Art versus life in Hawthorne and Poe

Butterfly etchingPoe’s The Oval Portrait and Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful both illustrate the Romantic artist’s preoccupation of art in favour of everyday life, but reach very different conclusions.

In Poe’s story, a painter’s portrait of his wife consumes him. Initially the painting is a tribute to the real woman, ‘proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her’. Becoming ever more obsessed with the painting in favour of the woman, on completion he remarks ‘This is indeed Life itself!’, only to see that his wife has died.

There are many similarities between Poe’s story and Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful. Like Poe’s painter, Owen Warland dedicates himself to ‘putting spirit into machinery’, to the detriment of his profession and relationships. After shunning his would-be sweetheart Annie Hovenden, he loses touch with the outside world. When he has finally created the mechanism, Annie is married and has a child.

Whereas Poe’s story is a straightforward indictment of favouring art over life, Hawthorne’s story is more complex. Initially, butterflies symbolise to Warland a ‘beautiful idea’ that he aspires to mimic with machinery. When he succeeds, the mechanism is, to all intents and purposes, a butterfly. Whether or not he is its creator has become irrelevant: he now appreciates the majesty of the real butterfly. When the butterfly is crushed by Annie’s wilful child, Warland – who created the box showing an image of a boy in pursuit of a butterfly – understands that the search for the beautiful is itself the ‘beautiful idea’.

There is a striking difference between the stories. Poe suggests that favouring art over life results in the loss of corporeal treasures, leading to despair. While Hawthorne’s story supports this incompatibility of approaches, it suggests that pursuing an artistic ideal is a noble undertaking, with transcendent rewards.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 05 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

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