In his short novel “The Birth-Mark”, Nathaniel Hawthorne argues that Positivist ideas are not only wrong but also dangerous because they stress the necessity to alter human nature by removing the elements that are ostensibly alien to it, which may lead to destroying one’s life. In the novel, the conflict between nature and Positivism showcased by juxtaposing Aylmer, an aspiring Positivism scientist, and his wife Georgiana is rendered with the help of the third-person view, which sets the tone for the story and defines the reader’s attitude to characters by using very specific epithets to portray them as either victim of Positivism (Georgiana) or the proponents thereof (Aylmer). However, since the narrator is not omnipotent in the novel, certain scenes are missing from it, therefore, fuelling the readers’ imagination and making the author’s point all the more passionate.
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The philosophy of positivism has a long and fascinating history. Although its key idea can be traced back to as early as Ancient Greece and Plato’s concept of negatives as God’s attributes that contribute to the development of spiritualism (Shollenberger 56), the actual movement was started by Auguste Comte in the 19th century (Scharff 133). Positivism promotes the idea of observing natural phenomena and identifying the relationships between them so that they could be used as references for introducing improvements to people’s lives (Edgar 56). Particularly, the philosophy of Positivism implies that “ideal science is a science whose function is limited as far as possible to the determination of laws only” (Withers and Shea 97).
The introduction of the third-person viewpoint into the novel allows setting the tone for the story and, therefore, shaping the audience’s expectations, at the same time affecting the development of attitudes toward the characters. For instance, Hawthorne focuses closely on delineating the character of Aylmer by making him not only an obsessed scientist but also a loving husband, who becomes overly fascinated with science.
One must also give Hawthorne credit for not portraying Aylmer, who is positioned as the proponent of Positivism, as the epitome of evil. Instead, he is described in a rather sympathetic, though somewhat condescending, manner: “We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature. He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion” (Hawthorne 420). As a result, Hawthorne’s voice becomes the narrative technique that makes the argument very poignant, even though it might seem a bit on-the-nose.
Similarly, the active use of the third-person narration technique helps describe Georgiana as an innocent victim and glaring evidence of the amount of harm that Positivism may bring. For instance, in the scene where Georgiana drinks the liquid from the goblet, the description of her innocent beauty renders the idea of imperfections being an integral part of natural harmony: “A heightened flush of the cheek, a slight irregularity of breath, a quiver of the eyelid, a hardly perceptible tremor through the frame” (Hawthorne 429). In other words, Hawthorne argues that forceful interference with nature may leave a drastic nark on people’s well-being. The application of the identified narrative device is fully justified by the need to convey the author’s message about the threats of the new movement, as well as the necessity to reconsider the tendency to view the uniqueness of a human being as an inherent flaw that needs to be corrected.
The use of epithets in the characters’ speech can also be viewed as an essential addition to Hawthorn’s opinion on Positivism. For instance, the change in the tone of Aylmer’s speech is conveyed very graphically by showing how he addresses Georgiana: “Go, prying woman, go!” (Hawthorne 428). Thus, the author’s attitude shines through as he emphasizes the changes in the couple’s relationships and Aylmer’s unreasonable obsession with perfection. Hawthorne stresses that Aylmer’s inability to see his beauty as a unique and inimitable human being is defined by the focus on Positivist teachings and the need to introduce what Aylmer sees as natural harmony into his wife. Aylmer’s slow descent into an obsession with the Positivist idea and his following inability to appreciate Georgiana’s imperfections for their true worth, therefore, becomes all the more realistic.
One might claim that the use of the third-person point of view and epithets as the means of rendering the author’s attitude toward Positivism are not the only techniques used by Hawthorne. Indeed, several other tools for pointing out the flaws of Positivism and introducing the readers to the flaws thereof can be spotted in the novel. For instance, the usage of descriptions as the means of rendering the atmosphere and, therefore, allowing the readers to submerge into the novel, can be viewed as the tool for making the story all the more real. For example, the description of the book that Aylmer wrote, as well as reverence and awe with which Georgiana read it, shows Hawthorne’s propensity toward using lengthy descriptions as the means of setting the mood: “The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as the ever mortal hand had penned” (Hawthorne 424). The identified approach helps Hawthorne appeal to his audience on an emotional level and convey the horror of distorting the very essence of human nature.
Furthermore, it could be argued, though, that the novel does not represent Positivism as it was defined by Comte since Aylmer intervenes and distorts Georgiana’s very nature. Indeed, the idea of removing any blemishes from Georgiana’s body can be considered as an argument against Positivism, which viewed non-interference with the laws of nature as the foundation of a sensible approach toward research.
Despite the active use of a range of literary devices as the tools for rendering the flaws of Positivism, “The Birth-Mark” seems to benefit most from the use of the third-person viewpoint, which is used consistently throughout the novel. The identified tool allows making the sensibility of the argument especially conspicuous. Consequently, the dialogue between Aylmer and Georgiana renders the attitude of the author toward the ideas of Positivism rather clearly. For example, Aylmer’s impatience is shown quite evidently in his voice when he says: “And now, dearest, return to your boudoir. In a little while, all will be tested” (Hawthorne 428). The love for his wife seems to battle with his passion for Positivism as the next step in improving human nature and, therefore, making his wife a better human being.
Furthermore, regarding the inconsistencies with the Positivism movement, one must admit that the idea of introducing improvements to the human body was, in fact, an important part of the Positivist movement. For instance, Withers and Shea mention that the focus on using science to make one’s body function better was a crucial part of the Positivist approach to science as a “constructive activity that would improve the human condition” (97). The identified attitude can be seen in the novel clearly as Aylmer’s endeavors to make Georgiana impeccable are described in the novel: “’I submit,’ replied she calmly. ’And, Aylmer, I shall quaff whatever draught you bring me’” (Hawthorne 429). Therefore, Hawthorne criticizes Positivism sharply and emphasizes its threats. Particularly, Hawthorne states that the philosophy deforms the very essence of human nature, stripping one of everything that makes an individual unique.
To argue that the adoption of Positivist approach will lead to the ultimate distortion of the human nature and, therefore, should not be viewed as the ultimate solution to exploring the opportunities that science provides to the humankind, Hawthorne uses third-person narration and chooses epithets carefully so that the necessary mood could be conveyed to the readers. The resulting combination of lengthy descriptions and dialogues that are short yet filled with meaning create the environment in which Hawthorne’s argument about the problems of Positivism becomes all the more powerful. While some of the arguments used by Hawthorne are not quite logical and cannot be applied to positivism fully, the novel targets its audience at an emotional level, making readers sympathetic toward the lead characters. Thus, the literary devices used by the author contribute to the development and support of the argument significantly. Although Hawthorne’s representation of Positivism may seem prejudiced, its disadvantages are shown in a very graphic and convincing way.
Edgar, Andrew. The Philosophy of Habermas. Routledge, 2014.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birth-Mark.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, vol. 8, edited by Nina Baum, W. W. Norton and Company, 2012, pp. 418-429.
Scharff, Robert. How History Matters to Philosophy: Reconsidering Philosophy’s Past after Positivism. Routledge, 2014.
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Shollenberger, George D. God And His Coexistent Relations To The Universe: Scientific Advances Of The Little Gods From Pantheism through Deism, Theism, and Atheism to Panentheism. AuthorHouse, 2014.
Withers, Jeremy, and Daniel P. Shea. Culture on Two Wheels: The Bicycle in Literature and Film. University of Nebraska Press, 2016.