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The Consequences of Ambition in The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Consequences of Ambition in The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne essay

The Extremes of Ambition

Throughout the ages, men have proven to be submissive under the infamous power of their desires. Men like the main characters in the gothic short stories, “The Oval Portrait” by Edgar Allen Poe and “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne, sacrifice irreplaceable factors of life to satisfy their compulsion. Because their monomania drives them, the most prominent characters in the stories let their avarice engulf their morality. Aylmer and the artist lose their rationale as they get closer to achieving success hence why both women had to suffer in the end. Both Hawthorne and Poe use the elements of figurative language, symbolism, and character motivation to prove that relentless pursuit of one’s passion can lead to the destruction of others.

Both stories use figurative language to convey how the persistent pursuit of one’s desire can result in the obliteration of others. The use of irony is immense in Poe’s piece because he plays with the idea of giving the painting life while the woman who is dying. The artist neglects his wife and only pays attention to his art to the point that he does create a masterpiece, but at what cost? The woman pretends to be a good soldier and sacrifices herself for that one masterpiece. His obsession slowly drains her life until she is but a cold corpse next to the lively painting. The artist describes the art as “‘This is life itself!’ Turned suddenly to regard his beloved:—she was dead!” Not only is it ironic that the girl is dead at the highest point of wonder that the painting is at, but it is also ironic the use of the word ‘beloved.’ Throughout the story, it is evident that the painter had chosen art over his love for his wife, so it is ironic to see him show affection once she is dead. In Hawthorne’s story, irony is also essential to the pessimistic development of the story. Aylmer portrays himself as this powerful and incredible man of science that can do anything if he wanted to. After realizing his odd fixation with his spouse’s birthmark, Aylmer’s logic and reasoning entirely leave him. It is ironic that Aminadab, the brute assistant, is the one that is capable of seeing the effect of the removal of the birthmark. He can see past the avarice while the great Aylmer can not predict such immense conclusion. Aminadab states “I’d never part with that birthmark”. Aminabad is the only one who realizes the significance of the birthmark. Aylmer’s compulsion consumes him to the point that he becomes a mad scientist and neglects the feelings and safety of Georgina. In the end, Aylmer is successful at removing the birthmark, but in doing so, he also removed his wife from his side. Both authors used irony to exemplify the drastic effects that extreme obsession has on people and how their actions can remarkably affect those around them.

In the stories by Poe and Hawthorne, the use of symbolism is vital when it comes to conveying the theme of how obsessing with one’s passion can lead to the downfall of others. In “The Oval Portrait”, Poe has the painting itself as the symbol of the artist’s selfishness. The artist is very proud of this piece and even to the measures of ignoring his wife to able to paint it. The finished painting is the exemplary illustration of how selfish he has to be to not care about his wife during the process. Poe states that “The painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought.” During the time of his fascination, the artist could have been paying attention to his loved one, but instead, he showed, even more, affection to his art. He let his wife sacrifice herself for his passion and never was grateful about it. In “The Birthmark”, Hawthorne uses Aminadab as the symbol of nature and Aylmer as the symbol of science, who are both at war with each other. Aminadab possesses characteristics of nature like how he acts like he knows something that Aylmer does not know. Aylmer is obsessed with science and its credibility that to some extent he becomes the epitome of a man of science. Aminadab is very earthy and somewhat peculiar, but it would be ignorant to deny that Aminadab is the only one who respects the birthmark and is logical about the situation. Aminadab portrays himself “With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect… [Aminadab] seemed to represent man’s physical nature; while Aylmer’s slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element”. Aminadab prefers for everything to take its course while Aylmer is too impatient and chaotic to the same. In the end, Georgina had to pay the price because of Aylmer’s scholar-like ambition. Nature is unbeatable, and that’s why Aminadab laughs when Georgina dies, and Aylmer is surprised despite the obvious signs. Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne are very apt at using symbolism to continue the development of the stories and also express the adverse effects fixation can have.

Both authors use character motivation to convey the theme that unrelenting compulsion with one’s passion can lead to the end of others. The only thing that motivates the character in Poe’s story is his art. The artist wants to be able to paint a masterpiece without taking in mind that the inspiration behind the art is a human being who has needs. His motivation becomes his priority, which is why he only discovers his wife’s death body when he finally finishes his masterpiece. Poe writes that the artist often “speak of his desires to portray even his young bride.” The painter’s wife is notable for her youth and beauty, but he did not care about that. Instead, he cared about illustrating that freshness and appeal in his art. Because of his carelessness and the fact that the woman dies due to his actions, the illustrator proves to be selfish. In Hawthorne’s story, Aylmer’s motivation is not only to remove the birthmark off of Georgina since he believes it is disgusting, but his motivation is to salvage his career as well. Aylmer makes himself look as though he is the greatest scientist alive when in reality all of his successful ventures have been the result of failures. It is odd to think that Aylmer goes through all this trouble just to remove a birthmark. His actions and anxious behavior give off the idea that being successful in this experiment is a matter of his ego. As Georgina read Aylmer’s journal she noticed that “Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself.” If Aylmer succeeded in this experiment, he would no longer have to feel as though he can not do something right from the start. His motivation is to get his pride back even if it means breaking a few plates on the way. Eventually, Aylmer loses his wife to science and is left alone to reflect on his actions. Poe and Hawthorne portray their main characters as selfish men who are not grateful for what they have and instead go somewhere else to find their motivation in life. Their wives are left to fend for themselves, which they ultimately can not and die at the hands of their husbands’ ignorance.

Both Hawthorne and Poe use figurative language, symbolism, and character motivation to express that the unrelenting pursuit of a person’s passion can cause the downfall of others. Ambition is known to be a positive trait, but it can be taken to another level and can be harmful for people. People often neglect their needs and other people’s needs because they are so fixated in achieving their certain goal. Ambition often becomes avarice and also can become poisonous for people’s morality. People become tainted with greed and only think about their future instead of thinking of the future of other people. A little bit of ambition is not wrong; it is what keeps life interesting, but ambition is no longer ambition when it starts to harm one’s loved ones.

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The Consequences of Ambition in The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 29, 2022, from
“The Consequences of Ambition in The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne.” GradesFixer, 03 Jan. 2019,
The Consequences of Ambition in The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 Sept. 2022].
The Consequences of Ambition in The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe and The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Jan 03 [cited 2022 Sept 29]. Available from:
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