Bodies and Morals: Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" and Neil LaBute's the Shape of Things

By Keetley, Dawn | Literature/Film Quarterly, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Bodies and Morals: Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" and Neil LaBute's the Shape of Things


Keetley, Dawn, Literature/Film Quarterly


Judith Fetterley has famously argued that Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark" is a story about "how to murder your wife and get away with it" (22). The protagonist of Hawthorne's story, a scientist named Aylmer, comes out of his lab long enough to marry a beautiful woman with a birthmark on her cheek - a "bloody hand," as some called it (1 19). Strangely, although he "thought little or nothing of the matter before" (119), after the wedding, Aylmer becomes obsessed with removing the birthmark, thus rendering his otherwise flawless wife perfect. In his attempt to remove nature's defect, however, Aylmer ends up killing his wife, demonstrating not only how to murder your wife, but also why. In Aylmer, Hawthorne brilliantly embodies a man devoted to the life of the mind - to the transcendence of nature - and he shows how such a man becomes gripped with revulsion when confronted with the female body. And while many readers have perceived some sympathy for Aylmer on Hawthorne's part, it is also clear that Hawthorne not only sketches the dynamics of a man's dread of a woman's corporeality, but that he also condemns it.

Hawthorne is indisputably a moralist, concerned with the ethical implications of his characters' intentions and actions, so it may seem odd to pair him with a writer, Neil LaBute, who has been accused of being anything but. In a review of LaBute's shortstory collection, Seconds of Pleasure, Jonathan Dee argues that there is a fundamental "vacuum" in the "moral dimension" of LaBute's work - that he evades the difficult job of showing human motivation, "human beings choosing, whether nobly or foolishly, from a range of potential actions and in the face of some sort of internal or external opposition." LaBute's characters, Dee writes, do "things for no reason at all" (89). I argue, on the contrary, that LaBute, like Hawthorne, is deeply concerned with the often-buried reasons for people's actions and with the moral nature and consequences of those actions. Indeed, LaBute grapples with the same moral issues that Hawthorne does, including the origins and the consequences of men's often violent fear of women's fundamentally different bodies.1

In "Perfect," a story that directly references Hawthorne and "a short story of his that had to do with some flaw in an otherwise lovely woman" (12), LaBute describes a man who, like Aylmer, becomes obsessed with an imperfection in his wife - an imperfection, moreover, that, also like Aylmer, he did not notice before marriage: "I swear I never saw it when we first met [. . .] I had no idea that it even existed then, back in our courting days" (5). The physical intimacy of marriage ushers in his obsession, and her "skin thing" becomes not only visible but perpetually haunting (5) - and finally so disgusting to him that he wants to "throw up" when he sees it (10). Indeed, the protagonist states that the "wart cluster on my wife's flesh is slowly, methodically killing me" [G). The story ends with the protagonist confessing his fantasy of pinning his wife on the floor "as I plunge a potato peeler or something else suitably sharp into the offending mound and tear it from her body" (15). As in "The Birthmark," then, a far-less-than-perfect man's desire to perfect his wife, to remove a fetishized flaw that ultimately stands in for an inevitably sexualized and inherently abject female body, leads to fantasies of violence: behind the desire to perfect lies the "need to eliminate" (Fetterley 24). Both Hawthorne and LaBute illuminate how this seeming paradox works - how the urge to perfect an imperfect woman masks an aggression directed at the intolerable fact of women's material presence.

Although the most explicit, "Perfect" is not the only work of LaBute's to echo Hawthorne's fictional preoccupations. First performed in London in 2001, The Shape of Things, written and directed by LaBute, was released as a film in 2003. Evoking Hawthorne in its exploration of the attempt to conquer nature, The Shape of Things is about a woman who is obsessed with her lover's perfection, and her raw material, the object of her experiment, is a man. …

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