Gothic Romanticism in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Birthmark” Research Paper
Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart” depicts the narrator’s attempts at justifying his cruel intent of killing an elderly man with whom he shares an apartment because the elderly man keeps looking at the narrator with supposed “evil eyes”. When he eventually accomplishes his mission, the extreme guilt that arises from his cruel act makes him involuntarily confess to his hideous crime that he had killed the old man and hidden his dismembered corpse under a wooden floor.
In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Birth Mark”, Aylmer, a researcher, scientist and analyst refuses to accept his wife’s beautiful appearance because of his discomfort with a birthmark she spots on her left cheek. His selfish desire to remove the birthmark from her, so that her beauty may be ‘complete’ and wholesome without the blemish of the birthmark on her cheek, makes Georgina acquiesce to a procedure to have the birthmark removed. Tragically, after the procedure, though the birthmark disappears, Georgina dies.
In the film “The Black Swan” directed by Darren Aronofsky, Nina struggles to fit into the ultimate role of the play “The Swan Lake”, as the Black Swan, even though she is comfortable playing the role of the White Swan. However, because she has to fit into both roles naturally, her attempts on perfecting the role of the black Swan lead her on a surreal journey of self-discovery, fights with her mother, drug abuse and her ultimate perfection of the two roles.
Thesis: The characters in the two short stories and film portray a sense of Gothic Romanticism through their various quests for idealism, perfection and personal and social freedom; their justification for seeking the various states of idealism; their intense emotional reactions and activities; and their detachment from reality through hallucinations and the surreal nature of their existence.
In both the short stories and film, the characters are in pursuit of an ideal state of freedom signified by attempting perfection. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator’s morbid craving for the freedom from the supposed wicked glare from the elderly man informs his desire to kill the elderly man.
In the narrator’s view, the elderly man is a sort of hindrance to his own peaceful and stress-free existence, and the narrator believes that by eliminating the elderly man, his life will be peaceful. In the narrator’s wicked and mentally unstable mind, a state of peace and serenity can only be achieved from the death of his ‘tormentor’, the old man, whose eyes the narrator feel stare at him in a way that makes his life miserable.
In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Birthmark”, Aylmer is not satisfied with his wife’s physical beauty. Georgina is beautiful, comes across as an ideal wife because she is well behaved, a good homemaker, and supports her husband in all his endeavors. Ideally, Aylmer should be satisfied with such a wife. However, the small matter of the birthmark on his wife’s cheek makes him overlook all the positive attributes of his wife. Aylmer desires a higher state of perfection consistent with romanticism (Lalla 4).
He wants his wife to be ‘perfect’ without the blemish of the birthmark on her cheek. Persons who have interacted with Georgina find her beautiful. They accept her even with the birthmark, which they did not find offensive or off-putting. Many other men actually thought that the birthmark even served to enhance her exquisite looks. However, because her husband found the birthmark off-putting, Georgina herself begins to take a similar view.
In a desire to please her husband and satisfy his need to remove the birthmark, she accepts to take the concoction that would eliminate the birthmark, make their lives wholesome, and leave her with an ideal physical beauty without any blemishes.
Aylmer and Georgina thus seek a state of idealism characteristic of romanticism in their quest for physical perfection (Boutin 510). In their own wisdom, they refuse to accept the physical form that nature grants to Georgina, and seek to perfect her beauty.
In the film “The Black Swan”, Nina is also on a quest for perfection. Following her audition for the role of the Swan Queen, she fails to impress the director of the play. She however follows the director to plead her case, insisting that she is the best fit for the role of the Swan Queen.
Nina is willing to engage in affairs, abuse drugs and even upset her relationship with her mother in her zeal and endeavors to deliver a perfect performance as the Swan Queen. Her intense need and desire to deliver a virtuoso performance as the Swan Queen takes precedence over all other matters in her life.
Additionally, Romanticism stands out in the short stories and the film when all the major characters justify, or attempt to justify, their dissatisfaction with the current state of their lives. The characters refuse to accept the status quo, and thus aim to change their circumstances, sometimes at high cost (Bar-Yosef 150).
In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator refuses to accept the state of affairs whereby the elderly man exists and thus continues to torture him with his evil stare. The narrator elaborately and extensively plans the murder. He is willing to steal into the old man’s room at mid-night for eight consecutive nights in order to carry out his plan comprehensively without mishaps.
As far as the narrator is concerned, the elderly man is responsible for taking away his peace of mind, and he is thus willing to go to great lengths to carry out a successful murder that according to him will finally give him his peace of mind. Instead of waiting for nature to take its cause by having the old man die of natural causes, the narrator decides to take matters into his own hands and kills the elderly man. The narrator’s justification for this vile act is that the old man was a hindrance to his peaceful existence.
The narrator, possibly a servant of the old man, refuses to accept his servitude. He expresses his need for freedom by murdering his master, in the hope of gaining personal and psychological freedom that that the old man may have denied him. The old man represents an authority figure, and romanticism ideals abhor all forms of authority and promote personal freedom (Boutin 511).
In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Birthmark”, Aylmer justifies the need for eliminating the birthmark on his wife’s cheek by stating that she would subsequently acquire perfect beauty. According to him, the birthmark prevents him from loving his wife in a wholesome manner. Aylmer confesses to believing in the power of man over nature, and transfers this belief onto his wife, who subsequently also believes that nature had been slightly unfair on her by placing the offensive birthmark on her.
Their justification thus stems from the belief that nature does not hold the ultimate destiny of a person, which is an idea prevalent in Romanticism (Boutin 513). Aylmer thus undertakes on an elaborate experiment in his vast laboratory in an attempt to concoct a portion that would eliminate the birthmark on Georgina’s cheek, and herald a new chapter in their lives, free from the worries of the birthmark.
In the film “The Black Swan”, Nina refuses to take less than a role as the Swan Queen. Since her mother had to discontinue with her career in order to give birth to her, Nina carries with her an ambitious drive to achieve more than her mother does as a dancer does.
When the play’s director Thomas Leroy tells her that another dancer, Lily, has the qualities to play the role that Nina desperately desires, she resolves to befriend Lily. Nina develops a friendship with Lily so that she may learn from her and perhaps acquire the characteristics to play the role of the White Swan as well as the Black Swan successfully.
Nina receives the news that her rigid nature is unsuitable for playing the role of the Black Swan, but she undertakes to train in loosening her rigidity in dance. Therefore, Nina refuses to accept the status quo that imposed by nature, where her rigid state reflects her personality. She successfully overcomes her natural condition to play the role of the black swan successfully.
Another feature of Romanticism in the two short stores and the film is the intensity of emotions involved in the decisions and choices that the characters make.
According to Vincent, Romanticism seems tied to fierce liberalism (610). In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator is intensely emotional in his quest to justify his intensions to murder the elderly man in the house, and the subsequent guilt that engulfs him also points to his massive psychological reaction to his actions. After killing the old man, the visit by the two officers unravels his sense of control over the whole affair.
Having convinced himself that he had committed the “perfect murder”, he soon begins to doubt his actions. While the officers were busy making small talk about things unrelated to the murder, the narrator begins to imagine that they are talking about him and that the officers were convinced he had killed the old man.
The more the officers talk, the more the narrator – consumed by his guilt – is convinced that the officers had discovered his crime. His sense of guilt multiplies and he finally crumbles, confessing his crime in a singular outburst. His guilt makes him believe that the old man’s heartbeat was still beating and that the officers were able to hear it.
Similarly, in the short story “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Aylmer undergoes intense emotional upheavals as he tries to convince his wife to get rid of the birthmark. When Georgina eventually comes round, he is then faced with the prospect of coming up with a chemical that will effectively carry out his plans of eliminating the birthmark.
Georgina also undergoes intense emotional re-evaluation in the days leading up to her ‘operation’ to eliminate the birthmark. While she desires her husband to love her unconditionally (with the birthmark), the fact that he is uncomfortable with it makes her uncomfortable with it too. Their intense emotions come to a climactic end when, first Georgina, then Aylmer, realize that the portion she had taken was killing her.
After Nina fails to impress in her audition for a role as the Swan Queen, she immediately begins to do all within her efforts to assume that role. She subsequently fights a lot with her mother.
The strain of trying to be the best dancer takes a heavy emotional toll on her and she begins to abuse the drug ecstasy in order to find some sense of peace from her chaotic existence. Amidst all the intensity and emotions, she cries a lot, practices her role to perfection and engages in an affair with the director of the play. In the end, all the people she confronts in her quest for balance in her life applaud her performance in the end of the film.
Another feature of Romanticism found in the two short stories and the film is the depiction of acts and visions born out of hallucinations by the characters/actors, as well as portrayal of surreal existences. Klemm states that elements of death and hallucinations litter Romantic texts (625). In “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the narrator is an unreliable narrator.
His stream of thought clearly portrays him to be mentally unstable, and he seems to enjoy torturing the old man by sneaking to his room at night and leaving him frightened and guessing about whom or what might have entered his room at night. The narrator exists in his own self-created world where he sets his own rules and draws his own conclusions concerning the behavior of those around him.
He has irrationally convinced himself that the old man’s eyes portend evil for him. In Nathaniel Hawthorn’s “The Birthmark”, Aylmer creates his own rules about life that are quite different from those prevalent in his contemporary society. He believes that man has absolute control over nature, and he spends his time locked in his vast laboratories conducting experiments.
He is convinced that the birthmark on his wife is a mistake by nature that he intends to correct. Because he believes in his convictions, he leads a surreal life far removed from contemporary reality, and in the end, he looses his wife while she undergoes an unnecessary procedure to eliminate birthmark with which he is personally obsessed.
Finally, in the film “The Black Swan” Nina’s hallucinations drive her towards physical self-harm. Her drug use removes her from the reality of life and she begins to hallucinate and exist on an almost different sphere of reality – imagining sex scenes and fights with non-existent persons.
In conclusion, the two short stories and the film contain various elements of Gothic Romanticism. As discussed in the paper, the characters are involved in a search for personal and communal freedom and a sense of perfection and idealism in their lives. They are also apt to justify their various quests for idealism and freedom, and they are subjected to intense emotional episodes in their activities. They also undergo phases of hallucinations and occasionally exist in surreal states. All these are characteristic of Gothic Romanticism.
Bar-Yosef, Hamutal. Romanticism and decadence in the literature of the Hebrew revival. Comparative Literature 46.2 (1994): 146-157.
Boutin, Aimée. Shakespeare, Women, and French Romanticism. Modern Language Quarterly 65.4 (2004): 505-529.
Klemm, Frederick. The dead-hand motive as a phase of Gerhart Hauptmann’s romanticism. Modern Language Quarterly 2.4 (1941): 619-629.
Lalla, Barbara. Dungeons of the soul: Frustrated romanticism in eighteenth and nineteenth century literature of. MELUS 21.3 (1996): 3-15.
Vincent, Steven. Benjamin Constant, the French Revolution, and the Origins of French Romantic Liberalism. French Historical Studies 23.4 (2000): 607-621.
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