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A More Perfect Union

Eve Papa ’19 Notes How Hawthorne’s The Birthmark Examines Ideas of Perfection and Sets the Stage for the Modern Debate on Eugenics

by Timothy Deenihan

Eve Papa ’19

It’s no secret life often imitates art, and there are plenty of examples of contraptions and practices imagined in fiction that then found their feet in reality some years (or even decades) later. Jules Verne is usually the most celebrated predictor of new technologies, whether it be the Nautilus from Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as the precursor to the electric submarine or the ‘phonotelephote’ from In the Year 2889 that any modern-day reader will easily recognize as video conferencing. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, billboards are larger so that the people in the new high-speed cars will still manage to read them. And what was Captain Kirk’s communicator if not a prototype for a flip phone, which itself is already old school?

Less often recognized for prophetic prowess is Nathaniel Hawthorne. Though Hawthorne is best known for The Scarlet Letter, short story devotees will immediately connect him to classics such as Young Goodman Brown and The Birthmark. It is in this last title that Sacred Heart University senior Eve Papa ’19 reckons the author was ahead of his time.

The story is of scientist Aylmer, newly married to a young bride of enviable beauty, Georgiana, who herself bares the titular mark on her left cheek in the shape of a tiny hand print. Indeed, her admirers say it is the impression left by a fairy at her birth, “to give her such sway over all hearts.” Unfortunately, Aylmer does not share these sentiments and instead sees the mark as the only stain on his wife’s perfection. Through the story, he becomes obsessed with finding a scientific solution by which Man might best Nature. (Spoiler alert: his efforts do not end well.)

Understandably, the story is often discussed in feminist literature as an example of the male will and male ideas of perfection imposed upon the female form and body, with little regard for the woman’s rights or wishes. Certainly, as with The Scarlet Letter, the plight of the heroine in an imbalanced patriarchal society is a central theme; but Papa thinks such a reading of the work misses the opportunity to see something even more prescient.

“In examining the relationship between a couple and their views of a physical blemish,” Papa notes, “Hawthorne speaks to the big-picture question: should science view disability as a defect and be working towards removing it entirely? Or does disability contribute to society and provide diverse personalities and ideas?” Her paper, Hawthorne’s The Birthmark as an Introduction to the Modern Debate of Eugenics, was recently selected for publication in the fall edition of Sacred Heart University Scholar.

“I don’t think he intended to be discussing genetic engineering and babies when he wrote the piece,” Papa hastens to clarify. “He wasn’t writing science fiction and such things could not have even been imagined at the time of publication.” But, as she points out in her paper, intentionally or not, with The Birthmark, Hawthorne provided both the disability and eugenics debates one of their earliest pieces of literature.

Before taking a class this past fall on Disability Literature, “I had never really thought of it,” the senior English major admits. “Now, it’s a passion.” So much so, in fact, that a number of her applications to graduate school look to continue the line of study. As most literature surrounding disabilities comes from an able-bodied perspective, she fears the conversation–in life as in art–can only be skewed as a result. And as a result of that, our human understanding of our fellow humans is incomplete.

“There is a complexity to it all,” she says, speaking of humanity with a confidence belying her years. Thus, any opportunity to find one’s Self in an Other is not to be missed.