Sinclair Ross's The Painted Door and Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Birthmark
Length: 1552 words (4.4 double-spaced pages)
One cannot attend to the topic of the motivation of characters without knowing a bit about the characters themselves. The central female character in "The Painted Door", Ann, is struggling for inner satisfaction and happiness in her marriage. Her name is used only once in the literary work illustrating that she has very little individuality; she feels she is simply an extension of her husband, John. Her motivation is caused by her selfish attitude and propensity to focus on John's flaws; this derives from her desire for John to change. As a farmer's wife she feels an increasing isolation, especially during winter months with "the silence weighing upon her" (Ross 139) and "the clock [that] tick[s] on like a glib little idiot" (166). Ann's perception of John and her isolation motivates her decision to sleep with Steven. "The Birthmark's" central character, Aylmer, is a recently married scientist. He is an inventor of exotic potions and a philosopher of scientific knowledge. After the marriage, eliminating the only imperfection, a tiny mysterious hand shaped birthmark, on his young wife, Georgiana, preoccupies him. His daily intensifying obsession eventually consumes his wife as well, leading to the isolation of Georgiana when he attempts to remove the "odious hand" (Hawthorne 37). Although the characters and situations in both short stories are profoundly different, each motivation stems from a desire to change their respective partners. Each character is forced to choose between two options set before them by their motivation.
The dilemmas, developed from the motivation, compel the characters to resolve their conflicts. In "The Painted Door", Ann is struggling in a violent tumult of mental and emotional anguish and trying to find importance in life. The conflict arises in her decision to gratify one of two goals; immediate satisfaction, sleeping with Steven, or long term satisfaction, the love and support of her faithful dependable husband. Ann also faces a conflict between a social need and an emotional need. Initially with John she feels she can't connect to society because "John never talks [He] never danced or enjoyed himself" (Ross 160-162), however after sleeping with Steven her guilt leads her to realize that "John is the man with him lay all the future" (174) and only with him can she be completely and emotionally fulfilled.
In "The Birthmark", "Georgiana soon learned to shudder at [her husband's] gaze" (Hawthorne 36). Georgiana knows her birthmark's removal could have mortal consequences but she'd rather take that risk than to forever be disgusting in the eyes of her husband. The motivation to be appealing to her husband forces her to decide between the removal of the beauty mark, she once thought charming and linking her to life, or to be "an object of horror" (37) to her husband.
After Ann sleeps with Steven, in "The Painted Door", she suffers remorse and finally understands "all there ever was or ever could be" (Ross 174) with both John and Steven. However, the following day John's frigid corpse is found outside, run against the fence, frozen by the storm. While Ann lay with Steven, John, who had been away, fought for five miles through the near impassible storm to get home only to discover his adulterous wife and unfaithful friend. Ann sees John but, consumed by her guilt, mistakes him for a shadowy dream-like hallucination. A smudge of paint, found on John's palm, provides the only evidence of his presence in the house the previous night; it had transferred from the bedroom door she had painted that afternoon. John's motive to commit suicide comes from the deep love he feels for his wife; "it was not what he actually accomplished by means of the sacrifice but the sacrifice itself, the gesture something done for her sake" (Ross 161). John thinks that the result of his death will be the freedom of his wife. The tragic irony is that it's only after sleeping with Steven that Ann is able to renew her love for John and calm her inner storm, but by doing so she looses the object of her love, John, altogether. Alternatively, if she hadn't betrayed John and he hadn't come upon that fateful view, then he wouldn't have sacrificed himself for her, but (and there's always a but' in fiction) Ann would still be emotionally conflicted and would still be unable to love and appreciate her husband. Irony also envelops Ann and Steven's immoral copulation because it was initially John's idea for Steven to visit while she was alone. In "The Birthmark" after long isolation and several removal attempts Aylmer finally has an auspicious solution. His concoction does work, however (which is a fancy word for but), as the birthmark on Georgiana's cheek fades away so does her life. By extracting her one diminutive and frivolous imperfection he also removes her life and his chance at temporal happiness; the birth mark "had grappled with the mystery of life and kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last sole token of human imperfection faded from her cheek the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere." (Hawthorne 48). The birthmark, although a physical imperfection, represents the natural blemishes people find in one another in intimate relationships. While courting, Aylmer did not find Georgiana's birthmark unappealing or even significant, but after being married he found it engrossingly appalling. The result of removing the small, normal, even bewitching, imperfections in people is the inevitable change that takes place in them, usually leading to an unfavorable out come and losing the person altogether. Often the changed person is not the same person we were attracted to in the beginning.
There are certain fundamental parallels between both short stories. The central characters are motivated by an overwhelming wish for change in either a physical or emotional form. Their motivation stimulates them to strive for a solution by facing the obstructing dilemma and choosing a path they think will be a means of resolution resulting in their immediate happiness without regard to any adverse consequences. Motivation is the catalyst that drives the characters actions and decisions. In "The Painted Door" Ann's goal was to find companionship and a centre of self but she ends up alone. She can't truly love John until she acquires a new understanding; the understanding, however, comes too late leading to the destruction of her and John's relationship. In "The Birthmark" Aylmer strives to perfect his wife by removing her "hateful mark" (37). However, by ridding her of the blemish he kills her, thus he also ends up removing their relationship. Hawthorne states: "[They] need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven [their] mortal li[ves] of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for [them], [they] failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present" (49). In both instances neither, Aylmer nor Ann, could look past their own selfish needs to see that what they already had was perfect, imperfections and all.
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