by Kirsten Porter
Author Herman Melville believes the true American writer is the literary artist who writes with what Melville terms “the power of blackness” (Melville 2296), grasping the influences on humanity of sin and evil. Both Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe have this power, and in “The Birthmark” and “Ligeia” both perceive that an aspiration for perfection can create a dark obsession that controls the heart and will of a man. “The Birthmark” tells the story of Georgiana, who has a mark upon her cheek and lets her husband convince her that its removal will make her pure and win his love and approval. “Ligeia” is the tale of the doomed bride Rowena, who is intended to be the replacement for her husband’s deceased wife, but pales in comparison to the man’s perfect image of his beloved first wife.
In “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne exemplifies a dangerous hunger for perfection in his story about a woman’s flawed beauty and her husband’s resolve to correct the mutation himself. Georgiana would be perfect if it were not for a small hand-shaped birthmark that plagues her left cheek. Her husband Aylmer is a scientist who believes he alone can fix the flaw, creating the ideal in his “so nearly perfect” wife. “Seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable…it was the fatal flaw of humanity…the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death” (Hawthorne 1290-1291). For Aylmer, the birthmark represents the single flaw that prevents his wife’s complete purity, and it is a visible reminder of the sinful capabilities that separate any woman or man from the divine. Others have found this imperfection appealing. Aylmer’s lab assistant Aminadab remarks that if Georgiana were his wife, he would leave the birthmark untouched (Hawthorne 1294). Even Georgiana, thus far, has innocently viewed the birthmark in the light of the opinion of others as her “charm.” Aylmer cannot accept this gross defect and is determined to cure Georgiana of her imperfection. He confines her to beautifully decorated, elaborate apartments that were converted from the ugly, sparse rooms of his younger years when his life revolved around scientific experimentation. Georgiana lives in these lonely but comfortable quarters, while Aylmer works in his lab to find a method of removing the abominable birthmark.
Poe’s narrator in “Ligeia” is equally obsessed with achieving perfection. When the narrator marries his second wife Rowena, he despises the “flawed” woman “with a hatred belonging more to demon than to man…. My memory flew back to Ligeia, the beloved, the beautiful, the entombed” (Poe 1531). He believes his first wife, who tragically died only a few years into their marriage, is the only example of a perfect entity existing in an imperfect world. His first wife Ligeia is a lingering marvel of beauty and intellect, and she becomes the standard to which his future conquests will be compared and inevitably proved disappointing. In reality, Ligeia had not been able to fulfill such high expectations, because she had not survived the illness that claimed her life. As she succumbed to her progressive demise, Ligeia herself recognized how her own vulnerability and feeble will prevented her from defeating death. The only imperfection the narrator can remember in Ligeia is a “strangeness” in her eyes that is fascinating and forgivable. The narrator loathes Rowena for her inability to replace Ligeia and the uncontested ideal the man has projected onto his first wife’s memory.
Aylmer’s obsession can easily be mistaken for madness. He has cut himself, his wife, and his lab assistant Aminadab off from the world and reduces his own life to one purpose—removing the birthmark from his wife’s face. The birthmark is a symbol of sin that haunts his every waking moment and torments Aylmer even in his dreams. He is prepared to do whatever is necessary to cleanse the stain from her face. In Aylmer’s obsessive madness, he identifies his love for his wife with a more seductive “passion” for destroying imperfection and triumphing over nature. The scientist becomes self-important in his virtuous pursuit; he alone can save the sinful Georgiana from herself. Aylmer also becomes reckless and cannot grasp the very real possibility of a tragic outcome.
Like Aylmer, Poe’s narrator falls prey to his own obsession. He recounts the beginning of his second marriage by saying that “in a moment of mental alienation, I led from the altar as my bride—as the successor of the unforgotten Ligeia—the fair-haired and blue-eyed lady Rowena…” (Poe 1530). Ligeia is not really dead to the man who lives in the memories of his “perfect” first wife. In the narrator’s moment of solitude, Rowena is a mere pawn to play out this memory of Ligeia and attempt to capture some semblance of his first wife’s flawless nature. Rowena’s inability to replace Ligeia and fill the emptiness the narrator experiences is infuriating to the man who cannot erase Ligeia from his memory. In truth, he never gives Rowena much chance to compete with the legendary Ligeia; the narrator pays more attention to the design and décor of his bridal chamber than to his new bride. The dark obsession that pulses in the heart of the narrator is an obsession that can only be stilled by the object of his heart’s longing—Ligeia.
The new wives are put in difficult positions. Georgiana is the more proactive character, as she chooses the path of complete submission to Aylmer’s madness. Blinded by love for her husband, the woman with the hand-shaped birthmark suffers greatly when the one she loves turns away from her in disgust. Rejection proves too painful. Resisting it, Georgiana actually takes on her husband’s obsession as her own and tells Aylmer, “This hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust—life is a burthen which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful Hand, or take my wretched life!” (Hawthorne 1292). Georgiana recognizes her husband’s obsession as what it is and sees that it is far stronger than any love he feels for his wife; yet, she submits to his madness and her own destruction because her heart is starved with desire for Aylmer’s love. Georgiana cooperates with Aylmer’s scheme to remove her “flaw” and even encourages him to proceed after he detects a life-threatening risk and makes her aware of it. She subordinates the possibility of her own dying to the possibility that Aylmer’s love for her will die if the birthmark continues to exist on her cheek.
Poe’s Rowena submits to the narrator’s cruel obsession, living meekly in the seclusion of their bridal chamber and in the presence of his disordered mind and hot temper. The young bride has not yet experienced independence and a life apart from her immediate family. Now any freedom seems unlikely after her parents sell her to the sadistic, unfeeling widower who uses the poor Rowena to satisfy his own sexual desires. The narrator’s manner causes anxiety and a fatal illness to overcome Rowena. The narrator withholds any love or compassion for this second wife, even as she suffers through an agonizing death. “Full of bitter thoughts of the one only and supremely beloved, I remained with mine eyes riveted upon the body of Rowena” (Poe 1532). Even Rowena’s death is upstaged by memories of Ligeia, and the narrator quiets his still-intense grief for his first love with opium. The depths of his insanity are revealed when he looks upon the corpse of Rowena, only to see the black hair of Ligeia escape from the grave cloths and her strange, black eyes meet his gaze. The narrator, clouded by his obsession, believes Rowena’s dead body is really the resurrected Ligeia.
Hawthorne and Poe use their pens to convey the evils of the human heart, which is capable of destruction when swayed by perfectionism, obsession, or—on the parts of the two women—submission. Neither woman has a fair chance. As eighteenth- and nineteenth- century wives, they must obey their husbands if they can. Aylmer’s own obsession is the evil that ends Georgiana’s life, not the human vulnerability symbolized by the birthmark. Georgiana consents to the procedure and sacrifices herself to satisfy her husband’s need to carry out this experiment. However, she makes it clear to Aylmer before she dies that it is not her imperfection, but Aylmer and his quest to create heaven on earth, that are responsible for her death.
Ligeia serves as the narrator’s representative of the ideal. Any woman who vies for her position will meet failure. The narrator is not looking to start life anew with another woman; at best, he seeks to repeat the life he once enjoyed with his beloved Ligeia. Rowena realizes she is an unsuitable replacement for the new husband she learns to resent. The callous man will not forget his first love and kills his new bride with stress and terror because she is so disappointingly different from the ghost he loves now. Both Aylmer and the narrator give momentum to dark forces when they fail to see their own human imperfections and combat their wives’ faults as if each woman represented the whole of the evil in the world. Somewhere in the black passion of Hawthorne’s words and within the dark shadow of Poe’s story is revealed a shameful truth that speaks of the darkness within all human hearts.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birth-Mark.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. by Nina Baym. Vol B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 5 Vols. 1289-1300.
Melville, Herman. “Hawthorne and His Mosses.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. by Nina Baym. Vol B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 5 Vols. 2292-2304.
Poe, Edgar Allan. “Ligeia.” Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. by Nina Baym. Vol B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003. 5 Vols. 1525-1534.