Reflections on the Romantics’ Understanding of Life and Death

Clockwork Fairy
Created by Susan Beatrice (All Natural Arts)

Hawthorne’s “Artist of the Beautiful” allows interesting reflections about the nature of life and death. In this story, Owen strives to create a clockwork butterfly that is so perfect that it is a “spiritualization of matter” (p. 523).  Unlike other stories of this nature written by Hawthorne and Poe, Owen actually succeeds in this endeavor, creating the ideal butterfly.

Upon seeing Owen’s perfect butterfly for the first time, Annie (who receives the clockwork butterfly as a bridal gift) exclaims “Is it alive?” Owen’s creation is so amazing that she asks this question three times.  However, Owen never affirms that his creation is truly alive. Instead he says, “…it may well said to possess life, for it has absorbed my own being into itself” (p. 553). But he also points out that, unlike the things of the earth that are actually alive, this butterfly’s outward perfection extends to its whole system because it reflects the spiritual aspects of its creator (embodying “the intellect, the imagination, the sensibility, the soul of an Artist of the Beautiful” (p. 554)).

Because the butterfly is perfect, it is reasonable for Annie to question whether it is actually alive. Both Hawthorne’s and Poe’s stories reflect a belief that the spiritual is perfect, pure, shining and enduring whereas the physical is flawed, stained, and mortal; anything as perfect as Owen’s butterfly cannot actually be alive.  The butterfly is an ideal butterfly and because it is an ideal, it surpasses the beauty of all earthly butterflies. Earthly butterflies are alive and, hence, imperfect.  Ideals are perfect and because only the spiritual is perfect, an ideal cannot be alive except in a spiritual sense.

Hawthorne’s and Poe’s stories frequently reflect the Romantics’ belief that humanity’s great curse is that we are comprised of both earthly and spiritual components.  This duality provides us with the understanding and knowledge to understand perfection and to strive for it. However, because mankind is of the earth and therefore “made of clay and has to work with clay” (“The Birthmark,” p. 39) we can never attain that perfection.

The theme that humans can only strive for perfection is reflected in many of the Romanticists’ stories in which the main characters use engineering  or science to attempt perfection only to find any success in achieving that goal results in death.  Essentially, these tales warn that even though science promises great things, it is confined to the physical world. The spiritual does not yield to scientific inquiry and any attempts to use science to achieve perfection (a spiritual ideal) are ultimately doomed to failure unless the physical is sacrificed for the spiritual.

This theme is seen in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” wherein Georgiana’s near perfection is marred by a tiny birthmark; a birthmark that is described by her husband Alymer as “being the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (p. 9).  Alymer strives to use his scientific knowledge to remove Georgiana’s only physical flaw allowing her to be both physically and spiritually perfect.  But because such perfection is impossible in a living creature, his removal of her only flaw results in her death.

The theme is repeated in Poe’s “The Oval Portrait” describing the creation of a woman’s portrait that is notable for its “absolute life-likeness of expression” (p. 194). The reader learns that the artist painting this portrait of his bride was oblivious to everything other than the work of art he was creating. Such was his focus that he even failed to note the gradual wasting away of the object of his art. His being blind to the physical signs of his wife wasting away even as he painted her portrait suggests that he wasn’t so much seeing and painting her physical form, as he was her spiritual form. The dichotomy between spiritual perfection and earthly imperfection reflecting the dichotomy between life and death is revealed in the last sentence of the tale.  Upon finishing the painting, the painter gazed upon it and cried, “This is indeed Life itself!” Only then did he truly see his wife and subsequently exclaimed, “She was dead!” (p. 196).  As in “The Birthmark,” perfection is achieved only in physical death. The artist successfully captured his wife’s life and beauty in the portrait at the expense of her life.

Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” can also be seen as reflecting the Romantics’ belief about using science to reach for a spiritual ideal and the consequences of successfully achieving such a lofty goal.  In the book “Frankenstein,” Victor Frankenstein seeks to master the secrets of life itself and use that knowledge to create life.  He succeeds in doing so using dead human flesh and the result is a truly hideous, horrifying monster.  It is telling that not a single character encountering the monster has any trouble believing such an incredibly ugly creature is alive.  In fact, a central question of the book could be said to be whether or not such an imperfect being can be said to have anything of the spiritual within it. Contrast this with Owen’s perfect, beautiful butterfly in “The Artist Beautiful” in which the butterfly’s perfection causes the characters in the story to question whether the butterfly is actually alive.

Taken as a whole, these stories reflect the Romantic beliefs of the times that 1) human nature is both physical and spiritual; 2) that the physical is always imperfect with perfection only being attainable by the spiritual; 3) that our natures cause us to be cognizant of and strive for perfection in life but 4) using science and technology to do so is doomed either to failure or the sacrifice of the physical for the spiritual.

Being physical implies being imperfect. Hawthorne’s “The Artist Beautiful” is a fantasy because of the impossibility of Owen being able to attain perfection and create the ideal butterfly. The story reverses the relationship between imperfect, physical life and perfect, spiritual death.  Owen’s butterfly is perfect in life. Only in death does his creation become imperfect.

Works Cited:

“The Portable Edgar Allen Poe” (edited with an Introduction by J. Gerald Kennedy). Published by Penguin Books: New York: New York. 2006 ISBN: 1-4362-9509-2 (http://mikicafilolosko.pbworks.com/f/The+Portable+Edgar+Allan+Poe.pdf)

The Project Gutenberg eBook of “Mosses from an Old Manse and Other Stories” by Nathaniel Hawthorn. Posting date: September 13, 2008 [EBook #512]. Release Date: April 1996. Produced by Charles Keller. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/512

“Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus” by Mary Shelley. Published 1888 by G. Routledge & sons . Open Library: OL20443134. Internet Archive: http://www.archive.org/details/frankensteinorm02shelgoog

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