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Tade Lawal
Prof. Christopher Gilchrist
ENG 102

Blinded by Beauty: Physical Appearance and its Dangers


In America today, there is an unhealthy obsession with looks. This can be observed in the
celebrity culture on television, in movies and on billboards across the country. There is a media
frenzy every time a Kardashian posts a new selfie or a Hilton buys a new dress. This is not just a
recent development, for authors throughout history have commented on their culture fixation on
physical appearance. Most notably, Gabriel Garca Mrquez and Nathaniel Hawthorne, two
diverse writers from different eras and cultures, came to the same conclusion in their many short
stories. In The Birthmark and a Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Hawthorne and Gomez
remark on how people overlook admirable qualities when blindly focused on physical
appearance.
In The Birthmark, Aylmers reaction to his wifes blemish reveals more about Aylmer
than it does Georgiana. He becomes so obsessed with this harmless hand print that he is willing
to put his wife in harms way to correct this imagined imperfection. The narrator describes
Aylmer as a man of science well versed in all branches of natural philosophy (313) with a
penchant for the metaphysical. Aylmers combination of intelligence and divinity represents the
higher nature of man that all are to strive for, no matter how unattainable it may be. The irony of
the story is that Aylmer, for all his intellectual and spiritual qualities, does not have
wisdom...and therefore he will die without happiness" (Walsh 260). Most of his experiments,
which attempted supernatural feats like alchemy and immortality predictably ended in failure.

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These failures foreshadow the outcome of Aylmers attempt at birthmark removal, where he once
again tries to play God with Georgianas fate. Aylmers disgust at Georgianas birthmark is not
borne out of vanity or selfishness but stems from nobler sentiments. This perversion of courtly
love longs to exalt Georgianas beauty to the divine by removing her one physical flaw to make
her perfect. The birthmark represents all of Georgianas flaws and sins which make her no more
special than the common brute (319). At the end, Aylmers lofty aspirations are attained,
though not as expected, as Georgiana slips out of her earthly shell and ascends to heaven, finally
achieving the perfection for which Aylmer had strived so hard.
In a Very old man with Enormous Wings, the treatment of the titular character by the
couple who found him is greatly affected by his unsightly appearance. At first, Pelayo assumes
that the old man is a castaway, based on his strong sailor voice (371). After their sick baby is
healed, they believe that he is actually an angel. However, the old man does not fit the idea of a
celestial being so they treat him like a circus animal, charging admission for the village coming
to witness the angel on display. The couple grows rich and prosperous off the profits of their
spectacle, enough to move into a bigger house but leave the angel, the source of their wealth, to
rot outside in their shed. It is clear that Elisanda is the decision maker in their relationship. On
discovery of the old man, Pelayo runs to get his wife to help him understand what the
creature might be. It was her idea to charge admission for viewing of the angel which led to the
familys windfall. She is also as vain as she is practical. After the newfound success, she buys
some satin pumps with high heels and many dresses of iridescent silk, the kind worn on Sunday
by the most desirable women in those times (375). Her love for physical beauty extends to her
attitude to the old man. She is annoyed at his presence in her home, despite the many benefits to
his presence in her residence.

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In both stories, the reactions of the supporting characters offer a contrast for the reader to
gain a better understanding of the actions of the main character. Before meeting Aylmer,
Georgiana saw her birthmark as a sign of beauty, for that is what others had told her it was.
Lovers imagined it was a gift from the fairies, men wanted the chance to kiss the spot and
women were envious of the alluring effect it had on men. It comes as a shock to Georgiana that
her own husband finds her once-endearing mark a repulsive blemish. The only other principal
character who feels so strongly about the mark is Aminadab, Aylmers assistant. The narrator
describes Aminadab as a foil to Aylmer, an earthy counterbalance to the scientists divine
character. Aylmer refers to his assistant as an earthly massand a human machine (321)
emphasizing the mortal mediocrity of Aminadab. According to Liz Rosenberg, Aminadab
embodies mans physical nature in its lowest form (146). Yet if given the choice, he would not
part with the birthmark on Georgianas face. Despite his baseness and human
perversion, Aminadab possesses the wisdom that Aylmer lacks. He sees Georgianas birthmark as
the sight of beauty it is and accepts the flawed mortality it represents.
The priest and the villagers in Mrquez's tale treat the old man with disdain because he is
not as angelic as they expect. Father Gonzaga dismissed the couples suggestion that the old man
might be a celestial being, just because he does not speak Latin or Aramaic, the language of the
Church and Jesus Christ respectively. Even after he seeks advice from his superiors, he receives
no definitive reply but instead is given absurd tests to confirm the old mans divinity. The Church
concludes the old man is actually a Norwegian sailor, disregarding his wings and miracles he
performs because he does not fit into their narrow definition of an angel. The villagers behavior
at the old man also illuminates the less savory aspects of human nature. At first, the people show
respect and admiration for the old man, with crowds gathering to experience the wisdom and

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healing of this heavenly creature. Some suggest that they make the old man president of the
world while others proposed crossbreeding the angel with humans to create a race of hybrid
winged leaders. The crowd soon realizes that the old man would not respond to their inane
requests for miracles, so they turn on him with a branding iron. The arrival of the spiderwoman with a sad story and a clear moral lesson offers a more interesting attraction for this
audience, and before long, they had all deserted the angel's shed. The assembly was only
searching for a new form of entertainment, and they failed to appreciate the wonder of the old
man with enormous wings.
Hawthorne offers several contrasts in The Birthmark both thematically and characterwise. Foremost among these dichotomies is the conflict between heavenly and earthly love. At
the core of the story is a love relationship between Aylmer and Georgiana, despite the narrators
claim to the contrary (421). The birthmark is a constant reminder to Aylmer that no matter how
hard he tries, his love for Georgiana would always be less than perfect. Instead of accepting this,
Aylmer tries to fix the physical representation of this imperfection, the birthmark. Another source
of contrast in the story is mentioned in the form of science versus nature. If viewed as an
allegory, Aylmer represents science as he tries to perfect nature in the form of Georgiana, but
inevitably fails. Hawthorne is not condemning science altogether but advocates for a balance
between the two forces for the greatest understanding and harmony. The third but arguably the
most important differing ideas in The Birthmark is the struggle between the divine and the
earthly. Aylmer with his intelligence and graceful speech symbolizes the spiritual part of
humanity while the brutish Aminadab represents the physical element of mankind. Georgiana
epitomizes a human being trapped between these warring natures who gets destroyed in the

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process. Aylmers failure to make peace with the two sides of humanity eventually costs him
Georgiana, the love of his life.
The style of writing pioneered by Gabriel Garca Mrquez in this story is known as
Magical Realism. Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell define it as a story that expands the
categories of the real to encompass myth, magic and other extraordinary phenomena in Nature or
experience which European realism excluded (McGuirk 45). Mrquez uses it to blend reality
and fantasy together so tightly that the lines between each become blurry. This is seen most
clearly in the narrators description of the old man. Fantastical elements like as commonplace as
the filth that surrounds him in his chicken coop. Even the doctor remarks on how naturally the
old man wings connect to the rest of his body. Though there was some debate on whether the old
man was an angel, everyone including the narrator, accept without question that this really was
an old man with wings. This familiarization of the supernatural creates a sense of tension with
the reader as he does not know what is real or fantasy. As stated by Faulkner, The striking
images and sudden surprises stimulate the reader's senses and imagination, but also frustrate and
complicate our efforts to fix a definite meaning to events (Faulkner 32). Mrquez validates both
the magical and the ordinary, saying it is important, perhaps even necessary to look through both
lenses in our viewing at the world.
On first glance, Gabriel Garca Mrquezs A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings and
Nathaniel Hawthornes The Birthmark appear to be dissimilar in every way. These two stories
were published at different times in different places with different styles. However, A Very Old
Man with Enormous Wings and The Bookmark share an important characteristic: they both
encourage the readers to see both the physical and spiritual beauty in any situation they may find
themselves. Only then can they fully appreciate the world around them in its entirety.

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Works Cited
Faulkner, Tom. "Overview of ''A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. Short Stories for
Students. Presenting Analysis, Context and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories.
Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 1999.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Birthmark The Norton Introduction to Literature. 9 ed. Alison et
th

al, eds. New York: WW Norton, 2005. 313-324. Print.


Horne, Lewis B. "The Heart, the Hand and 'The Birthmark.'." American Transcendental
Quarterly 1 (1969): 38-41. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Rachelle Mucha and
Thomas J. Schoenberg. Vol. 89. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 1
Sept. 2015.
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings The Norton Introduction to
Literature. 9th ed. Alison et al, eds. New York: WW Norton, 2005. 140-148. Print.
McGuirk, Bernard, and Richard Andrew Cardwell. Gabriel Garca Mrquez: New Readings.
Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1987. 45. Academic Search Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Segel, Lawrence. "Arrogance, Quest for Perfection a Tragic Duo the Birthmark by Nathaniel
Hawthorne] Medicine in Literature Series]." Medical Post 34.20 (1998):
29. ProQuest. Web. 1 Sep. 2015.
Wentersdorf, Karl P. "The Genesis of Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark.'." Jahrbuch Fr
Amerikastudien 8 (1963): 171-186. Rpt. in Short Story Criticism. Ed. Rachelle Mucha
and Thomas J. Schoenberg. Vol. 89. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center.
Web. 1 Sept. 2015.