Hawthorne and Poe

This week in Coursera we read stories by Hawthorne and Poe. The two authors were very different, stylistically and conceptually. Despite that, I did not particularly care for either author. I focused my essay (below) on Hawthorne’s Puritanical messages.

While Hawthorne’s stories each have a moral message, not all of them seem to support each other. The Birthmark, Rappacini’s Daughter, and Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment all empahisize the negative consequences of the pursuit of perfection. In contrast, The Artist of the Beautiful suggests that even a brief achievement of perfection is worth extreme social and personal sacrifice.

Whether pursuing perfect beauty, a perfect daughter, or your perfect youth, achieving your goal will ultimately lead to negative consequences, even death. The three tales in this mode all support the Puritan notion that humanity is sinful, and that sin is punished in the end.

The Artist of the Beautiful suggests the opposite in the main character: Owen Warland pursues perfection to the point of becoming a Creator: Creating an artifically living butterfly. Owen succeeds, and while his creation is soon destroyed, he is satisfied knowing he has achieved perfection after all his sacrifice.

The two themes come together in the last character introduced in The Artist of the Beautiful: The infant son of Owen’s one-time love. Though an infant, he is shown to deliberately destroy the butterfly, out of spite and guilt. His sin is not the result of anything external: It is innate. The main message then takes an abrupt shift from Owen’s success to the evil nature of mankind embodied in the child.

The apparent conflict in the stories is thus resolved, and the moral message is clear throughout his works: Man is inherently sinful, and any attempts at perfection are doomed to failure. Any apparent success will be fleeting, and ultimately not be worth the cost of your life.

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