(American) ‘Women-Others’

/, Essays, Blesok no. 83/(American) ‘Women-Others’

(American) ‘Women-Others’

A Look inside Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Male-Centered Short-Story World

This paper will attempt to define, as fully as my study allows so far, the status of the women in society, and the inward perception of her as “the Other” in a male-centered society. I plan to focus my analysis of the American 19th century isolating male-dominated narrative cosmos, by taking my cue from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Selected Short Stories (1946) – two stories in particular, “Rappaccini’s Daughter” (1844) and “The Birthmark” (1843); for it is a narrative world within which the female mindset reads as fully molded by self-centered self-actualizing men. Thus, my two-fold analysis aims to introduce the reader to a historical outlook of woman in American society, and to the concept of “Woman as the ‘Other’”; and, drawing on these notions, to decipher male-female relationship in Hawthorne’s male-dominated narrative cosmos.

1. The history of 19th century American woman, and her (assigned) values

‘The [Narrated] Other’ does not simply imply one’s non-belonging to ‘The (Physical) Same’, for it makes reference not only to race or gender, but it overpasses materialism and penetrates into one’s psychology and self-perception among “The Others”. However, the role of ‘The Other’ has shifted/shifts, since it relies, at any one time, on the chosen point of view: namely, it can stand for an individual society perceives as distinct, or as a separate community, viewed as such by from a marginalized standpoint. Henceforth, today, our (re)examination of the term ‘The Other’ cannot simply rely on the ratio of majority to minority, or vice versa, for we need to look for ways which would help us frame it within a specific historic, socio-economic, and/or cultural reality.
In the first place, through the focus on 19th century American society, this analysis aims to look at how America had transformed itself politically, economically, and in its social arrangements; most precisely, the manner in which these factors influenced, and imparted woman’s position in society.
The first point to note is that America’s independence marked the beginning of a new kind of dependence; for in the newly Independent America’s “All men are created equal” there was no room for women. Along with that, the beginning of the 19th century set up the “Cult of True Womanhood”1F, which taught values of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity, and nourished the new ideal of the domestic angel confronted to the self-reliant style of manhood. Women were assigned the home as a morally better world, where they were “to work” for better models of marriage, family and hence society.
Subsequently, the Industrial Revolution gave existence to new values of a self-reliant, hard-working and skillful woman, which together with the anti-slavery thought, reached the new continent and consequently paved the way to the first wave of feminism (1848) and later, the Civil War (1860) – for the liberation of two subservient groups, Women and African Americans.2F
Together with that, this paper’s intention is to interpret the arbitrary value designation which actualizes the concept of “Woman-the Other”, through two different models. Firstly, the prominent twentieth century French critic Simone de Beauvoir outlines in her seminal work on women The Second Sex (1949) that the notion of duality has existed since the beginning of the world. “Dans les sociétés les plus primitives, dans les mythologies les plus antiques, on trouve toujours une dualité qui est celle du Même et de L’Autre ; cette division n’a pas d’abord été placée sous le signe de la division des sexes, elle ne dépend d’aucune donnée empirique [… ] l’altérité est une catégorie fondamentale de la pensée humaine. Aucune collectivité ne se définit jamais comme Une sans immédiatement poser l’Autre en face de soi.” (18)3F Apparently, man – not completely satisfied by the division of the sexes, which is a biological fact – designates the woman as his polar opposite so as to establish a balance in society. This designation implies her confinement at home due to her weakness and incapacity to face the outside world and due to her domestic responsibilities as wife and mother which render her dependent on her hard-working and self-reliant man.
In addition, the artificiality of values assigned to women can be illustrated through Saussure’s dyadic model of a sign. On the one hand there is the ‘signifier’ which stands either for the word itself -“woman”, or for the visual image- her appearance; while on the other hand there is the ‘signified’, or the concept that a word i.e. an image represents, in other words the weak, submissive, inferior, amenable and subsidiary role the woman is involuntarily cast in. Consequently, the sign is a result of the association of the signifier with the signified. In that way, the ‘signifier’ without the ‘signified’ would simply represent a shape, a body, a human being. Therefore, woman is a human being just as man is. However, to avoid the abstractness of the concept “human being”, men “clarified” its meaning through their own interpretation of the “sign” i.e. “the woman” through, as previously mentioned, the designation of values.

2. Hawthorne’s isolating male-dominated narrative cosmos

Through his master-narrative Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts 19th century industrial capitalist America which had placed love at the centre of marriage, and thus had enclosed two different worlds: “man out at work” and “woman at home” within a relationship of inescapable intimacy.
Both Rappaccini and Aylmar mirror the 19th century American ideal of the self-reliant man through their seclusion from society within their own-created worlds. “The ‘man’s world’ of incessant self-reliant self-seeking forced individual men into anxious solitude, cutting them off from the emotional support other men could provide, and cutting them off from their own capacity for nurture and compassion. (63)4F”. Even though, enclosed within their world of solitude, their existence would have been futile, and their science impossible, without the presence of women – Beatrice and Georgiana, otherwise flawed objects at the hands of their father, i.e., their husband. However this confinement within murderous intimacy gives birth to fatal ideals: where man is a creator of a deadly world where he places his subject, thus determining its position, and where the woman becomes “the Other” of both worlds: the one she is isolated from and “his world”5F (195) she abides in but is ignorant of.
Further along, the values of sin, flaw and imperfection incorporated in both stories, and more precisely in the bodies of the two female characters, are not intrinsic, but artificially implemented by the scientific hand of the man. “Both Georgiana’s and Beatrice’s bodies are patently ‘unnatural’, literally man-made, processed to meet two of the commonest requirements of patriarchal femininity: Beatrice’s sexual purity must be defended at all costs, and Georgiana’s attraction to her husband is dependent on beauty” (88)6F. It is simply enough for man to conceptualize those values so as to give them a physical existence, persuading its subjects-the women-that these assigned identities originate deep within their nature.
Along with that, Hawthorne’s narrative world addresses the amorous relationship between man and woman, more specifically between Giovanni and Beatrice, and Aylmar and Georgiana. Women embody spiritual, submissive and pure forms of love which stand in contrast with man’s too-simple appeal to outward beauty.”’The Birth-Mark” and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter” express a male imagination for which sexual attraction is virtually indistinguishable from revulsion” (72) The pervading feeling of revulsion and loathing for their lover’s impurity and flawed nature, highlighted by the superficial observance of the physical, illustrates Giovanni’s and Aylmar’s lack of insight to perceive Beatrice’s and Georgiana’s true nature: that of a pure, good, and devoted soul yearning for love.7F
As for the women’s perception of themselves the two narratives are dissimilar in the manner that Georgiana does embrace Aylmar’s projection of the birthmark as a symbol of her “liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death” (150)8F, and would rather be dead than disgust her husband; while on the other hand Beatrice claims that she’s more than poisonous flesh, yet remains but a hopeless victim in the clash of men’s rivalries and sick ambition.
Hawthorne delicately touches upon shared feeling and common themes of his era, and along with that, through his narrative he presents to his reader the historical moment he writes in. At the same time, through his narrative Hawthorne manifests his own contradictions about women and about emotional life of marriage that spanned 19th century America. Placing the couple as the crucial element in the struggle to define the nature and possibilities of woman’s life, Hawthorne introduces the reader to a man-molded historic female character, where the women stand for the final ‘Others’, those that need to be eliminated just before man attains the height of his self-realization; and where the submission of 19th century women conveyed through the characters of Beatrice and Georgiana, and consequently their deaths, stand as self-actualized self-sacrifice, required in the pursuit of the masculine [American] dream of perfection and absolute power.

1. Nathaniel, Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Ed. Arvin Newton. New York: Random House, Inc, 1946
2. Richard H. Millington, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2004
3. Harter, Fogle Richard. Hawthorne’s fiction: The Light and The Dark. University of Oklahoma Press, 1964
4. Du Beauvoir, Simone. Le Deuxième Sexe I. 1976 Ed. Gallimard. Saint-Amand : CPI Bussière, 2010 ( On-line translation by H.M. Parshley, Penguin 1972: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/2nd-sex/index.htm.)
5. Welter, Barbara, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” (1966): http://www.pinzler.com/ushistory/cultwo.html

1. Welter, Barbara, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860” (1966 ) http://www.pinzler.com/ushistory/cultwo.html
2. In Britain, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, women were involved in productive labor. The reason for the demand and preference of women to men at that point was simple: they were cheap and obedient, and they would do all the work man refused to do. Still, women were motivated to work, to leave their home, or the countryside because they had seen in the work opportunity a chance to earn their own support without depending on their family; or as a way to assist their families. Although the first wave of feminism took place in the mid-19th century, it is not until the end of War World I that the woman suffrage amendment would be passed, and henceforth a new trend of woman would emerge – a rebellious, free-spirited and non conventional.
3. Du Beauvoir, Simone. Le Deuxième Sexe I. 1976 Ed. Gallimard. Saint-Amand : CPI Bussière, 2010 H.M. Parshley, Penguin 1972. On-line translation: http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/ethics/de-beauvoir/2nd-sex/index.htm. “The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality – that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. [… ]Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself.”
4. Richard H. Millington, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2004
5. Nathaniel, Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Ed. Arvin Newton. New York: Random House, Inc, 1946
6. Richard H. Millington, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2004
7. Harter, Fogle Richard. Hawthorne’s fiction: The Light and The Dark. University of Oklahoma Press, 1964: “The unfortunate Giovanni is incapable of [the] highest insight and swings helplessly between a too-simple common sense, which sees only the beauty of Beatrice, and a morbid fear.” (95) Nathaniel, Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Ed. Arvin Newton. New York: Random House, Inc, 1946: “Her [Georgiana’s] heart exulted , while it trembled, at his honorable love – so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of.” (161)
8. Nathaniel, Hawthorne. Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Ed. Arvin Newton. New York: Random House, Inc, 1946: “She [Georgiana] felt how much more precious was such a sentiment than that meaner kind which would have borne with the imperfection for her sake, and have been guilty of treason to holy love by degrading its perfect idea to the level of the actual; and with her whole spirit she prayed that, for a single moment, she might satisfy his highest and deepest conception.” (162)

AuthorJelena Nikodinoska
2018-08-21T17:22:49+00:00 May 19th, 2012|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 83|0 Comments