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Happiness is an ideal emotion that everyone wants to experience and will go to desperate measures to achieve. If one wants to explore the facets of how important happiness is for people to achieve, they will have to put themselves in the shoes of the main characters throughout the main characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s stories “The Birthmark” and “Wakefield.” The stories help people understand that the need for happiness is essential, but that actually achieving that happiness in real life is much harder to obtain unless one actively pursues it. The main characters in the stories, Aylmer and Wakefield, believe that self-inflicted disappointment, personal consequence, and risk of loss are worth it if the end result is happiness.
Aylmer believes that perfection is the only thing that can make him happy, so he highlights the birthmark on his wife, Georgiana, as an object of his disappointment that must be removed in order to make her perfect. He says that Georgiana “…Came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne 2). The imperfect birthmark clouds Aylmer’s mind with so much disappointment that he believes his happiness can only result from its removal. His disappointment leads him to look at his wife as more of an object that he wants to improve rather than someone he genuinely cares about. Aylmer starts to believe that the birthmark is a sign of evil, “…Causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight” (Hawthorne 3). He is allowing his disappointment to morph into a fear that puts division in his marital relationship and closes off his mind to the true beauty that his wife embodies. The aspect of induced disappointment affects the lengths people will go to so they can be happy.
The need to remedy disappointment Aylmer experiences is also apparent in how Wakefield believes that moving away from home to observe his wife’s actions will cure his disappointment of not knowing whether or not she is faithful. Wakefield worries that if his wife suspected him dead or that he left her, “…Thou wouldst be woefully conscious of a change in thy true wife forever after” (Hawthorne 3). He is disappointed by his pessimistic outlook on what he thinks will happen while he is gone. His whole purpose for leaving his home is to alleviate his disappointment and become happy. While Wakefield is gone, he watches his wife to see how she “…Will endure her widowhood of a week…” (Hawthorne 3). Hawthorne creates doubt in Wakefield’s mind and causes him to go on the archetypal Task to test his wife’s faithfulness to their marriage and create happiness for himself. The disappointment he experiences originates from him not knowing his wife’s level of dedication and the only way he figures he can be happy is through leaving and studying her. As seen, happiness is worth looking for things that are disappointing in order to correct them and become happy, however, happiness is also worth the personal consequences that may arise as a result of the efforts to make oneself happy.
Aylmer in “The Birthmark” weighs the possibility of his happiness as more important than the consequences he might experience of weakening his relationship with his wife as a result of him only searching for his happiness and not hers. When talking about the relationship between Aylmer and Georgiana, the story says that Aylmer may care about his wife’s love, but that “…It could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own” (Hawthorne 1). This perspective of the motivation of Aylmer to remove the birthmark makes it seem as if he is treating Georgiana as more of a science experiment rather that acting out of genuine care and concern. His attitude toward the birthmark exhibits the ideal of Nature vs. Mechanistic World because his intentions are to scientifically modify his wife to make her more appealing to him. Aylmer realizes that he did not know how important the removal of the birthmark was to him and the “…Lengths which he might find in his heart to go for the sake of giving himself peace” (Hawthorne 4). The hamartia of selfishness that Aylmer has rears its ugly head when the reader can see that he wants to remove the birthmark more for personal content rather than out of concern for his wife’s beauty. The consequence that Aylmer experiences is that the bond of his love with Georgiana weakens, and for him, turns into more of a superficial relationship to make himself happy.
The superficiality of Aylmer’s marital relationship is present in Wakefield’s long-term absence from his wife to investigate her loyalty, resulting in him experiencing the consequence of being alienated from society as a whole. While Wakefield walks, he disguises himself and walks bent over with his face down, “…As if unwilling to display his full front to the world” (Hawthorne 5). As a result of Wakefield shutting out the outside world and his reclusion from his personal life, he becomes the archetypal Outcast because he is forgotten and unnoticed by society. This feeling of insignificance governs the temperament of him and makes it more appealing to remain cut-off and antisocial than trying to insert himself back into people’s recognition. In his solitude, Wakefield managed to “…Give up his place and privileges with living men, without being admitted among the dead” (Hawthorne 6). He reaches the point where he is dead to the world because of his self-exile from it. The consequences that are experienced are worth the pursuit for happiness, however, the possibility of the loss of something important to the characters is a much more serious prospect that is weighed-out as being less important than finding happiness.
Aylmer’s dedication to his personal aim of achieving happiness by removing his wife’s birthmark goes awry when she dies from the procedures she underwent. After the birthmark was removed and Aylmer had begun to celebrate over his perfect wife, Georgiana announced she was dying, shattering Aylmer’s happiness when “…The parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight” (Hawthorne 14). The risk of harm being done to Georgiana was dismissed and outweighed by the happiness Aylmer wanted to have and his unfailing confidence in scientific experimentation. He let his hubris shroud his fear of Georgiana’s well-being and the situational irony of her death after his successful procedure was not something he was prepared for. Georgiana’s death was too much for him to bear and “…He failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of the time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present” (Hawthorne 14). Aylmer is caught in so much disbelief and grief for what he caused that he has no hope for his future. The risk of Aylmer losing Georgiana was not as important as his happiness, but his plans to be forever happy backfired when what he deemed impossible became reality.
Aylmer’s plans to be happy backfired severely, however, in Wakefield’s case he lost 20 years of his life but decided it was more important to have this happen than risk sadness resulting from the possibility of his wife not being faithful. Even though Wakefield is re-united with his wife, it is possible that he could have, “…By stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever” (Hawthorne 7). As great as it was that after 20 years, Wakefield’s hopes were confirmed and his happiness was achieved, things could have gone in the polar opposite direction over that same amount of time. Wakefield was lucky that whenever he extended the time period of his wife’s test, she did not give up hop on him and find someone else to marry. Wakefield commits that “He will not go back until she be frightened half to death” (Hawthorne 4). This is a risky promise by Wakefield because he does not know how long this test will extend for or how strong his wife’s willpower to resist finding someone else to marry. The component of loss, which was evident in both stories, can play a huge role in whether or not a person achieves happiness.
A search for happiness that begins with recognizing disappointment and results in loss and personal consequence is still deemed as being worth the risk and strife that people may undergo. The characters Aylmer and Wakefield from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” and “Wakefield” are perfect exhibitions of this viewpoint. Although the search for happiness may seem trivial and simple, many people undergo that search while enduring much sadness.
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