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Pitfalls of Perfection: Rethinking Hawthorne's Treatment of Science and the Danger of Extremes in "The Artist of the Beautiful" and "The Birthmark"
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My theme herein is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s (1804-1864) treatment of science in his short stories, primarily “The Artist of the Beautiful” and “The Birthmark.” In particular, I am interested in the caution he sounds against misusing the power of modern science, a caution that remains valuable for us today, enveloped as we are in its influence. The first part of this project centers on Hawthorne’s diagnosis that the core of artistic and scientific practice involves a quest for perfection and desire to transform nature. The danger that awaits those who attend too exclusively to this quest is that they may become ‘detached individuals,’ to use the phrase of Josiah Royce. The second part of this project is an exploration of the dangers of this perfection-seeking, detached profile within the context of scientific practice, as depicted by Hawthorne in “The Birthmark.” We see here that the detached scientist is not only a menace to himself, but also to others. Georgiana, Aylmer’s wife, is reduced to a mere aspect of her being and led to her death; Aminadab, Aylmer’s lab assistant, is used only as a source of labor. We learn, then, not only how Hawthorne thought about the relationship between art, science, and human nature, but also of the value of Hawthorne’s diagnoses for contemporary society, for, as scientific and technological advancements become ever more pervasive aspects of contemporary life, the allures of such advances can easily make us lose sight of the human questions, of whether we are actually receiving nourishment from our engagement with new sciences and technologies or are falling prey to a deceptive dream.
The Artist of the Beautiful
Haitos, Alexander Nicholas (2015). Pitfalls of Perfection: Rethinking Hawthorne's Treatment of Science and the Danger of Extremes in "The Artist of the Beautiful" and "The Birthmark". Master's thesis, Texas A & M University. Available electronically from