Compare and contrast a theme in Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" and Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street."

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Both stories can be read as showing the destructive outcome of desiring perfection in this world.

When he is first hired by the lawyer narrator who tells the story in "Bartleby the Scrivener," Bartleby works diligently, but then he stops entirely. Every time he is faced with a project, he says he "prefers not to" do it. At the end of the story, the lawyer hears that Bartleby once worked at the Dead Letter office in Washington, D.C., where letters that never arrived to their destinations were sent to be destroyed. His lawyer employer believes that, when constantly faced with poignant and sometimes tragic communication misfires, Bartleby became depressed. Bartleby eventually passively accepted institutionalization and death rather than continuing on in an imperfect world of communication failures.

Likewise, in "The Birthmark," Alymer longs for a more perfect world, and in his case a perfect wife, which he believes can only be achieved if he removes a birthmark on her face which runs deep into her body. He—and eventually Georgiana herself—come to desire the perfection they feel will be attained from removing the birthmark. Georgiana passively puts herself into her husband's hands, risking death, and eventually dying, rather than remaining imperfect in his eyes.

In both cases, a common theme emerges: the world cannot be made perfect. The desire for perfection leads to death. Becoming obsessed at the world's imperfection, be it through failed communication or a birthmark, is a road that leads to destruction.

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Both of these stories give us a picture of a person or persons on the outside—the Other. In Hawthorne's tale, this could be either Aylmer or Georgiana. Aylmer is a scientist and a type of misfit often depicted in nineteenth-century fiction. He's similar to Mary Shelley's Viktor Frankenstein except that he wishes not to create life, but to perfect it. His experiment to remove his wife's "flaw" backfires. She is an outsider herself, or is perceived as one, because of the birthmark.

In Melville's story, Bartleby is even more fully a stranger in his world—not because of a physical imperfection, but because he cannot adapt himself to the normal activities of human existence. He simply does not want to act, and he gradually withdraws from the real world into a fantasyland of isolation. In both Hawthorne and Melville we see characters who are—either intentionally or not—marginalized from society. They reject the mundane concerns that animate people around them and, as the scientist Aylmer does, strive for an impossible perfection—or, in a quite different and almost opposite way, like the pathetic clerk Bartleby, seek a kind of nirvana of inactivity, of nothingness. In each case it is an acceptance in an extreme form of their "Other" status.

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One theme shared by "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne and "Bartleby the Scrivener, A Tale of Wall Street" by Herman Melville is the thematic idea of freedom and dominance. While both stories address the theme, they approach it in differing manners.

In Hawthorne's, the question of domimance versus freedom centers symbolically on the conflict between science and nature. Science in Hawthorne's era was seen as the means by which humankind could finally dominate nature and tame its destructive power of disease and deformity. Alymer's quest to so dominate by removing Georgiana's birthmark lead to her death; therefore science has failed in its dominance of nature, as nature's course--death--wins out in the end.

In Melville's, the question of dominance versus freedom centers symbolically on the conflict of one individual (or group) with another. Melville explores the ideas of what constitutes an individual's freedom. Bartleby hasan idea of personal freedom that violates the socially acceptable ideas of freedom (it is to the lawyer's credit that Bartleby believes he is safe to exercise his idea of freedom). In the end, beacuse the lawyer feels compelled to assert society's idea of a proper display of freedom, Bartleby's personal freedom is dominated and he contributes to his own death.

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