remained to remove the scar that defined her.
Particularly in the scope of marriage the stories suggest the hardship of being in a new relationship. Atwood’s portrayal through her characters showed how one-sided relationship inevitably end in disaster, that everything involving love is almost interchangeable because the problems are so common in modern civilization. Atwood even pokes fun at the complications of love and stories when she writes, “If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent” (626). In “The Birthmark”, Aylmer and Georgiana had just been married when the story begins and as the narrative and their marriage progress the problems brought on at the beginning lasted throughout. Liz Rosenburg comments about Hawthorne’s motives for writing in a way of revealing the problems often associated with newlyweds, mentioning in her article, “The Best the Earth Could Offer: The Birthmark, A Newlywed’s Story”, that the story was penned shortly after Hawthorne’s marriage to his wife Sophia and therefore: “It remains clearly a newlywed’s story, fresh with the author’s anxieties, hopes, and fears” (145).
There are certain challenges that are often associated with new love, Atwood and Hawthorne confront those problems openly and reveal how a glitch can disturb the remainder of the relationship. Both authors also manage to suggest the concern for a fading passion, lasting physical attraction being something crucial to a successful relationship, showing how a lack of desire can drive people apart. At the very beginning in Hawthorne’s story, Aylmer reports to his wife his disdain for her birthmark, saying, “. . . This slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (421). Similarly, in Option C of Atwood’s story, Mary begins seeing with John because she “. . . Feels sorry for him because he’s worried about his hair falling out”, then Atwood boldly continues, “She sleeps with him even though she’s not in love with him” (625). The basic instinct of attraction between two people is not something to be tampered with, particularly when emotions are involved as the writers point out.
The reaction to death and dying in the stories also reveal something about humanity’s character. In “The Birthmark” Aylmer is so happy to have momentarily succeeded he ignores the death of Georgiana and continues to focus on his own brief accomplishment. Shakinovsky, in her article, points out the unnatural happiness Aylmer felt at his wife’s death, “The eroticism of Georgiana’s death brings together the unacknowledged arousal, revulsion, and murderousness present in both of them” (269). Similarly, Atwood’s characters have a warped reaction to death. In Option B, Mary kills herself with the hope that John would rescue her, but he neither rescues nor mourns her death instead marrying someone else and moving on. In Option C, John is driven by jealousy and kills Mary, Mary’s lover, and then himself. In this scenario, John had been married but his wife, as Atwood writes, continues life without reaction, “Madge, after a suitable period of mourning, marries an understanding man called Fred” (626); the phrasing of this sentence leads Atwood’s audience to believe that Madge only waited out of responsibility and not true sorrow, ignoring the depth of the situation.
Atwood and Hawthorne show how a twisted reaction to demise is common in the human family, often characterized by a turning to death for reprieve or being unable to mourn those who have passed. Over a century apart and in completely different societies, Atwood and Hawthorne still manage to cover the same material including two of the most difficult topics of human existence. Living in Puritan New England in the 1800’s, Hawthorne was a revolutionary in terms of progressive storytelling, structure, and style. He wrote using themes that were taboo for his time period and because of this his writing is considered remarkable down to this day. Atwood, conversely, wrote “Happy Endings” in the 1980’s just after the sexual revolution, when what were deemed family values began to be considered outdated. Despite this, her writing is also thought to be provocative given the callousness of her language and advanced styles; Atwood is also an alleged revolutionary. By aggressively tackling what seemed scandalous and offensive, Atwood and Hawthorne addressed the two most common themes of humanity in a fresh way that will continue to make them as writers stand out for centuries to come.
Atwood, Margaret. “Happy Endings.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011. 624-626. Print. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Ed. Michael Meyer. 9th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2011. 420-431. Print. Rosenberg, Liz. “`The Best That Earth Could Offer’: `The Birth-Mark,’ A Newlywed’s Story.” Studies In Short Fiction 30.2 (1993): 145. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. Shakinovsky, Lynn. “The Return Of The Repressed: Illiteracy And The Death Of The Narrative In Hawthorne’s `The..” Atq 9.4 (1995): 269. MasterFILE Complete. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. Woodsen, Zach. “Literary Analysis: Happy Endings, by Margaret Atwood”. Helium: Where Knowledge Rules. 16 Mar. 2009. Web. 29 Sept. 2012.ф