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Obsession and Tragedy in Frankenstein, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

The ideas of obsession and perfection are central themes in both Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein and  Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short-story “The Birthmark.” In each of these narratives, the human obsession with ideal reality is connected to a tragic outcome.  In Frankenstein, it is the obsession with ideal and godlike creative power that brings bout Victor’s ruin; in “The Birthmark” an obsession with feminine beauty is the agent by which  Aylmer is brought to tragedy. In each case, the pursuit of an ideal is coupled with an obsessive drive that will admit no obstacle or chance of redemption. Therefore, both narratives share a similar them and that is the theme that obsession is a form of human insanity that ultimately leads to tragedy and despair.

Both works feature scientists as protagonists. This is a very important similarity because it symbolizes that obsession begins in the mind and that logic and rationality are not able to stop obsessive behavior. Instead, in the case of both Victor Frankenstein and Aylmer, their highly attuned rational and intellectual capabilities become slaves to their obsession. This is an ironic theme that is used by both Shelley and Hawthorne and the true point of the irony is to remind the reader that intellectuality is insufficient in the face of passion and obsessive ambition. Both Victor and Aylmer love the object of their obsession, which is another aspect of irony that is present in both works. The irony is that love, like intelligence, is something that only feeds, rather than stops of solves a destructive and passionate obsession.

Various literary critics have, obviously, interpreted both of these works in ways that fail to include the idea of obsession. The following discussion will compare the idea of obsession as an underlying theme of insanity and tragedy in both works with alternative interpretations which offer divergent explanations about the themes of the narratives. Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” will be examined first. After which, Shelley’s Frankenstein will be examined. For both works, attention will be given to theories that read the narratives as anti-scientific statements, and also as cautionary tales about the dangers of technology. Each narrative will also be considered from a feminist standpoint of criticism. The discussion  will conclude that, despite the relevance of these other critical interpretations, the theme of obsessive madness is the most easily supportable perspective and one which ties the two works together thematically.

To begin with, as Martin FitzPatrick notes in his article : “”To a Practised Touch”: Miles Coverdale and Hawthorne’s Irony.” (2000) the basic plot of “The Birthmark” carries certain thematic ideas in and of itself. He writes that “Georgiana is a woman of perfect beauty. Her only blemish is a birthmark on her left cheek […]  Her husband […] becomes obsessed with removing the birthmark from her cheek in order to render her absolutely perfect.” (FitzPatrick 27). In this statement, the idea of obsession is present, but FitzPatricks ultimate interpretation of what the nature of the obsession is differs from the suggestion that it is based in an obsession for ideal beauty. Instead, FitzPatrick mentions several viable symbolic associations for the birthmark itself and views the birthmark as the central symbol of the story.

FitzPatrick writes that the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek can be successfully interpeted as symbolizing “Original sin, the vital spark of humanity, the essence of beauty in opposition with science, or, more locally, the essence of Georgiana herself.” (FitzPatrick 27) In his view, perfection of beauty is not  central theme, but only a secondary consideration. In other words, he views the birthmark as being a symbol, to Aylmer, of an obstacle to scientific dominance. The birthmark stands as a reminder of sin and the fact that science is of a lesser creative power than God or biology.

Another interpretation offered by Fitzpatrick is that the birthmark symbolizes the limitations of art. In this interpretation, the birthmark can be see as part of the imagination’s limits and therefore Aylmer is a symbolic representation of the artist who rationally tries to define that which cannot be attained. FitzPatrick writes: “The birthmark is virtually all representation, all semantics and metaphysics, and possesses little of ‘realistic probability’ (FitzPatrick 27). Each of these interpretations falls short of acknowledging the true theme of the story which is that Aylmer, being obsessed with the idea of ultimate beauty is actually driven to insanity by his obsession. His insanity becomes so great that he eventually murders his wife in trying to remove the birthmark from her cheek.

Hawthorne describes that Aylmer’s true crisis is an obsession over the eradication of the birthmark that is so strong is eventually becomes a form of insanity. The origin of Aylmer’s insanity and obsession is quite clearly identified by Hawthorne as originating in his imagination. Hawthorne writes that “Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty” (Hawthorne). Obviously, the need to be rid of the birthmark was a compulsion for Aylmer that was manifested as a psychosis in his imagination and slowly took over his mind.

Keetley’s feminist critique of the story acknowledges that it is an obsessive drive toward beauty that motivates Aylmer. She asserts that “‘It is woman, and specifically woman as wife, who elicits the obsession with imperfection and the compulsion to achieve perfection” (Keetley). By acknowledging that Aylmer’s behavior is both obsessive and compulsive, she lends support to the interpretation that the theme of the story is obsessive insanity. Although other interpretations such as those mentioned by FitzPatrick are viable, it is the theme of obsessive insanity that best serves a full interpretation of the narrative.

At the end of the story, Hawthorne writes that “had Alymer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial.” (Hawthorne) The word “wisdom” is important in this passage because it suggests that Aylmer’s rational capacities had been  subverted to his obsession and this is an ironic statement due to the fact that his entire life was dedicatedto rationality and science. As Keetley observes “Hawthorne brilliantly embodies a man devoted to the life of the mind” (Keetley) but who, in the end, is consumed by the obsessions of the iagination and terefore doomed to tragedy.

A similar theme is present in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the novel, Victor, like Aylmer, is a scientist who becomes obsessed with the idea of perfection. In this case, it is the perfection of creation and the pride of knowledge that brings about Victor’s tragic downfall. Shelley describes in Victor’s words, the thrill and obsession he has for creating life in his laboratory: “What had been the study and desire of the wisest men since the creation of the world was now within my grasp.” (Shelley 45). This shows that Victor was not only obsessed with the creation of life but with rising to a state of creative power that had never before been grasped by humanity. His ambition to be the “perfect” creator ultimately becomes his undoing.

Unlike Aylmer who reminds blind to his own insanity, Victor realizes that he his driving himself mad with his ambition to create life. At one point during the novel he remarks that “I grew alarmed at the wreck I perceived that I had become; the energy of my purpose alone sustained me” (Shelley 48). This verges on being an overt acknowledgment of insanity. And, just as in the case of Aylmer, there is an ironic implication because Victor being a scientist is knowledgeable adn rational enough too understand what he is doing to himself even though he is powerless to stop. The price that he pays for his obsession is far greater than just physical deterioration, but his physical sickness is symbolic of the insanity that has taken over his mind.

Victor also indicates to the reader that his obsession for perfect creation and power is something that had been part of his personality since childhood. He remarks that “From my infancy I was imbued with high hopes and a lofty ambition” (Shelley 179). This shows that his obsession continued to grow over time until it consumed him as a form of genuine insanity and made it impossible for him to function  rationally. The them of the novel is obviously based on the idea of a progressive insanity that overtakes Victor due to his ambition to reach a perfect state of creation . The theme of obsessive insanity is the core theme of Frankenstein just as it is the core theme of Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.”

However, many other critical interpretations exist in relation to the novel.  Goodall forwards a feminist interpretation of the novel which suggests that Shelley’s main theme was the control of the human reproductive process. Therefore what Victor was really trying to accomplish in creating life was to appropriate the life-giving power of femininity. Jane Goodall writes in her study “Frankenstein and the Reprobate’s Conscience” (1999) that “Frankenstein is a story first and foremost about the consequences of male ambitions to co-opt the procreative function.” (Goodall 19) This is an interesting perspective on the novel but it fails to account for Victor’s tragic downfall after his realization of his ambitions. The only way to truly understand that consequence is to read it as an outgrowth of his obsessive insanity.

Goodall also explores the quite common interpretation of the novel as a cautionary story about the influence of technology and science on society.  This interpretation suggests that  the novel’s most important theme is that of the dangers of scientific progress. Goodall suggests that one of the most powerful themes of the novel is the expression of  “the horrors raised out there in the world by a scientist recklessly driving to change the course of nature […] the fearful aspects conjured up by scientific experiment.” (Goodall 19). This interpretation of the narrative is of course quite supportable. The novel is, in fact, a warning about the dangers of science. That said, these warnings are based in the expression of how dangerous science can become when pursued with obsession and insanity.

The fact remains that the underlying theme of the novel is Victor’s personal descent into insanity and that his descent into insanity is brought about by his obsession with ambition, creation, and power. Goodall admits that “Whether or not Frankenstein was written as a cautionary tale, this is undoubtedly the status it has acquired in popular culture, scientific debate and feminist critique.” (Goodall 19). This statement demonstrates that the interpretation of the novel as a warning about the threat posed by science may be something that is accepted in popular criticism but may not be completely evident in a close reading of the narrative.

The real warning that is made by Shelley in the novel, therefore, may not have to do with science — and the exterior world of matter and chemistry, but with the inner-world of psychology and the imagination. Goodall notes that “Perhaps the science that goes wrong in this story is not the science which takes place in the laboratory, but the science of self-knowledge.” (Goodall 19) This is perhaps the most incisive interpretation of the novel that could be stated in a single sentence. The novel is actually about the decent into insanity  that is brought on by Victor’s obsession with his own capacity to create life. Just as in “The Birthmark,” the use of science in the stroy is meant to show irony rather than terror. The terror that is expressed in both works is generated from the emotional and psychological instability of the protagonists. Neither of the two works can be viewed simply as warnings about the dangers of science and progress and neither can they be viewed solely as feminist manifestos. Instead both “The Birtmark” and Frankenstein must be regarded as stories that illustrate the tragic result of obsession and insanity.

Works Cited

FitzPatrick, Martin. “”To a Practised Touch”: Miles Coverdale and Hawthorne’s Irony.” ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly) 14.1 (2000): 27.

Goodall, Jane. “Frankenstein and the Reprobate’s Conscience.” Studies in the Novel 31.1 (1999): 19.

Keetley, Dawn. “Bodies and Morals: Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and Neil LaBute’s the Shape of Things.” Literature/Film Quarterly 38.1 (2010): 16+

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein: Or, the Modern Prometheus. New York: Collier, 1961.

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