Unattainable Perfection

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The expression “I am only human” is a phrase coined by people in order to blame their faults on humanity. The question many philosophers have asked is if perfection is attainable. In his short stories, “The Birthmark,” “The Minister and the Black Veil,” and “The Gray Champion,” Nathaniel Hawthorne illustrates the human condition as one of human imperfection and sin that can be destructive if not controlled. Hawthorne effectively portrays what can happen if an individual is not monitored by society in his stories. He emphasizes the role of the individual in the society and the limitations that the society must place on that individual. Using symbolism, characterization, and paradoxes, Hawthorne emphasizes humankind’s faults and their imperative role in the character of all men. Most importantly, he emphasizes that perfection and the cleansing of all sin is not possible.

Hawthorne uses symbols and extended allegories to elucidate the true nature of human attributes. “The Birthmark” is a story about an obsessive scientist name Aylmer who strives to prefect his wife. The predominate symbol in this story is the birthmark on his, other wise perfect, wife: a mark of “deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape” (Hawthorne148). This mark is identified very closely with Georgiana, Aylmer’s wife, because it changes with her emotions and motions. This suggests that Georgiana does not merely have an imperfection embedded in her skin, but that she is imperfection embodied. Hawthorne specifically marked Georgiana as an imperfection because she is a woman, tainted with sin from the dawn of Adam and Eve (Fetterley 3). Because all of mankind is Eve’s children, this mark is “the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature…stamps ineffaceably on all her productions” (Hawthorne 149). Hawthorne thus emphasizes that men are supposed to be imperfect in comparison to pristine and refined nature. Therefore, humans should look upon nature as a role model so that they can be as close to perfect as possible. This is what Aylmer does as he attempts to perfect the flower he shows Georgiana. However, he does this is a frenetic, destructive way which is his flaw and proves that not only women are imperfect. His elusive goal is evident when, at first, the flower is perfect, but then the “whole plant suffer[s] a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of the fire” (Hawthorne 155). The moral is that humans should not meddle with nature because nature is already perfect: Hawthorne’s unique way of expressing a “universal sympathy with Nature” (Longfellow 1). The parallel result of Georgiana dying after achieving perfection represents that the perfection of man goes against nature.

Mr. Hooper’s veil in the “Minister and the Black Veil” is also an example of human lubricity. This veil covers the majority of his face, and does not “intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and unanimated things” (Hawthorne 10). The Black Veil represents the sin that he has committed and the façade that he chooses to hide it behind. However, it also shields him from the sin of his entire community (Emmett 1). His own sin has allowed his vision to see things in “a darkened aspect” so as to see that everyone has his own dark secrets (10). He realizes that although everyone professes to be pure, their entire life is a front to hide their true selves: their imperfect selves.

If each individual and the society they make up is imperfect as stated in the “Minister and the Black Veil,” then so is a country made of humankind. As America was the first country formed from the true aspirations of mankind, it is destined for corruption. This is why Hawthorne has created the symbol of “The Gray Champion”. Representing a “type of New England’s hereditary spirit, and his shadowy march, on the Eve of danger,” this champion is the guardian angel of the country: the faith that has founded and developed the nation (Hawthorne 9). Although...
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