Essay Samples

The Poverty of Rationalism, Scientific and Material

Table of contents

    The Male Role in Hawthorne’s The Birth Mark and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: the poverty of rationalism, scientific and material.

    Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) in his portrayal of the scientist Aylmer in “The Birthmark” resembles Charles Dickens (1812-1870) in his depiction of the male role in A Christmas Carol in the character of Scrooge. The reader is given examples of human personality that remain familiar and which continue to draw criticism. When Hawthorne and Dickens are examined as Victorian authors, we see that their views of gender correspond to ideas and ideals belonging to another age, shaped by the social environment in which they wrote. More important, Hawthorne and Dickens present then radical criticism in response to the rise of Britain as a preeminent power in Europe and about the world; a Victorian society challenged by science and the rise of a broader English business culture via opportunities that had arrived through the later 18th century.

    Hawthorne explains that Aylmer was a scientist, first and foremost, and that he had not invested much in any second passion. Even his love for his young wife seemed a distraction which could really only be a case of, “intertwining itself with his love of science and uniting the strength of the latter to his own. (300) His wife’s birthmark gave her uniqueness. People said that at Georgiana’s birth, a fairy had laid her tiny hand upon the baby’s cheek, “and left this imprint there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts. (301) That Aylmer thought a lot of his scientific contributions is clear, and a scientist of his time and class would command special status; Aylmer has been recognized for his work by different learned societies. He was engaged in science in the first half of the 19th century, in its grand optimism concerning rational progress and was likely to have believed that, “Nature assimilates all her precious influences from earth and air and from the spiritual world, to create a foster man, her masterpiece”. (305) Women could only be secondary characters to male enterprise.

    Aylmer sees his wife’s birthmark as an imperfection about which something ought to be done. She begins reading scientific volumes, becomes less dependent on his intellect and is warned that, “there are pages in that volume which I can scarcely glance over and keep my senses. Take heed lest it prove detrimental to you”. (312) The Victorian ideal was one that gave women status according to a cult of Domesticity which sheltered the privileged woman from the horrors of the outside society and an interest in science was interpreted as dangerous to her interests. Georgiana’s birthmark is treated and begins to fade as a result of scientific intervention. She also begins to die. Hawthorne laments the purely ‘scientific’ cast of mind that has been Aylmer’s, commenting that, “had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial … he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living one for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present”. (317)

    In the case of Dickens’ Scrooge, the reader is told of a certain kind of business person that might have been quite common in Dickens’ England, a country that was producing industrial and trading opportunities to a growing bourgeoisie through the early decades of the 19th century. In the eyes of other Europeans, the British had long been a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, its economic system fueled by imperialism abroad and cheap raw materials: Dickens’ London, or the industrial towns showed the worst effects of industrialization and in a general climate of sharp differences between social classes. In the opening pages of Stave I, Dickens describes a careful attention to fiscal detail. It is Christmas and, “the door of Scrooge’s counting house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk”. (9) Scrooge is beyond miserly. He sees his workers and other inferiors to be persons for whom, “a little thing affects them. A light disorder of the stomach makes them cheats”. (18)

    When Scrooge is visited by the spirit of Marley, he defends their shared way of life, reminding Marley that he had been, “a good man of business”. (20) Marley tells how commerce had not been his only pursuit, that his business had become that of Mankind:

    the common welfare was my business; charity, mercy,

    forbearance and benevolence, were all my business.

    The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in

    the comprehensive ocean of my business. (20)

    He points out the dangers of money-making and how his experience had taught him that single-minded business was folly. Scrooge experiences visits from other spirits who remind of his responsibility to others.

    As in Hawthorne’s revelation of the poverty of a purely rational or ‘scientific’ approach to life, and how it detracts from what really matters between human beings, Dickens explains Scrooge’s transformation by supernatural experience. At one point, as he experiences Christmas with the Fezziwig’s, Scrooge is described as, “a man out of his wits. His heart and soul were in the scene, and with his former self. He corroborated everything, and underwent the strangest agitation. (33) He is shown himself at different ages and laments his Philistine approach to others, as this had developed from disappointment in life and the demands of commerce. The last of the spirits, The Ghost of Christmas yet to come, brings Scrooge’s death. He overhears associates talking of his funeral and how little would be spent upon it, and who would inherit Scrooge’s assets. (59) On goes the story, towards Scrooge’s emergence as a different man, knowing the limitations of his earlier approach to life and to his fellow beings.

    Aylmer and Scrooge are personalities of kinds that once perplexed Victorian society as it adjusted to the scientific and industrial revolutions that threatened Victorian ideals of religious and family life. Both male characters had believed in ‘pure’ objectivity, as it clashed with stronger cultural themes of Christian virtue, family life, and the merits of kindness and charity. Both saw human beings as imperfect and therefore, in need of improvement, but learn in due course that they are no match for the blunt realities of life, nor the timeless wisdom of humanity that makes ‘sense’ of Living in ways that science nor commerce could not. The male rationalist personality of the day, is overcome in both cases, by experiences that point to the over-riding importance of Humanity.

    Women in both offerings are presented as extraneous figures. However, the stronger message presented is really one of male naïveté in the dedication to science of Aylmer which corresponds with the short-sightedness and narrowness of Scrooge’s involvement in commerce. Both Hawthorne and Dickens are commenting on male foibles, often seen in their day, and showing their important shortcomings.

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