Hawthorn’s “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccinni’s Daughter” and the pursuit of perfection

Failed attempts to attain perfection are a frequent subject in Hawthorne’s short stories; these attempts at perfection fail because Hawthorne’s protagonists are misguided and their own innate imperfections cloud their judgments. Hawthorne’s short stories “The Birthmark” and “Rappaccini’s Daughter” both feature a male protagonist who desires to recreate a woman into their own view of perfection. However, a person’s desires often tell more about themselves than others: the belief that something is imperfect reflects the believer not the thing. Judith Fetterly, in her essay “Women Beware Science: ‘The Birthmark,’” argues that Hawthorne’s portrayal of women’s imperfections in “The Birthmark” and other short stories says less about the women than the men who fixate on these imperfections and try to reshape them. A more Freudian approach by Frederick Crews focuses on the birthmark and the garden as icons of feminine sexuality. Yet another approach is the more conservative approach taken by Hyatt Waggoner and Richard Fogle who argue a more psychological and religious aspect to Hawthorne’s writing. It is necessary to examine each of these three sometimes-conflicting views to fully explore Hawthorne’s writing and his perception of perfection.

Aylmer of “The Birthmark” is haunted by a tiny birthmark on the cheek of his wife that he “one day, very soon after their marriage” notices. Aylmer then mentions it to his wife stating that she “came so nearly perfect from nature that this [defect is] the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” As with most things, the meaning of this line changes and can be reinterpreted over time. Reacting to this remark from a feminist perspective, Fetterly argues that Aylmer’s “lofty talk [about wanting Georgina to be perfect] is but a cover of his central emotion of revulsion [at her feminine nature].” She adds that Georgiana’s innate flaw is not the birthmark but the female sexuality that the birthmark represents. Crews, remarking from a Freudian perspective, agrees with this assessment saying, “His medical curiosity and his willingness to risk Georgiana’s death…are thinly disguised substitutes for his urges to know and destroy her sexuality” (126). Waggoner is slower to condemn Aylmer’s behavior stating that Aylmer “does wrong things from a motive not in itself wrong” (108). Waggoner does not condemn Aylmer’s action as an attempt to control or even acknowledge Georgiana’s sexuality, but as just a man who is overrun by the desire to create perfection. This libido sciendi view of Aylmer is also reflected by Fogle who focuses on Aylmer’s Faustian desire to know and understand (120).

While it is obvious that Aylmer desires perfection and wishes to control nature, is the focus on Georgina’s sexuality by Crews and Fetterly just an effect of rampant Freudianism? It is possible to interpret the birthmark as a representation of Georgiana’s sexuality because Hawthorne’s stories tend to have a sexual undercurrent, but to reduce the entire story to an attack on the female persona as Fetterly does or the misplacement of lustful thoughts onto women as Crews does is an over simplification. Had Aylmer become obsessed with science after his marriage, these interpretations would have been correct, but Hawthorne states that Aylmer was “a man of science” who “left his laboratory… and pursued a beautiful woman to become his wife” and could only love his wife by “intertwining [his love with her] with his love of science.” From the beginning, the focus of Aylmer’s life is on science; his desire for perfection in his wife is just a manifestation of his need to know and create perfection. While he does focus on the birthmark as a representation of his wife’s female nature and sexuality, it is his love of science that pushes him to remove it.

The greatest argument for Waggoner and Fogle’s interpretation of “The Birthmark” is that, eventually, Aylmer achieves a flawed state of perfection, creates perfect beauty, and controls nature, but all are temporary and his perfections destroy each other because the greatest flaw in Aylmer’s attempts to gain perfection is his inability to understand real perfection in beauty and nature. His attempt to gain physical perfection is fettered by his belief that physical perfection is intrinsically part of beauty: beauty does not necessarily imply perfection because beauty can be defined by some thing’s imperfections as well as its perfections. Similarly, his attempt to gain a perfect understanding of nature was flawed because he believed that controlling nature was part of understanding nature; however, the control and the comprehension of nature are separate, so even though he was able to control nature by removing the birthmark he did not gain a comprehension of nature. Had he gained a perfect understanding of nature, he would have been able to remove the birthmark without subjecting his wife to failed trials and would have created perfection. The more modern and interpretive approaches taken by Fetterly and Crews take the same events and reinterprets them.

Fetterly argues that Aylmer does not approach the birthmark as a scientific mystery but evidence that his wife has an imperfect physical nature, so he is driven to make her perfect and “what perfection means is elimination.” She continues to argue that Aylmer desires to create new life but is unable to, so he fixates on Georgiana’s sexuality because it is her sexuality that allows her to create life. Aylmer attempts to manipulate life by breeding a plant that grows quickly and to recreate life by taking Georgiana’s portrait, but both attempts fail and he must destroy his own work. Aylmer is only successful at creating “imitations rather than copies,” so everything Aylmer achieves is “false and unnatural, like the gorgeous flowers of Rappaccini’s garden. The light is artificial, the figures are shadows, and the draught of immortality is the draught of death” (Fogle 121, Fogle 123). Thus, he is unable to control or even duplicate nature, and if Fetterly is correct, his failures cause him to focus on Georgiana’s sexuality both because it can both duplicate and create life and because it is beyond his ability to control.

Crews agrees that Aylmer’s actions are based on sexual desire: “[Aylmer does] desire the very thing that offends his squeamish mind, and his dream…reveals a fantasy and sadistic revenge and a scarcely less obvious fantasy of sexual consummation” (126). Aylmer desires to both “know and destroy her sexuality” and he “both kissed and shuddered at the suggestive birthmark” (Crews 126). However, while Fetterly uses Aylmer to portray the disgust many men feel towards women, Crews argue that Aylmer’s actions are not vindictive but that they are a part of an obsessive need (112). The latter explanation is far better supported by the actual text. As Crews notes, the first paragraph of “The Birthmark” begins by stating that that Aylmer could only love his wife if he could intertwine his love of her with his love of science, and Hawthorne also states that Aylmer “invariably and without intending it…reverted to this one disastrous topic” — this disastrous topic being the birthmark. While Aylmer’s desire for perfection in his wife is understandable and Fetterly is a little unfair to him, he does overstep his bounds as both a scientist and a husband.

Aylmer’s mistakes are all repeated by Rappaccini; however, unlike Aylmer whose “purposes are controlled by human morality” (Fogle 129), Hawthorne leaves no question as to Rappaccini’s inherently evil nature: he is described as a man who would “sacrifice human life…for the sake of adding so much as a grain of mustard seed to the great heap of his accumulated knowledge”. Rappaccini’s “weird marital plan for Beatrice and Giovanni, which envisions the coupling of two mutually immune monsters, points to the monstrosity of his own imagination” (Crews 127). However, Fogle argues, “[Rappaccini’s] sin is primarily in striving to rival God” (99). Regardless, Hawthorne’s focus is not on the inner blackness that may or may not pervade this man’s soul (Rappaccini himself always appears in the background shadows), but the results of Rappaccini’s drive for perfection.

The focus of Rappaccini’s drive for perfection is his daughter Beatrice and a beautiful garden, both of which are lovely and deadly. Rappaccini desires not just perfection in his daughter Beatrice but also wants to recreate the world in his own view of perfection with himself as God and Beatrice and Giovanni as a new Adman and Eve (whom he bestows the gift of poison upon as their own perfection) created in his own image to prove his innate perfection. Rappaccini’s goals are set far higher than Aylmer, but it is to be assumed that one’s goals should match one’s reach, and Rappaccini has quite the reach. Unlike Aylmer, Rappaccini is described as a man “fearfully acquainted with the secrets of nature [who created a plant which] the offspring of his science, of his intellect.” This plant, as much a child of Rappaccini as his own daughter, is described as being magnificent with “purple gems clustering all over it [that] glowed in the air, and gleamed back again out of the depths of [a marble fountain].” Rappaccini’s daughter, like the plant, is a perfect specimen with an education and intellect that qualifies her to “fill a professor’s chair” and as “beautiful of the day, and with a bloom so deep and vivid that one shade more would have been too much.” The beauty of both Beatrice and the plant strikes Giovanni, and for some, there is a tendency to focus on this aspect of the story rather than the striving for perfection.

Crews, as a proponent of Freudianism, focuses on the sexual undertones that pervade the relationship between Giovanni, Beatrice and the garden, and while he may be correct that this relationship is the main focus of the story, he notes that “Rappaccini is always taken as an embodiment of the libido sciendi [who is opposite in nature to his daughter] and nothing more is said” (125). Crews continues by arguing that Rappaccini, like Aylmer, is uncomfortable with sexual relationships and has created the walled garden to seclude his daughter from the world, and allows Giovanni to enter it as a “clumsy remedy” for this revulsion (127). However, as Fogle notes, this story has at least two themes, so whether this interpretation is Hawthorne’s intention is unclear; it seems much more likely that, for at least the focus of the story and Rappaccini’s intentions, one should take a more conservative approach.

This conservative approach to Rappaccini’s intentions is offered by Waggoner who says that although the libido sciendi theme is present and “Rappaccini with his black magic and his ‘insane zeal for science’…must be ever present…it is the present evil, a woman poisoned, that is the chief subject of the story” (118). Intertwined irrecoverably within this theme of “present evil” is the evidence of Rappaccini’s ascension towards perfection: the garden which seemed to be “the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty” evidences Rappaccini’s skill in reshaping nature, but his nature either by design or because of his own failures is imperfect because it is a harbinger of death. Baglioni claims that Rappaccini’s successes as a physician are only accidents of his twisted experiments meant to create death, but Baglioni is anything but an impartial witness and to a point we can ignore his accusations. Thus, is Rappaccini’s perfection truly evil and deadly or are these corruptions just the by-products of his attempts for real perfection and fatherly love? This question is answered quite simply by examining the text: although in the beginning of the story Hawthorne describes Rappaccini as being perceived as having the demeanor of “one walking among malignant influences, such as savage beasts, or deadly snakes, or evil spirits which…would wreak upon him some terrible fatality” and as the story climaxes with Beatrice’s suicidal actions we see that Rappaccini intended for his daughter to be poisonous to keep her from “the condition of a weak woman, exposed to all evil, and capable of none,” Hawthorne describes Beatrice as a victim of “man’s ingenuity [and] of the fatality that attends all such efforts of perverted wisdom.” So it is clear that Rappaccini intentionally created this evil, but although he did want to help his daughter in his own twisted way, he did it mostly for himself and without concern for anything outside of his own mind.

Rappaccini achieves his perfection, but it is so vile and destructive that those who are the emblem of his achievements reject it: “my science…have so wrought within his system, that he now stands apart from common men, as thou dost, daughter of my pride and triumph.” Aylmer also achieves a destructive perfection but he destroyed “the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame.” These men’s failures to gain perfection are more emphatically destructive than the spiritual failures because they try to not just correct themselves but nature; nature, Hawthorne warns, is far too powerful to be manipulated by any imperfect human being.

Aylmer and Rappaccini are unable to see that the perfection they are trying to attain is destructive of what they desire. They believe that they will attain scientific perfection, but their actual goal will be the destruction of the natural. Through this, Hawthorne warns the reader that scientific perfection will be achieved through understanding nature rather than manipulating it. Hawthorne also warns that although Aylmer and Rappaccini see themselves as men of science, they also do not completely understand what they are attempting. Similar to Frankenstein, they do not realize that the use of science to control nature can destroy the balance of nature itself, so they continue to pursue their idea of perfection, but instead destroy the beauty and balance of nature. Aylmer brings death and Rappaccini creates death.

In the end, putting aside the more extreme interpretations of these works of literature that detract from the original intention, we see that Aylmer and Rappaccini are both given the chance to change their ways and reform, but both fail to do so. “Aylmer is given a remarkably good run for his money [and] Hawthorne gives him a very long rope,” and “Hawthorne treats [Rappaccini] with sympathy and at the end leaves us feeling a certain pity” (Fogle 119; 100). However, both fail to recognize the salvation they are offered and they forge ahead blind to the world and the consequences of their actions.

To help Aylmer and Rappaccini gain perfection, Hawthorne presents Beatrice and Georgiana as possible guides in the men’s quests, and they represent the human aspect that the men abandon to achieve perfection. Hawthorne warns that by abandoning and destroying the human aspects of themselves, Aylmer and Rappaccini fail to achieve perfection and destroy all those around them. Crews argues, “the real enemy [Rappaccini fights] is ‘the condition of a weak woman’” (128). However, corrupting Beatrice is not the end goal of Rappaccini, but it is part of the solution to his own desires, and evidences his total abandonment of all that should be dear to him for his quest. There is perhaps no better way to illustrate the effects the men’s one-sided quests for perfection had on their women than through the words of Rappaccini’s daughter. When she realizes that everything she wants has the possibility of being hers but is summarily ripped away, she finally admits to herself what she had always known and confronts her father saying, “[your] fatal love of science…estranged me from all society of my kind…thou inflict[ed] this miserable doom upon thy child…I am going, father, where the evil, which thou hast striven to mingle with my being, will pass away like a dream.” It is this abandonment of all human concerns and concerns for humanity that illustrate that “[Hawthorn] is more engaged in his Faustian quest for knowledge…than most critics have seen” (Crews 119).

It is no surprise that both Georgiana and Beatrice die drinking the antidote to their ills because the only antidote to the restrictions and expectations placed on them was their own death. Fetterly would agree that these women died to escape the pressure of their own existence and welcomed death. Georgiana bade Aylmer that should he “either remove [the birthmark] or take her life.” One cannot assume that Aylmer set out to kill her, but it is obvious that Georgiana would rather have died than cause revulsion in the man she loved. This power that Aylmer had was not enough: he needed this power and perfection itself to be truly happy with his wife. Similarly, Georgiana went to her death willingly; revealing in her final moments that the evil in Giovanni and Rappaccini was far greater than the evil foisted on her by them both. These features in the story have a very strong feminist undercurrent, but Fetterly notes that while “the implicit feminism in ‘The Birthmark’ is considerable … ‘The Birthmark’ is by no means explicitly feminist, since Hawthorne seems as eager to be misread and to conceal as he is to be read and to reveal, still it is impossible to read his story without being aware that Georgiana is completely in Aylmer’s power.”

Hawthorne warns against the extremity of these attempts to gain perfection because while these men pursue perfection of body, mind and soul, they forget that they are human. Had they restrained themselves and worked to improve themselves in small pieces and not been as egotistical as to think they could immediately recreate themselves and their worlds, they would have been able to correct their flaws that caused their failures. Furthermore, Hawthorne warns that, “The Unpardonable Sin which consists of a want of love and reverence for the Human Soul; in consequence of which, the investigator pried into its dark depths, not with a hope or purpose of making it better, but from a cold philosophical curiosity,–content that it should be wicked in whatever kind or degree, and only desiring to study it out. Would not this, in other words, be the separation of the intellect from the heart.” (Steward, The American Notebook, 106). The failure to gain perfection devastates the lives of these men and those who live within their shadows. Hawthorne warns that the blind quest for perfection reaches deep into one’s life and obliterates it entirely.


Crews, Frederick. The Sins of the Father. New York: Oxford UP 1966

Fetterly, Judith. “Women beware Science: ‘The Birthmark.’” 1978.

Fogle, Richard. Hawthorne’s Fiction: The Light and The Darkness. University of Oklahoma Press 1964

Stewart, ed. The American Notebooks. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press 1932

Waggoner, Hyatt H. Hawthorne, a Critical Study. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press-Harvard University Press 1955

Separation of the individual in Hawthorn’s writing

Through the short stories “The Man of Adamant”, “The Birthmark” and “The Minister’s Black Veil”, Hawthorne’s presents three ways that people control the external forces — society, nature, and the public self — that affect the internal self and illustrates the totality of an individual’s attempt to place themselves above or beyond the reach of others, but in doing so, it warns that the individual also separates themselves from the intrinsic parts of being human. Each of these three stories illustrates the destructive effects of a particular form of separation: “The Man of Adamant” focuses on the separation of the self from society, “The Birthmark” focuses the separation of science and nature, and “The Minister’s Black Veil” separates the inner and external self.

The flaws portrayed by Aylmer in “The Birthmark” and Digby in “The Man of Adamant” are fairly straightforward, but Hooper, in “The Minister’s Black Veil”, portrays one central theme with an infinite number of explanations which, by comparison, makes Aylmer and Digby seem rather simplistic and one dimensional in their behavior. Hooper’s black veil symbolizes the separation of the internal from the external, but the cause or reasoning behind the veil is nearly impossible to determine because it lends itself to so many different interpretations— the veil could just as easily be interpreted to allude to a secret sin on the part of Hooper, a symbol of the private lives people attempt to live, or a symbol of the separation an individual feels from society, but the most basic explanation is that Hooper’s veil represents the barrier that individuals creates to separate the internal and external world. Regardless of the reasoning for the separation, Hooper, like Aylmer and Digby, places himself outside the control of society, and the veil symbolizes his attempt to transcend the reach of mere mortals just as Aylmer’s science allowed him to transcend nature and Digby’s cave allowed him to transcend religion. These attempts at separation are not the works of learned men, but the work of the mean egotism which has griped these men allowing them to believe in their own innate superiority.

The egotism that Hooper, Aylmer and Digby display is excessive, but through their egotism, they vividly display the flaws that lead them to their excessive behavior and show the reader the fetters to achieving perfection. Digby attempts to gain perfection by secluding himself from the world with only his religion as company, but ends up dead unable to even commune with his god because this separation was one of mind, body and spirit. Similarly, Aylmer’s attempts to separate himself from nature resulted in the destruction of the perfection he was trying to achieve. Hooper, however, in trying to separate the internal and external world demonstrates the inability of such a separated individual to fully function in society, but while Hooper’s separation of the internal and external self met with mostly negative results, Hopper, unlike Digby and Aylmer, was able to achieve some good through his separation from society: in separating himself physically and emotionally from his peers, he caused them to examine their own perceptions of the internal self, but he also allowed them to ignore what they found and focus on the perception of his internal and external persona. Thus, to some extent, he was able to achieve a sort of perfection, in that no one was able to perceive his true inner self.

The struggle for a form of perfection is part of the intrinsic nature of these three protagonists, but for each they are unable to achieve the perfection they seek because of their own flawed nature. The flaws in their personal nature twists their sense of perfection, but their innate human nature makes it impossible for them to even achieve this flawed perfection, so although they believe they are entitled, through intellect or God, to move beyond the average person, they are unable to because the egotism that drives them is also their greatest flaw.

Character analysis of Emma and Mrs. Elton

In Emma ((Page Numbers are for the Riverside Edition edited by Lionel Trilling)), Jane Austen presents characters who are uniquely human: each has their own rich personality and storied background. Through these characters, Austen is able to intimately explore the human condition, as she saw it, and highlight some of the issues of society and class in her world. To achieve this, Austen creates a world into which a reader can insert themselves through the gossip and unique perspective that the narrator and Emma provides; the reader’s perspective is not that of an all-seeing observer, but almost a character in its own right who may judge the characters as an equal participant and member of the community. From this perspective the reader is able to see characters as rich and complex individuals with whom the reader can acquaint themselves. In doing so, one can pass judgment on the characters not from the outside, but from the inside.

The characters of Mrs. Elton and Emma are extremely similar: they both are overly concerned with outward appearances, place too much value on social status, tend to treat others as their play things, and are quick to judge. They think very highly of themselves and hold themselves as pinnacles of their societies. The two women are so similar one could argue that if their positions were reversed, they would hold the same positions in the story. However, for all their negative similarities, it is the small differences that makes one superior to the other””not only as a person, but as a friend.

Although Mrs. Elton tends to believe herself to a member of genteel society, her manners and mannerisms are a cheap limitation: she has a tendency to place herself on an equal footing with others who are social superior to herself. Although a biased source, quickly Emma judges her to be a vain and self-satisfied who attempted to be superior, but “with manners which had been formed in a bad school [and] drawn from one set of people” (213). Further evidencing the low origin of Mrs. Elton’s manners is how impressed she is by Mrs. Weston’s and Mr. Knightley’s manners: Emma takes their manners for granted and to her, it seems obvious that their manners would be impeccable because of the society of which they are members (218). Mrs. Elton also oversteps herself by referring to people by their given or Christian names without honorifics—even when they are of a superior social class like Mr. Knightley—while Emma would never even consider this even though the families are long-term friends and nearly equal (218).

Emma, unlike Mrs Elton, is aware that her family’s status in society is that of “the younger branch of a very ancient family” whose landed property is relatively small (108). Although she has a tendency to be snobbish and exclusive, she is able to put these feelings aside when pressured by her friends to do what is right. When the middle-class Coles were in a position to invite Emma to a dinner party, she almost gleefully prepared to rebuke them for being so presumptuous, but when the invitation actually came, she allowed the Westons to convince her to attend without argument (163). Even though she believes in the exclusivity of her class, she realizes that it is not practical to insulate herself from the other classes when she should be accepting of them. However, her egalitarian views do not extend beyond casual relations: she was very quick to refuse Mr. Elton’s advances on social status alone, and even though she was correct to do so, she did not see that the relationship she tried to create between Mr. Elton and Miss Smith was similar to Mr. Elton marrying herself. According to Emma, Mr. Elton only proposed to “aggrandize and enrich himself,” and although he “understood the graduations of rank below him [he was] blind to what rose above” (107). This evidences Emma’s flaw in oversimplifying the lives of others through her habit of lumping the middle-class into one rather than seeing it as stratified.

Mrs. Elton is very insecure about her background and tends to speak frequently of her brother-in-law’s estate comparing every aspect of it to Hartfield and claiming as its equal; however, as Emma points out, those with wealth are not impressed with people who are equally wealthy, so Mrs. Elton’s comparison serves more to show how little societal standing she has. She also judges others of similar backgrounds harshly: mentioning a family that lives near Maple Grove who are an annoyance “from the airs they give themselves” without realizing it is the same way others view her (244).

Emma is very blind to the thoughts and the feelings of the people around her to the point that she projects all of her own feelings onto people and then expresses shock when she is wrong. Events like her blindness regarding Mr Elton’s advances, her insistence that Miss Fairfax is in love with the happily married Mr. Dixon, or her belief that Miss Smith was superior to the Martins show just how little she understands the core personalities of the people around her. However, although she can be strong-headed, she does accept correction””mostly by Mr. Knightley””when she is wrong, so her weakness is less glaring than it could be.

Emma and Mrs. Elton play off each other well: they both have similar personalities and levels of intelligence, but where Emma is born rich and gentile, Mrs. Elton’s only claim to high society is a sizable dowry and a wealthy brother-in-law. Emma and Mrs. Elton are both flawed individuals, but Mrs. Elton has all of Emma’s flaws but few of her good qualities, and Mrs Elton’s one-dimensional nature is such that she seems incapable of growing as a person; however, Emma does learn from the lessons she receives, albeit slowly, and respects the opinions of others; therefore, although both individuals have their flaws, Emma would make a far better friend.

Religion in “Silas Marner” by George Eliot

In Silas Marner George Eliot doesn’t specifically state that religion is bad or dangerous nor does she say that one shouldn’t be religious. Instead, she presents certain aspects of religion that she believes are prone to creating uncertainty and confusion. She then allows readers to make up their own mind. One of her major concerns is the way people believe in God; she doesn’t deny the existence of God, but she says that even if he does exist, he does not interfere, so focusing on signs and symbols from God is dangerous because it detracts from the human aspects of life. Silas Marner states that how one treats others is more important than the religion one follows or if one believes in God.

Eliot directly questions the purpose of organized religion, but is less emphatic in questioning God, and tends to not refer directly to God (both literally and figuratively as the word “God” appears twenty-four times throughout the entire book, and most of these are general expressions.) Thus, the book is an impartial observer of the way religion is practiced and the way God is evidenced in the popular beliefs rather than a direct attack on the validity of religion and the concept of God. Eliot is very careful to never attack the existence of God, so even when Silas feels betrayed, he keeps his faith in the existence of God, but he believes that “there is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies.” Silas gains a “shaken trust in God” which quickly assures that the existence of God is never questioned by Marner or any other inhabitant of Raveloe or Lantern Yard. This allows Eliot to focus on the way characters believe in God through the practice of religion rather than the deeper theological issue of the existence of God.

Eliot observes that even within Christianity the interpretations of God are very different. She states that Marner “was quite unable, by means of anything he heard or saw, to identify the Raveloe religion with his old faith,” but even within Raveloe, Eliot illustrates different modes of belief: one a God of precise laws and moral absolutes and another impersonal, parental God. These beliefs coexist within Raveloe because the focus of the community is not on how religious one is — “to go to church every Sunday in the calendar would have shown a greedy desire to stand well with Heaven” — but on how one behaves.

Within Raveloe, the popular interpretation of God is of the impersonal yet parental God — an interpretation very different from Lantern Yard’s belief in an active God. Alongside their belief in a Christian God, Raveloe’s beliefs incorporate some elements of paganism such as the belief in and desire for charms. Even with a faith in God, these people want a little extra assurance that things will be better for them, and they are willing to look away from Christianity and God to find it. Eliot uses these folk beliefs to demonstrate that the inhabitants of Raveloe are not entirely convinced of God’s manipulation of events and they do not share Lantern Yard’s belief that God is active in their lives, so even though the inhabitants of Raveloe trust in charms, they would never have drawn lots to determine a person’s guilt because Raveloe’s God as an almost deistic god who creates and judges, but one who is not actively involved in day-to-day matters. God to Dolly is not entirely Deistic because she allows that he may have guided Marner to Raveloe to care for Eppie, but she and the other lay members of the community are not concerned with God or religion beyond a secondary experience.

Eliot seems to suggest that this view is the correct view of religion because she warns against placing too much faith in God as do the inhabitants of Lantern Yard. She argues that once one places too much faith in God, God is in a position to be blamed for any negative event in one’s life rather than focusing on human causes. Silas Marner was betrayed by his friend; however, the lots and God decided for the community that he was guilty, so Marner believes he was betrayed by both his God and his friend because he was assured that God would reveal the truth (he even declares “God will clear me” three times.) Had the lots turned the other way, his faith would have remained, but Marner is placed in a position where his faith in God is destroyed because of the Lantern Yard belief that God is responsible for all actions. Marner eventually regains his faith in God saying to Eppie that he believes that “God was good to me” in delivering her to him, but he never fully regains a personal belief and faith in God. God remains on the outside of his life because Marner can never fully trust in him again.

Eliot warns that focusing too much on God can retard a person’s life and places one at a disadvantage in this world. The negative effects of this are demonstrated by the inhabitants of Lantern Yard’s quick belief in Marner’s guilt and their inability to see that William Dane had manipulated events. The negative traits of this are contrasted with the positive aspects of life in Raveloe where the community gathers at the Rainbow and interacts with each other rather than just with God.

Interpretations of a slave in “The Heroic Slave” and “Benito Cereno”

There are three major interpretations of the slave in literature: the good human being who is forced to live their live as a slave, the slave who’s mind, body and soul are broken because of slavery, and the slave who’s mind is twisted and becomes a monster because of the institution of slavery. These views of slavery are prevalent in abolitionist literature because they focus on the evils of slavery rather than the evils of the men who support slavery. In Fredrick Douglas’s “The Heroic Slave”, Douglas presents the reader with Madison Washington: a good man and a loving father and husband. In Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno one is presented with the figure of Babo: a demented and twisted individual who is willing to do anything to regain his freedom. These two images of slavery are used because a writer can show both that slaves are human and legitimize their “evil” deeds as being forced by the institutions of slavery.

Madison Washington represents the human face of a slave: his every attribute reflects the fear abolitionists felt when faced with the images of Nat Turner. Washington is presented as being “[t]all, symmetrical, round, and strong [with an] appearance betokened Herculean strength; yet there was nothing savage or forbidding in his aspect [and a voice] full and melodious” (28). Later, he is shown to be a good Christan man who, after attaining his freedom, risks his own life to free his family from captivity. He is always presented as being in command of himself, eloquent, and a leader of men. This melodramatic point-of-view leaves the reader with no choice but to sympathize with Madison Washington and by extension all good people who happened to have been ill-fortuned enough to be born both black and into slavery.

While one can feel pity for Madison, slave characters like Babo illicit no sympathy for themselves, but they raise philosophical questions about the effects of slavery on the individual. Melville never suggests that Babo was ill-treated or abused as a slave, and only describes him as a “small Negro Senegal [who spent] some years among the Spaniards” (93). It is obvious from the story that Babo is vastly intelligent which begs the question: why should someone as intelligent as Babo be confined to an institution of slavery and what happens to such an individual? Melville answers both parts of the question by stating resolutely that such a mind would not be held within an cage no matter how gilded, and that one such as Babo, while being moral to a point, would quickly leave his morals behind to achieve his freedom.

Babo does have some good qualities aside from his intelligence. If we can accept the word of Delano even when he was a captive Babo was instrumental in “pacifying his more ignorant brethren, when at intervals tempted to murmurings” (46). This interpretation of Babo is further illustrated when during the deposition it is revealed that the “Negresses of age” had to be restrained so they could not have “tortured to death, instead of simply killing, the Spaniards slain by the command of the Negro Babo” and that Babo “with his own hand, committed no murder” (102). Babo was twisted enough by slavery that he had the bones of Don Alexandro mounted on the ship’s bow, but he was not so far gone that he would treat the whites as they treated slaves.

While Babo is not entirely corrupted by slavery, he is twisted enough that he, personally, is beyond pity; however, with his actions he shows how the institution of slavery can twist even the most intelligent mind and force it into doing brutish things. Madison Washington represents an attempt by abolitionists to avoid the Nat Turner stereotype of the slave, but the character of Babo embraces this stereotype and Melville simultaneously condemns the actions taken while he shows that individuals such as Nat Turner are heavily influenced and corrupted by slavery itself, so that only by withdrawing individuals with such proclivities from the institutions of slavery, can one be safe from their innate internal rage on a widespread basis.

Superficially, Cereno is sick with a fever, but one can also read between the lines “only the sour heart that sour sickness breeds made [Cereno] serve Babo so; cutting Babo with the razor “ (77). Quite obviously the cut is self inflicted by Babo; however, had Babo been a normal slave the same incident would have caused a similar reaction from his master. The “sour sickness” that Babo speaks of is not entirely Cereno’s illness, but the institution of slavery that demands one exert his control over the entirety of another’s being. This interpretation of Cereno’s supposed action is illustrated by Captain Delano’s remark that, “this slavery breeds ugly passions in man!” This comment can be expanded to encompass both Babo’s “punishment” and Babo’s actual actions aboard the ship.

Abolitionist literature used characters such as Madison Washington and Babo to question the political and philosophical effects of slavery. While the former is a respectable individual who the reader can feel sympathy for, the latter is vile and demented, but forces the reader to question the aspects of slavery that would twist such an individual.

The power of the individual: The American Enlightenment and Romanticism

During the 18th century, scientific and social changes reshaped the concept of the self. The individual slowly separated from the collective and began to develop as an antithesis of the collective agrarian society of prior centuries; thus, giving rise to a wave of new philosophical thought that evolved into the popular movement of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment developed around the belief that scientific thought and expression should be free from religious interference and that the foundations of society should be human reason and logic. Over time, these ideals gave rise to Romanticism which introduced the contrast of nature and the self, the internal desires, feelings and beliefs, and juxtaposed Nature with science. Franklin, Poe and Thoreau each represent one of the three popular faces of Enlightenment and Romanticism: Franklin, a well-respected Enlightenment writer, focused his writings on the improvement of the social order through improvement of the self and the realization of a deistic world; Thoreau, an Emersonian or “bright” Romantic, merged Nature with science and allowed for both to work simultaneously while emphasizing the individual’s ability to remove themselves from the flow of society; Poe, a “dark” romantic, wrote mainly on the way the individual views his world and the way the nature of the mind can recreate the world. While they tended to disagree on the specifics, they each agreed that the inner self was more powerful than the external self, and through self inspection a person could change their world and become the purveyor of order in the universe replacing religion, monarchy “” and to some extent “” God.

Arguably the most important “power” that these writers attributed to the individual was the individual’s right to power over their own beings. The ability to self-determine one’s destiny was not only necessary to the underpinnings of enlightenment, but it was also necessary to advance society as a whole. By allowing individuals to have power over their individual being, they became their own masters: no longer subjected by the whims of a larger society. As an illustration of these principles, once released from the tenets of religion, Benjamin Franklin “conceiv’d the bold and arduous Project of arriving at moral Perfection” (364). By believing in the power of the self and the equality of men he accomplished this without requiring a higher moral authority , Franklin defined his own moral perfection and strove to achieve it. The power the individual has over the self is absolute, but as Poe warns, this can be used for ill: in Poe’s tale of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” his protagonist envisions the world around him through the filter of his own demented mind. The conflicts in the character’s internal self become so profuse that he projects them externally and creates an old man whose eye haunts him, and he is eventually undone when he fails to recognize the beatings of his own heart. This absolute power is both the greatest curse and privilege of the Enlightenment and Romantic views of the self, so rather than leaving this power unchecked, they emphasized the power of Nature as both the antithesis to the self and the guide of the self.

Even though the release from mortal authority and the servitude of religion was central to the Enlightenment, they did not banish the Deities. Instead they either personified deities as part of the natural world which allowed the individual the opportunity to be “part or particle of God” (Emerson, 657) or defined the deities as separate from the world and as a creator but not a participatory member of the universe. Franklin was one of the original Deisitic writers in American Literature, and believed in the separation of religion from God because of the oppressive and meddlesome nature of churches which mixed their theology “with other Articles which without any tendency to inspire, promote or confirm Morality, serv’d principally to divide us & make us unfriendly to one another” (Franklin, 363). As Romantic writing developed it moved the Enlightened Deity from the role of creator into the natural world by blending the deity into Nature and science. This natural view of God continued the deistic way of thinking, and removed much of the remaining power of the organized churches allowing people to find and define their own personal church, and while some created cathedrals out of mountains and trees, others made theirs out of numbers, facts and figures creating the first conflicts between the mystical nature and the exacting sciences.

While the individual had the power to determine their own personal beliefs, some found that they were still oppressed by things they could not control: science became increasingly important, and to some, this was as oppressive as the monarchs and gods of the past. Their objection was that in becoming the absolute authority, science created a monochromatic image of the world which stifled the individual’s ability to perceive the world around him for what he believed it was; however, others quickly realized that science allowed them to open their eyes and see the world both as it was and how it could be. Poe and Thoreau, in a clash between bright and dark romanticism, viewed science differently with the more middle-of-the-road approach being attributed to to the bright romantics. In Poe’s “Sonnet “” to Science” he attacks the mundane aspects of science and refers to it as a “Vulture! whose wings are dull realities” (1223), but Thoreau, in his journals, embraces science, but believes that one can only truly appreciate something when one “forget[s] all [their] learning and get[s] rid of what is called knowledge”. Poe believes that the science accosts his creativity and stifles his ability to be an individual and exercise his hard-won individualism, but Thoreau is capable of independently appreciating nature even if his opinions are invalidated by science because he believes that his power over his own perceptions is absolute, so balancing the science with the mystery of Nature and the joy of poetic expression is not difficult him or other “bright” romantics. These two different views of science are brought about by the way the writers treat science: Poe personified science and held it blamable rather than as a tool, but Thoreau treats science as a tool and because of this, he is able to cast it aside when it is unnecessary while Poe’s creations and imaginings are constantly surrounded, attacked and restrained by a personified science which replaces the monarchs and gods. For writers of similar beliefs to Poe, this restriction by science was contrary to the ideals of Romanticism, and created a stumbling block that hemmed in the powers of the individual.

The only restrictions on the individual, other than the perception of a restrictive science and or those self-imposed, were the restrictions of society itself. These societal restrictions are not the same as the restrictions of a Monarch, but are the attempts of society to control the individual and harness their powers for the good of society itself. To the Romantics, this acceptance of societal pressures was a sort of voluntary defeat which according to some, like Thoreau, was necessary because not all were capable of fully controlling their own lives (820). Thoreau believed that most people spent their lives “sleeping” only using their minds for menial pursuits and living lives “of quiet desperation” (813). However, while Thoreau allowed for control of these sleepers, he believed that should a man wish to remove themselves from the societal order, they should be allowed to: regardless of its effects on the society itself. Thus, the individual is simultaneously an integral component of society, but also transcends such mean concerns when it is necessary for the individual to exercise their powers of reason, imagination, logic and creation.

The writers of the the Enlightenment and Romantic period defined the individual as the reasoning and logical self which interacts with the larger external world, and the powers they attributed to their creation were immense, but they tempered the powers of the individual with the power and mystery of nature. This individualistic view of the self replaced the mean collectivism of European society and formed the foundation of modern perceptions of the individual.