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West Chester University

Fall 2004and
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Spring 2003

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Course Information
  LIT 165 Syllabus
  LIT 165 Announcements
  LIT 165 Assignments
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  WRT 120 Announcements
  WRT 120 Assigmments

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
  Adieu to Imaginary Worlds
  One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
  ASSIGNMENT SHEET: Paper #3
  Notes on 'Before the Law'
  Samuel Beckett Links
  Notes on 'Waiting for Godot'
  Approaching 'Waiting for Godot'
  Notes on 'Axolotl' by Julio Cortazar
  Notes on 'EPICAC' by Kurt Vonnegut
  ASSIGNMENT SHEET: Paper #2
  DIRECTIONS: Independent Project
  Suggested Readings: Independent Project
  Utopia/Dystopia Links
  Character Analysis: Brave New World
  Analyzing the Brave New World
  Defining Utopia
  Embarking on the Brave New World
  A Critique of BRAVE NEW WORLD
  Dante Links
  Inferno: Final Destinations, Cantos XXXII-XXXIV
  Inferno: Malebolge, Cantos XVIII-XXXI
  Inferno: Questions/Analysis, Cantos XII - XVII
  Structure in the Inferno: Analysis, Cantos V - XI
  Inferno: Questions for Analysis, Cantos I - V
  Introducing Canto I
  Approaching the Divine Comedy
  Relating to Dante's Inferno
  Our Goals for Studying the Inferno
  Assignment Sheet: PAPER #1
  The Birthmark
  Leaf By Niggle
  Responses to Leaf By Niggle
  'On Fairy Stories' by J.R.R. Tolkien
  Notes on Ovid and 'Metamorphoses'
  Analyzing the Mythic Tales
  The Four Functions of Myth
  Myth and Metaphor
  Myth - Links
  Filtering the Introduction to 'Fantastic Worlds'
  Allegory
  'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' and 'The Zebra Storyteller
  Introducing the 'Imaginary Worlds' Theme
  Alice In Wonderland
  The Metamorphosis

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2004)
  Conference Schedule: 4/21 and 4/26
  Commentary: Following Up Your Response
  Critical Thinking and Commentary
  Casebook: Evaluating Sources
  What is Argument?
  Parts of an Argument
  Casebook Assignment Sheet
  Rubric for Evaluation of Writing
  Assignment Sheet: Essay#1
  Expressive Writing
  Short Stories About Identity
  Thoughts on Stories About Identity
  Poems About Identity
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Mind-map: Identity

ENG Q20: Basic Writing (Fall 2004)
  ENG Q20 Syllabus
  Frederick Douglass Excerpt
  Propaganda Analysis
  How to Detect Propaganda
  George Orwell's Politics and the English Language
  Propaganda Analysis Exercise

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

 

~~ The Birthmark ~~


"Beauty Mark"
by Andrew Wyeth

I expect you struggled with Hawthorne's unfamiliar 19th century diction. His syntax can be difficult, admittedly. We don't speak or write like this anymore; it doesn't sound very "natural." Maybe you gave up on this one; I hope not. If it helps, I don't think you'll find it difficult all the way through if you stay with it (until the very end, when the "moral" is so paradoxical and difficult to easily sum up). However, after the beginning few paragraphs which may throw you a bit, the story settles in and things are pretty easy to follow. If you gave up, try again with this in mind.

Why assign a story that's bound to present difficulties like this? Call it stubborness, or stupidity, or both. I know I'm stubborn, but hopefully not stupid. I keep assigning this story despite its obvious difficulty because I so strongly believe it is a rich, relevant story that has a lot to offer.

One of its primary literary qualities is a strong dose of ambiguity. The story is a goldmine of provocative questions, and the answers are for you to discover:

  • What is "marriage," what's the nature of a "good marriage," or a "good relationship"?
  • What's the nature of beauty? Do we go wrong when we define beauty?
  • Is there something wrong with the pursuit of perfection? What would make it okay or not okay?
  • What's the relationship between self-image and happiness?
  • Is idealism a kind of madness? What makes Alymer's idealism "mad"?
  • Is there something irrational and insane about our fantasies of dominance and control over nature?
  • When is submissiveness a kind of suspension of intelligence or rationality? Why does Georgiana submit to Alymer?
  • Is it always a fatal mistake to let other people do your thinking for you?
  • Is there something ruthless about our drive to "improve nature?
  • Is excessive pride at the heart of Alymer's will to power? Is it his "fatal flaw"?
  • Is this story a tragedy? Whose tragedy?

Does the story seem a little far-fetched to you? An amazing fact is that this fiction is based on a true story that Hawthorne dug up from the sensationalist penny presses he was addicted to reading. Maybe he wondered himself if it could be true. Regardless, he seems to have recognized something timeless in this tale of "Science" gone awry.

Is the tale timeless? I believe so. I think there's ample evidence all around us that we're still questioning where best to put our faith. Should we believe in Science or God? One of the more subtle meanings in "The Birthmark" may be that faith in Science and faith in God aren't so separate as they seem, especially if God has granted to Man "dominion" over the earth. It becomes a spiritual pursuit, this quest to "improve nature." Science still seems "miraculous" to many of us. Whether it's "intelligent design" or quantum physics, science remains a lens through which we view the wonders of this world with stunned awe. And I think as a result, many of us have no trouble conjuring in our psyches the archetypal image of a certain kind of "scientist" as a mad wizard mixing magic potions in a tube-lined laboratory, feverishly concocting something that may be good or ill, we don't really know. Alymer may be a scientist or he may be a magician. One thing we know: he's in pursuit of control. He seeks dominance. Whatever falls in his path, whether plant or person, he will claim dominion. Georgiana, and by extension whatever or whoever she may represent, is about as able to resist him as a flower is able to resist the blades of a power mower.

The goals of science have been wrapped in controversy for a long time now, and they'll remain wrapped in controversy for a while to come, it would seem. What does Hawthorne imagine for us in this tale that is so controversial? Well, think about this: how do we define a "defect"? Is imperfect beauty a "defect"? How about a below average IQ? What if you can't jump very high or run very fast? Are these "defects"? We may not think so at first, especially if we compare these things to more "obvious" defects like a deformity or life-threatening disease. Yet the social reality is that beauty, intelligence, and athletic prowess are (at least potentially) richly rewarded, and not having these may put a person at a distinct disadvantage against someone who possesses them, some would argue. If you could choose to create a baby with one or all of these qualities, would you roll the dice or take control? Is that desire essentially different from what Alymer wants to accomplish with Georgiana? His monomaniacal obsessiveness may put him at a comfortable distance from ourselves, but are his goals so very different from the ones people still talk about today when they talk about genetic engineering and even cloning?

Alymer seeks perfection, is obsessed by the idea of perfecting the human form. He seems determined to improve upon what the human form is naturally capable of—the removal of all imperfection. Is that such an outdated theme? I don't think so. Our technology may have advanced, but the ethical questions are still basically the same: what are we trying to achieve with our botox treatments, our diet pills, our cosmetic surgeries? Why are we genetically engineering our food and even ourselves? What is the goal? Where is this drive to improve upon nature leading us? What are the underlying assumptions, the conscious or unconscious impulses that motivate it? What is the foundational framework? We've seen that it goes all the way back to Genesis, with God telling Adam in the Garden of Eden that he has "dominion" over nature.

Hawthorne promises us (a little facetiously) at the beginning of his story that it will deliver us "an impressive moral." But when it's time for him to deliver that moral, it is wrapped in paradox, about as tidy as sand in a windstorm. Unwrap that paradoxical last line, if you like puzzles. It can be done, but it will take a little doing.

Hawthorne's stories go deeper than most of the superficial fiction which circulated in his day. We credit him, after all, with being one of the founding fathers of the modern short story, a form quite different from the tales we've studied so far. (You can read further about the genesis of the short story, if you're interested.) Michael Meyer expertly sums up, in The Bedford Introduction to Literature, why our fascination with Hawthorne's characters is so enduring:

"Hawthorne wrote about characters who suffer from inner conflicts caused by sin, pride, untested innocence, hidden guilt, perverse secrecy, cold intellectuality, and isolation. His characters are often consumed by their own passions, whether those passions are motivated by an obsession with goodness or evil. He looks inside his characters and reveals to us that portion of their hearts, minds, and souls that they keep from the world and even from themselves. This emphasis accounts for the private, interior, and sometimes gloomy atmosphere in Hawthorne's works. His stories rarely end on a happy note because the questions his characters raise are almost never completely answered. Rather than positing solutions to the problems and issues his characters encounter, Hawthorne leaves us with ambiguities suggesting that experience cannot always be fully understood and controlled. Beneath the surface appearances in his stories lurk ironies and shifting meanings that point to many complex truths instead of a single simple moral."

What are some of your own questions about "The Birthmark"? What questions did the story raise in your own mind? Think of several and how might you answer them.

 

 

 

     

 


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