The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark: An Insight to an Era

Categories: Edgar Allan PoeLove

Documents, records locked away in vaults, and history books are all excellent way to learn about the past.  These are all ways that facts can be found, but that is only part of what can be discovered about past.  Literature gives an insight into the culture of the times that facts and figures cannot do.  The stories of any society reflect the attitudes and issues of concern that were on the minds of the people of the time, and The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne are perfect examples of how this is true.

Two of the most famous American authors of the Romantic Period were Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Their popularity was due to the fact that their work represented the time period so well.  The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark have a similar storyline which reflects the concerns of the day.  Both stories are focused around the death of two beautiful young brides whose personalities out shine their beauty.

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  Sadly the two young women suffer their terrible fates at the hands of their husbands who are so obsessed with their occupations that they rob their victims of the most precious thing a person can have and that is life.

The Birthmark, Georgiana, the newly married young woman falls victim to her husband who is a scientist.  Georgiana has a birthmark that adds to her natural beauty and Aylmer, her husband is repulsed by it.  A deepened admiration and appreciation for the beauty of nature is one of the major elements of Romanticism which took place from the late eighteen hundreds until the early eighteen seventies.

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  The world was on the edge of industrialization and the intellectuals of the day were concerned about the loss of the rural way of life and destruction of the natural surroundings.

Georgiana symbolized nature in that she was exceedingly beautiful and her birthmark is what made her an individual.  Her flaw actually enhanced her beauty because in nature, nothing is perfect, yet it is beautiful.  Aylmer is symbolic of industry and science that is not satisfied to appreciate nature for its beauty instead of what can be done with it.  Aylmer has a beautiful and loving wife that most men would love to have and yet he can only focus on her flaw.  This represents the fact that the Romantics felt that while science had its place, most of the time, nature should be an object of beauty and enjoyment.  It should be revered instead of analyzed.

The artist in The Oval Portrait, like Aylmer, is obsessed with his wife’s appearance and trying to capture it on canvas.  The young wife is much like Georgiana in that she seems to be the perfect wife.

She was a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee. And evil was the hour when she saw, and loved, and wedded the painter. He, passionate, studious, austere, and having already a bride in his Art; she a maiden of rarest beauty, and not more lovely than full of glee; all light and smiles, and frolicsome as the young fawn; loving and cherishing all things; hating only the Art which was her rival; dreading only the pallet and brushes and other untoward instruments which deprived her of the countenance of her lover. It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to pourtray even his young bride (Poe 203).

However, the artist is more interested in capturing her beauty than enjoying her company and beauty.  In The Oval Portrait, when the artist completely captures her likeness, she dies, like the Native American proverb that teaches a picture captures a bit of a person’s soul.  I had found the spell of the picture in an absolute life-likeness of expression, which at first startling, finally confounded subdued, and appalled me (203).  During the Romantic Period, the supernatural was a focus of most artists.  Life was short and the afterlife was a constant thought of everyone. Both the birthmark and the woman’s likeness seem to be connected supernaturally with their soul.   Writing about the supernatural forces helped explain the eternal life.  Since the brevity of life was such a strong force during this time, it was an author’s job to remind the reader that life was to be lived to the fullest instead of on a focused obsession.

The artist and Aylmer are from well to do families.  The stories do not come right out and say this, but Aylmer is well known for his scientific mind.  The artist does not have any other job and is able to devote himself to just painting.  Therefore, it can be reasoned that they have the means to devote themselves to their obsessions.  Even the narrator of The Oval Portrait is wealthy or he would not have a valet to see to his every need. The house that is was once belonged to the author is described as one that would belong to the wealthy.

Its decorations were rich, yet tattered and antique. Its walls were hung with tapestry and bedecked with manifold and multiform armorial trophies, together with an unusually great number of very spirited modern paintings in frames of rich golden arabesque. Aylmer has Aminadab as an employee and he is also able to provide a fantasy room for Georgiana to stay in while he conducts his experiment (202).

During the Romantic Period, wealth afforded individuals to live a life that was dark and mysterious.  This would be impossible for the poor and working class since they would be consumed with survival instead of the things that interested them.

Both The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark are love stories.  They are about love that starts out strong, but quickly turn into something else by the husbands.  Their occupations become more important than their love for their wives.  The wives, however, never change in the love for their husbands.  They remain constant and true to their lovers and both put their lives in danger and they even gave their lives for their husband’s true loves.  Providing happiness for their husbands was their main concern.

The fact that women can love more than men was a factor in Romanticism.  During this time women were seen as the emotional people and the wives of The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark are examples of that.  While both couples are married and are in love, they are tied to each other for the rest of their lives.  The deaths of the wives are the ultimate divorce.  Therefore, the relationships are permanently broken because the men were in love with more than their wives.

Both Aylmer and the artist are representative of the Romantic preoccupation with the genius and dark hero.  Aylmer feels that if he can manipulate perfection in his wife’s beauty, then he will give a great gift to the world.  Even though the reader can see that he should love his wife for who she is, he does not think that he is doing an evil act.  The artist, like Aylmer, feels that he will be contributing to the world if he is able to capture his wife’s likeness.

They are both brooding men who only think of their work and even though they are both brilliant in the area’s of their occupations, they cannot identify what is important in life.  Most of the creative and intellectual men of the times had addictive personalities.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was addicted to opium and he is just one example.  The people of the day were concerned about addictions because they were faced with the effects and had no idea what to do about them.  The two male characters of the stories were not addicted to a drug or to alcohol, but they were addicted to their work.

And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him.  They cannot discern that some things are better left alone and the way that nature intended them to be (203).

Both Georgiana and the wife of the artist are young and totally devoted to their husbands.  During the Romantic Period, most women married young and were taught in their upbringing that a wife is to be submissive to her husband. The young wife of the artist felt it was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to portray even his young bride (203) But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead.

With the new focus on the intellectual during this period, the idea of a woman using her intellect and being a person with rights was coming to the forefront with the women’s suffrage movement.  In both The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark, neither of the young women would have lost her life if she had refused to go along with what would seem to be an illogical event.  Their youth is symbolic for the way that women were treated as children and these two women accept their husband’s demands as a child would in her innocence.

In both The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark, the beauty of each woman dooms her to death.  During the Romantic Period, the scholars of the day were more centered on the personality and the creativity of the individual than his/her physical beauty.  Both the artist’s wife and Georgiana are beautiful and have wonderful personalities, but they are both pawns of their husbands.  Neither one of the women question or show any sign of disobedience toward their husbands.

Yet she smiled on and still on, uncomplainingly, because she saw that the painter (who had high renown) took a fervid and burning pleasure in his task, and wrought day and night to depict her who so loved him, yet who grew daily more dispirited and weak (203).

Georgiana makes an even bigger blunder when her obedience is such that when she finds Aylmer’s journals and discovers that his past experiments have been unsuccessful.  She still allows him to work on his potion and she drinks it without question.  Male domination was depicted as fatal to both relationships.

Both stories depict a person who works for each of the husbands.  The Birthmark has the character of Aminadab who is merely an unsophisticated assistant to Aylmer.  He is not an educated man, but only follows instructions given to him by his employer.  However, Aminadab proves to be smarter than Aylmer.  He goes with his intuition in the beginning because he feels bad that Aylmer would want to change anything about Georgiana.  The Romantics believed that intuition was much more valuable a tool that reason.  Aminadab also proves right in the end when Aylmer realizes that he has killed Georgiana.  As the tiny birthmark that was shaped like a tiny hand begins to fade away, it is Aminadab who first notices that Georgiana is also fading.

The Romantics also glorified the poor and the working class and this is true with Aminadab.  He is lacking in his education, yet he is the intelligent one who knows that Alymer should not mess with nature.  The Oval Portrait also offers a working man, the valet Pedro, of reason to the reader.  Pedro is the one who breaks into the château and finds a place of comfort away from the elements for his wounded employer.  He is not depicted well and appears only briefly in the story, but he is still an important character.  It is Pedro who serves and thinks for his employer.  Without his help, the narrator would not be able to fend for himself because of his wounded condition.  Still he is the one with the level head.

The occupation of both the artist and Aylmer, the scientist are directly opposite.  Science and art have been at odds since both began.  The artist in The Oval Portrait wanted to capture beauty while Aylmer wanted to perfect it.  In both cases the results were fatal.  Aylmer was not satisfied with any blemish in the natural beauty of his wife and allowed the imperfection to come between himself and his new bride.  However the artist was not satisfied to behold the beauty of his wife while it lasted, but instead he was engrossed in making it last forever.  Just like a flower, beauty only last for a short time.  It will then fade or change.

And he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sate beside him. And when many weeks bad passed, and but little remained to do, save one brush upon the mouth and one tint upon the eye, the spirit of the lady again flickered up as the flame within the socket of the lamp. And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, ‘This is indeed Life itself!’ turned suddenly to regard his beloved:- She was dead! (204)

  The artist wasted the precious time that he could have spent with his beautiful wife and once she was dead, he lost her beauty forever.  In The Birthmark, what is beautiful is in the eye of the beholder.  Georgiana is beautiful even with her birthmark.  It was even seen by others as a touch of an angel’s hand on her cheek, yet Aylmer saw the spot as ugly.  He began to focus on it rather than the rest of her beauty.  Aylmer looked for perfection as if is beautiful.  The birthmark could be seen in two ways and he chose to see it in the negative way.  This represents the way that science and art can both be destructive if they do not live in the moment and become obsessions.

The surroundings of the women are also quite different.  Georgiana was kept in a lavish apartment close to Aylmer’s laboratory.  The curtains were lovely and hid all of the straight lines and sharp corners of the room.  The decorations allowed her to be in fairyland.  Everything that she wanted and every need that she had was granted.  Aylmer spared nothing in making her happy while he worked on his potion.  The artist’s wife lived much differently.  Her surroundings were horrible.

It was thus a terrible thing for this lady to hear the painter speak of his desire to portray even his young bride. But she was humble and obedient, and sat meekly for many weeks in the dark, high turret-chamber where the light dripped upon the pale canvas only from overhead. But he, the painter, took glory in his work, which went on from hour to hour, and from day to day. And be was a passionate, and wild, and moody man, who became lost in reveries; so that he would not see that the light which fell so ghastly in that lone turret withered the health and the spirits of his bride, who pined visibly to all but him. (203)

Her husband kept her in these conditions and did not even notice that she was getting sick.  Aylmer saw to Georgiana’s need and well being while the artist did not.  Had he seen that she was sick and stopped and took care of her, she may not have died.  Instead he was so obsessed that he saw only what he wanted to and he found that he could not stop until the job was done.  The fact that each woman is kept in an enclosed space is symbolic of the fact that each of their husbands have complete control of them which was true in that time period.  Husbands owned their wives as if they were property and they figuratively imprisoned them.

Georgiana is symbolic of the wealthy wives who have figuratively had their lives taken from them and are dead to what they were before they were married.  Georgiana literally goes through this process since she was happy, full of life and appreciated by men.  After her marriage, her physical needs and her every want is met, yet she is still imprisoned and murdered.

The artist wife suffers the same fate, but she is symbolic of those who are in more dark relationships.  Her surroundings are uncomfortable and bring about illness and physical suffering.  Her needs are not met by her husband.  He did not pay enough attention to her to realize that she was sick and needed care.  She was imprisoned by a husband who did not treat her well and represented others who were living life in that way.  They would literally give their lives to the relationships.  Imprisonment by marriage was wrong and literally and figuratively deadly.

The servants are also different in the two stories.  In The Oval Portrait, the valet plays an impersonal role.  He is only there as a servant while Aminadab plays the role of conscious or reason in The Birthmark.  The reader first sees the valet in the very beginning of the story when he breaks open the door of the deserted château for the injured narrator to spend the night while traveling.

He goes about the rooms that the narrator is to occupy and makes it comfortable for him.  There seems to be no interaction between the two except to communicate orders and work related conversation.  Aminidab is much more a part of the story.  He interacts with Aylmer without fear.  While Aylmer does order him about, he will speak to Aylmer about his opinions.  He even told him that he would be satisfied with Georgiana just the way that she is.  He also cares about Georgiana as a person instead of an experiment.  At the end of the story, Aminidab can be heard laughing to place judgment on his employer.

The Birthmark is told in third person point of view.   The reader knows the thoughts and emotions of all of the characters as well as the action in the entire story.  Part of The Oval Portrait is told in first person.   The story of the artist and his wife is a framed story which is written in a book.

I replaced the candelabrum in its former position. The cause of my deep agitation being thus shut from view, I sought eagerly the volume which discussed the paintings and their histories. Turning to the number which designated the oval portrait, I there read the vague and quaint words which follow: (203)

The narrator does not play a part in the actual story of the artist and his wife.  He is just a bystander to the story by reading about it.  He is also in a delusional state that could have an affect on how he perceives the painting and the book that he is reading.  He has obviously wounded and has probably lost a lot of blood which could cause his delusion.

Georgiana and Aylmer are the named characters of The Birthmark while the artist and his wife from The Oval Portrait remain unnamed.  In science during the Romantic Period, everything had to be identified and labeled with a name.  That is why names were important in the story.  They symbolize the scientific way of life and the exactness of it.  The artist and his wife are unnamed because art is not exact.  It is about perception and is analyzed by people who bring their own experiences to the work.  Art is not an exact science, instead it is abstract.  All of the characters are representative of the stories in which they appear.

The Romantic Period is represented well by both The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark Both novels depict the concerns of the people who lived during this period.  Therefore, they are every bit as important to understanding history as documents and facts.

Works Cited

  1. Poe, Edgar Allan.  The Oval Portrait.  1850.
  2. Edgar Allan Poe: The Fall of the House of  Usher and Other Writings. New York: Penguin Books. 2003.

Cite this page

The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark: An Insight to an Era. (2017, Mar 28). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/the-oval-portrait-and-the-birthmark-an-insight-to-an-era-essay

The Oval Portrait and The Birthmark: An Insight to an Era

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