Ignorance Is Bliss: Hawthorne and Atwood on Love and Death

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Ignorance is Bliss: Hawthorne and Atwood on Love and Death
Margaret Atwood’s “Happy Endings” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” are distinctly different stories, divergent in plot, style, structure, and setting. Hawthorne’s piece, written in 1843, addresses a desire for perfection in a time when perfection felt feasible. On the contrary “Happy Endings”, as Atwood cleverly titled the story in 1983, explores the basic woes of love after the sexual revolution of the 1970’s. Despite the distinct differences between the two, “The Birthmark” and “Happy Endings” maintain a similar honesty towards love and death. Although these novelists have virtually nothing in common spare their love for the written word, these stories both have successfully written about how humans handle romantic relationships while ignoring or masking the mortality of humans.

While the two authors share a connection through their view of humanity’s struggle with love and death, their stories reflect contradictory plots. In “The Birthmark” characters Aylmer and Georgiana, a recently married couple, are presented. Aylmer, “a man of science”, is determined to fix the small blemish remaining on his wife’s cheek. In the end, this actually destroys her life but does not ruin Aylmer’s resolve to achieve excellence despite killing his wife. “Happy Endings”, on the other hand, deals directly with the simplest realities of love, sex, and everything in between. The only certainty is that Atwood’s two main characters, John and Mary, meet; after this there is no clear answer, only a variety of scenarios that all end the same way, “John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die” (626). Atwood and Hawthorne manage to express common themes regardless of the differences between their stories.

Atwood and Hawthorne both utilize the way a woman’s psyche works to reveal how relationships may unfold. In a portion of Atwood’s piece, Mary is “Run-down” and “Hurt” (625) by a lack of emotional connection to her partner, John. The character is used and ignored by John, her hope of true love and happiness fade and eventually, Mary commits suicide. Similarly, in “The Birthmark”, Hawthorne describes Georgiana as “A healthy though delicate bloom” (421) at first, but as the narrative progresses Georgiana becomes unsettled and anxious; she becomes so troubled that at the mention of her birthmark she “Shrank as if a red-hot iron had touched her cheek” (426). Also deeply affected by the man in her life, Georgiana lost herself in the possibility of being approved by him. Lynn Shakinovsky points this out in her article “The Return of the Repressed: Illiteracy and the Death of the Narrative in Hawthorne's ‘The Birthmark’” stating: “It is therefore as much a product of Georgiana's vision as Aylmer's that the removal of the mark results in her death. For Georgiana as well as for Aylmer, the mark is all there is” (269). In this way, the two authors aggressively illustrate the idea that women are controlled by how men perceive them.

Along the same notion, there is a distinct focus on interpersonal communication and ideas in regards to romantic relationships. In the various possibilities Atwood lays out in “Happy Endings”, most if not all are centered on perception, “John and Mary fall in love”, “Mary falls in love with John but John doesn’t fall in love with Mary,” and the stories unfold accordingly. Zach Woodsen, in an analysis of the story, comments that the characters are “dull and undeveloped” (1), making it more obvious how general these perceptions are by the writing style presented. It is very evident in Hawthorne’s Georgiana, who felt flattered by the suitors who called her birthmark “A charm” and that it came about by “some fairy at her birth hour” (421), but because her husband’s opinion was warped by his scientific endeavors, her beauty was overlooked, causing her self-perception to be similarly altered. Atwood and Hawthorne demonstrate how humans may define...
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