Pygmalion and An Exploration of the Ethics of Science

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Nathaniel Hawthorne, one of the most brilliant writers of the American Renaissance, spun tales of human trials and failures that fascinate scholars, writers, and students while questioning transcendentalist beliefs through extraordinary prose. American Romanticism emphasized introspection and self-awareness, engaging with nature, and individuality, free from the conformity of past Puritan influence (Dincer 219). Dark Romanticism evolved as a subgenre of Romanticism, featuring themes such as science vs.

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nature, where individuals attempt to make changes to theirs and the lives of others but fail in their pursuits (Dincer 220). In Hawthorne’s short story, The Birthmark, he debates the Romantic theme science is better than nature through symbolism and conflict between a Pygmalion protagonist, who believes science is perfection, and his antagonist wife, who argues the ethics of Science. American Transcendentalists argued for self-reliance, reflecting a new philosophical idea of introspection that circulated Europe, beginning in Germany. Introspection is a technique aimed at looking inside oneself to find truth rather than outside sources. Transcendentalists sensed a new era had arrived and were critics of their contemporary society for not conforming to new ideas and ridding themselves of past Puritan beliefs. When writing Nature, Emerson presented the thought that God did not create humans separate from nature as did previous teachings.

The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we through their eyes (Emerson 214). This line of philosophical thought is a seed from which Hawthorne could grow the nature is better than science argument. Combining arguments from Emerson and other Transcendentalists and the progress science was making with the dark romanticism elements of horror, death, evil as spiritual truth, and terror brings the conflicts between Aylmer and Georgiana to light in the science vs. nature theme. Hawthorne had had a great deal of exposure to the doctrines of the New England transcendentalists, who may have been responsible for Aylmer’s metaphysical dualism and, more particularly, his radical idealism (Rucker 447). The literary anti-transcendentalism movement to which Hawthorne’s role was significant, penned creative stories about sinful, bitter, evil characters who destroy human spirit without concern for morality. Authors of the anti-transcendentalism movement considered the uncertainty of man and his remorse for having sinned in their morbid, raw use of symbolism in their dark, macabre fiction that captivated audiences (Anderson and Lentini). Hawthorne, a writer of the rapidly emerging Dark Romance genre, wrote tales revolving around the human nature characteristics of guilt, cruelty, crime, and self-destruction all on display in The Birth-Mark (Anderson and Lentini).        

Pygmalion was a perfectionist sculptor who was obsessed with creating a sculpture of the perfect woman. He obsessed over the beauty he could create and fell in love with his creation. Pygmalion, according to David Kiersey’s four temperament types, was a Rational who believed nature could not compete with knowledge (McKenna). His rational characteristics drove him to perfection with no regard for the consequences. He would sacrifice everything to achieve his masterpiece, just like Aylmer. Georgiana, an Idealist on the temperate types, is an opposite to Aylmer’s personality and seems the perfect spouse, and she has a flaw for her husband’s Pygmalion rationalist personality to thrive upon. Georgiana’s idealizing of Aylmer makes him more fallible, blinding her to the dangers he posed to her well-being. Joined together, the couple forms a Pygmalion marriage, a temporary symbiosis that finally degenerates into vampirism (Zanger 366).

Aylmer’s marrying Georgiana, who is as close to perfection as possible in nature, pleases him, but his sudden attraction to the mark on her face, and the thought that he cannot love her while she bears the mark, seals their fate. In The Birth-Mark, Aylmer has everything going for him. He is a scientist who has recently married Georgiana, whose beauty was the envy of many suitors. Being the main character story means Aylmer must have a mission, a flaw to drive the plot. Aylmer’s idle hands transform him from a loving husband to an arrogant, mad-scientist, who examples the Dark Romance theme of science is better than Nature. In the view of dark romantics, human nature is not inherently good, which means anyone is capable of doing bad things (Caffrey). Georgiana, as Aylmer describes her, came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature (Hawthorne 419). Her single flaw that kept her from being perfect was a birthmark on her left cheek, a crimson stain upon the snow (Hawthorne 419). To some folks the hand-shaped birthmark was a hideous thing while others would have risked life for the privilege of pressing lips to the mysterious hand (Hawthorne 419).

In Aylmer’s eyes the birth-mark symbolizes Nature’s imperfection, but since he believes science is better than Nature, he can remove it and create the perfect woman. Georgiana’s birthmark becomes the showcase debate of science vs. nature when, Aylmer, becomes like Pygmalion. In his youth, Aylmer immersed himself in philosophy, religion, physical science and physiology, culminating in an understand of how nature created its masterpiece man. As Aylmer’s Pygmalion-like personality emerged, with it he formulated a notion that he could improve this masterpiece. A Pygmalion Project is an attempt to sculpt another person into an improved version which the sculptor thinks is more suitable (McKenna 36). Georgiana, said he, It never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed? To tell you the truth, it has been so often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so. Ah, up on another face, perhaps it might, replied her husband. But never on yours! No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature, that this slightest possible defect which we hesitate whether to determine a defect or a beauty” shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection (Hawthorne 419). This passage, near the beginning of the story, sets up the dark romanticism theme of science versus nature by demonstrating what Georgiana’s birthmark symbolizes to Aylmer and herself. Georgiana believes the mark was placed on her cheek by a fairy upon her birth.

This minor conflict reveals much of the different personalities and views on science and nature. Georgiana displays a carefree spirit by describing herself as simple enough (Hawthorne 419), meaning free spirit enough to be complacent with the charm on her cheek. Aylmer shows his Pygmalion arrogance by questioning if Georgiana has considered attempting to remove the mark. According to Marshal, the birthmark symbolizes “the power of Georgiana’s natural desires,” and Aylmer “projects his panic on the birthmark, thus creating an excuse to return to his laboratory, where he feels secure and in control” (Marshal 37-38). Selecting it as the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer’s somber imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight (Hawthorne 420). This passage describes Aylmer’s self-induced inner conflict and sheds light on his psychological state. Aylmer’s uncanny reaction and rising fear of the birthmark causes a realization that their love will never be the same while Georgiana bears the mark. Aylmer’s internal conflict relates to the dark romanticism theme of science versus nature in which his faith in science drives him to believe he must remove the mark and restore her perfection to look upon her face as he once had. Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be (Hawthorne 421). Seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable, with every moment of their united lives (Hawthorne 419).

Aylmer’s obsession with the mark and lack of concern for his wife’s feelings seems as though he married the mark rather than Georgiana. The mark is given so much attention by Aylmer that it has a life of its own with a personality created to taunt him. His dream of cutting out the birth-mark drove Aylmer’s need for a perfect creation even if her life was the cost (Herndon). To balance the tension in the story, Hawthorne gives the reader Aminidab, a Biblical name representing the leader of a noble nation (Walsh). Aylmer looked down to his assistant, describing him as being a lesser, flawed machine with little intelligence, but of the three, he is the voice of reason ignored. Aminidab sees the perfection of the birth-mark as much of society has and eludes to Aylmer’s overzealousness by stating, if she were my wife, I’d never part with that birth-mark (Hawthorne 422).

Aminidab’s statement and the tone with which it is spoken, suggests he love’s Georgiana, a woman who would not consider a man of his status for a marriage partner. Aylmer attempts to relieve the tension between he and his wife by transforming one of his laboratory rooms into a comfortable, brightly decorated room for Georgiana to rest. He successfully distracts her from the dangerous procedure they were about to perform by demonstrating his abilities on a flower which, like his many failures before, turned to ash below her touch, symbolizing her death. Aylmer’s failed attempt at creating a photograph also foreshadows the failure of removing the mark. Tension resurfaces with Georgiana’s disapproval of Aylmer’s admission he has created a potion that can extend a person’s life or kill them instantly, but he is keeping the world safe by not exposing his secret. Georgiana is skeptical of Aylmer’s ability to use science to rid her of the birthmark and make her more beautiful. Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed (Hawthorne 426). This passage brings conflict between Georgiana and Aylmer without a spoken word. Hawthorne’s opening lines elude to Aylmer being a better philosopher than scientist, leading the reader to believe he quite possibly only thinks he achieved success. The evidence of Aylmer’s failures reveals her husband’s imperfections and made him more human, producing a deeper affection for him, but causes her to question the procedure. The book symbolizes the failures in science to which Aylmer has turned a blind eye. The discoveries Georgiana makes of his failures and her reaction to them foreshadows her death. So deeply did these reflections affect Georgiana that she laid her face upon the open volume and burst into tears (Hawthorne 426).        

Georgiana confronts Aylmer while observing his nervousness while preparing the procedure, telling him his conscience will bear the suffering more than she if he fails for, for my share in it is far less than your own (Hawthorne 427). Her willingness to drink whatever poison he created to make him happy in their marriage was countered by Aylmer’s confession that he had administered the cure and failed, leaving only one last option to save their marriage.       

 Aylmer’s Pygmalion personality arose when he again demonstrated his potion’s potency on an ill plant that upon receiving its curing properties, stood anew before Georgiana’s eyes, her faith in him also renewed. To ease tension, Hawthorne gives the dark romance a comedic turn as she asks for the potion and Almer again appears as her savior, resembling a comic book hero with a Shakespearian voice, saying Drink, then, thou lofty creature! (Hawthorne 428). Like a Shakespearian tragedy, Aylmer did succeed in removing the stain from her cheek, but Georgiana’s death meant in the end, science was not better than nature and he fell victim to the dark Romantic theme of the scientist who failed in their pursuit. He heard Nature’s last laugh, for he had rejected the best that earth could offer (Hawthorne 429).

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