September 18th, 2013
Learning to Embrace the Imperfect
The poem "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" by William Wordsworth and the short stories "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne and "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman focus on our tunnel-vision as humans to search for perfection and overall great success. The event I attended this week featuring Odds Bodkin told the story of Homer's "Iliad" and had similar themes with gods and goddesses fighting to be the greatest and fairest. In William Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" the speaker enjoys and focuses on nature as a means of distracting himself from his faults and sadness. In "The Yellow Wallpaper" the speaker is not seeking perfection or great change for herself, but her significant other is. His obsession with making her "better" and perhaps more normal to his standards ends up driving her to madness. Lastly, Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" is delves deepest into our innate sense to change ourselves for the benefit of seeming perfect and in this case, beautiful to others. Hawthorne's story has the most dramatic ending, with a character dying after a failed pursuit at changing her looks to appease her obsessed husband. It can be gathered by this poem and stories that striving so hard to reach perfection and not embracing what we are given often ends with us loosing ourselves.
The speaker who seems to deal with the struggle of wanting to lead a better life the healthiest is the speaker in " I wandered Lonely as a Cloud." Although the speaker admits to being lonely and having times "when on my couch I lie in vacant or pensive mood" he also addresses what makes him happy (Wordsworth, 635). He walks through a sea of daffodils and uses the beauty and peacefulness of nature to relax and let go of his problems. The issues the speaker may have are not resolved permanently but he embraces the little things when he states "They flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude; and then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils" (Wordsworth 635). Interestingly, this poem is the only piece we had to read that ends in a successful way.
Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" is a short story written based off the authors own experience as a woman suffering from depression in and around the 19th century. The speaker begins the story explaining that she is married to a practical doctor and is suffering from "a slight hysterical tendency" (Perkins Gilman, 388). When the story begins the speaker is engaging and seems relatively well, even debating her husbands orders to be bed ridden. Throughout the story we are painted a picture of the relationship between the speaker and her husband, John. She continuously repeats that she must hide her writing from him, hints that he brushes off her condition, and many times tells her how and what to think. Some examples of this is when she says "John does not know how much I really suffer. He knows there is no reason to suffer, and that satisfies him" (Perkins Gilman, 389) or "he says no one but myself can help me out of it, that I must use my will and self-control, and not let my silly fancies run away with me"(Perkins Gilman 393). At this time this type of treatment of women was not uncommon, they were seen as the weaker sex, ones who were unable to think for themselves and who were by association dependent on men. The fact that the speaker also hints to being anxious around her newborn baby could be a sign she is suffering from postpartum depression, something that up until recently was not socially acceptable to speak about. Her husband keeping her confined and denying her outside contact and outlets to unwind ultimately backfires. The confinement is what ends up pushing her to her end, she is so lost in her own mind and seclusion she begins to have frightening visions of a woman who wanders the walls and the house. Had her husband and others given her support instead of judgment , and approval instead of forcing change, perhaps she would have gotten better. This story did not focus necessarily on perfection, but on the unfortunate trait that many people possess of wanting to change others to their liking.
A similar dynamic of a disapproving husband and an unhappy wife can be seen in "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this short story we as readers are introduced to Aylmer and his wife Georgiana, who has a hand-shaped birthmark on her face. Aylmer despises the birthmark uttering things such as " you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me" (Hawthorne, 467). Georgiana begins to wear emotionally as the story rolls on, first getting embarrassed my the mark and then growing to despise it due to her husbands various remarks and actions. Aylmer, in being a fairly cocky and self-involved scientist, makes the birthmark his next experiment and hints over and over that it should be removed. His obsession with creating the perfect version of his wife drives her to a state of depression where she says "life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!" (Hawthorne 469). This statement proves to be foreshadowing the ending of the story, where Georgiana passes away from the removal of the hand. Aylmer's ignorance towards what nature has created and obsession with what is on the outside ultimately leads to an already perfect women dying in vain.
Although Odd Bodkin's performance focused on stories written in a much earlier time than the others we read this week, there were still some over-arching themes that could be connected. There was a constant theme of a disrespect of women and focusing on them only based on their physical features, which was the demise of many of the men in the works we read. The women were not completely innocent, the goddesses spoken about were only focused on who was "fairest" and let this cause issues amongst all the gods and goddesses. The theme of searching for perfection roughly was described in this part of "Iliad" with the two fighting armies trying to find the strategy that will give them total domination, and many of these strategies also backfire. This story highlights the error of not having priorities straight.
These collections of stories opens our eyes to the materialistic and often shallow views we may have on ourselves and others. The ending to almost all of these stories was negative or sad, which leaves the reader questioning if focusing so much on perfection and imperfection can have the same ultimate effect on them. These works show that what makes us different is what should make us happy, not being the same mold everyone wants us to be.