“The Story of an Hour” and “The Birthmark” Essay
Constructing fictional worlds for characters, authors reflect particular moral, ethical, and social rules of proper behavior in the world. Hence, the heroes are expected to follow these rules. However, when some characters violate the expectations, the complication of the plot follows.
Depending on the narrator’s reflections on the norms of the world, some characters are “punished” for their transgression of ethical, moral, and social norms, some are not.
The “punishment” of the character, however, does not necessarily testify to the narrator’s support of the expected behavior standards pointing out a conflict between the author and the society in regards to ethical, moral, and social values. Comparison of The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne reveals the difference in the narrative’s attitude to the moral order in their fictional world.
When Hawthorne describes his fictional world The Birthmark, he refers to “comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature” (12). Besides, he chooses “a man of science” Aylmer who is an “eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy” as the main character (Hawthorne 12).
Scientific findings are highly approved and encouraged in the society of that time. However, it is believed that “our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results” (Hawthorne 18).
Hence, the question is posed whether a human should only perceive natural laws, explain them, experiment with them or create as well. Hawthorn believes that Nature “permits us indeed to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make” (18). It is not a question of capability or knowledge; it is an ethical dilemma.
Besides, moral and social standards of the society disapprove sacrifice of a human to deeper comprehend Nature. Only after his dream Aylmer recognizes “the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace” (Hawthorne 16).
The birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek represents “fatal flaw of humanity”, and the author poses the question whether Nature created a human as mortal and imperfect or “perfection must be wrought by toil and pain” (Hawthorne 14). Consequently, the moral, social, and ethical dilemma presents a choice: to accept and admire the imperfection of a human or to fight against it at any cost.
Aylmer cannot consent to the human’s imperfection or Nature’s superiority, so he chooses to fight. At first, Georgiana doubts, she thinks it is possible that “the stain goes as deep as life itself” and asks Aylmer, “do we know that there is a possibility, on any terms, of unclasping the firm gripe of this little Hand” (Hawthorne 16). Aylmer, on contrary, is confident in his power reassuring his wife that he is capable “to create a being” (Hawthorne 16). Georgiana is ready to sacrifice herself to satisfy Aylmer’s urge for perfection and submission of Nature.
However, Aylmer is aware of moral, ethical, and social standards of the world. Speaking of power to make “elixir vitae” that can “prolong life”, he reflects on the causes of such experiment, “it would produce a discord in nature” (Hawthorne 21).Georgiana’s reaction reveals a deeper moral, ethical, and social dilemma, though.
She exclaims, “It is terrible to possess such power, or even to dream of possessing it!” (Hawthorne 21) Consequently, Aylmer consciously violates the moral order of the world. Moreover, he realizes and fears his possible defeat explaining to Georgiana that her birthmark is “superficial… With a strength of which I had no previous conception” (Hawthorne 26). Despite all the dangerous consequences, he decides to use the last thing possible.
Eventually, Aylmer managed to defeat his wife’s imperfection. However, when Georgiana wakes up and understands that the birthmark is gone, she feels sorry for Aylmer. She calls him “poor”, but Aylmer minds, “Poor? Nay, richest! Happiest! Most favored!” (Hawthorne 31).
Georgiana dies after saying, “You have aimed loftily!—you have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer” (Hawthorne 31). Georgiana’s death was the “punishment” for Aylmer’s consciously transgression of the moral order of the world.
Last passage of the story reveals Hawthorne’s acceptance of moral, social and ethical standards in the world of the text. He speaks of Aylmer ruining “mystery of life”, “the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame” (Hawthorne 31). Happiness for Hawthorne is the ability to “find the perfect Future in the present” (31). Loneliness and misery are the punishment for failing to recognize it and trying to overmaster Nature at any cost.
Comparison of Hawthorne’s and Chopin’s texts reveals the distinction in their perception and acceptance of the moral order in the world. Moreover, the authors depict marriage and a woman’s role in the society in different way. Hawthorne’s Georgiana fully trusts her husband, loves him and sacrifices herself for his needs. Chopin’s Mrs. Mallard in The Story of an Hour is an entirely different character.
When Kate Chopin describes Louise’s reaction to a loss of her husband, she says, “she did not hear the story as many women have heard the same, with a paralyzed inability to accept its significance” (352). According to the social standards, a married woman’s role in the society lies in serving her family, namely her husband. A loss of a man should paralyze a woman, as she should not even comprehend what life can be without her husband.
However, Chopin describes an inner struggle going on in Louise’s soul. On one hand, Louise experiences a feeling “that was approaching to possess her” but she struggles with it and does not dare to accept or name it (Chopin, 353). Eventually, though, she is “powerless” to fight with that feeling, “when she abandoned herself a little whispered word escaped her slightly parted lips. She said it over and over under her breath: “free, free, free!” (Chopin, 353). Louise’s transgression of moral, ethical, and social rules of the society frightens herself.
The possible explanation of such behavior lies in the fact that Louise did not love her husband. She reflects on her husband, “and yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter!” (Chopin 353). Her reflection represents another rule in the society: marriage is a social need, not an emotional one.
Thus, Louise disowns her emotions, she “did not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her” but soon she fails to resist her delight (Chopin 353). Furthermore, Louise’s reflections represent the expected social behavior for married couples in the society.
She realizes that “there would be no one to live for during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow creature” (Chopin, 353).
Freedom of “body and soul” inspires Louise, “she breathed a quick prayer that life might be long. It was only yesterday she had thought with a shudder that life might be long” (Chopin 354). Hence, Louise violates the moral order of the society when feeling happy because she does not need to surrender her personality, her private wants and urges any more.
Louise’s “punishment” is her husband’s safe return home. She dies immediately after seeing her husband, “when the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease—of joy that kills” (Chopin 354). Therefore, Louise experiences the ultimate “punishment”, death.
However, the irony in the description of the “punishment” reveals Chopin’s commentary on the moral order of the society. Not the “joy” killed Louise but the failure of her expectations that transgressed moral, ethical, and social norms of the society. Therefore, Chopin does not accept the supremacy of the moral standards and social institution of marriage that suppresses personality.
Consequently, an analysis of the fictional worlds, its behavior standards, and the way the characters are “punished” for transgressing the moral order reveals the narrator’s reflections on the ethical, moral, and social values of the society.
Chopin, Kate. Southern Literary Studies: Complete Works of Kate Chopin. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1969. ProQuest ebrary.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Mosses from an Old Manse. London, UK: ElecBook, 2001. ProQuest ebrary.
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