Imperfectly Perfect

My niece’s essay on the pitfalls of blindly seeking perfection is as timely today as when the short stories on which it is based were written.

Based on The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver and The Birthmark, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Physical perfection is something our society places great value in. There are multi-billion dollar industries devoted to health, fitness, anti-aging, cosmetic surgery, skin, make-up, hair; the list goes on and on. It’s often this focus on perfection, to the exclusion of all else, that prevents us from seeing and appreciating the beauty and form that can be found in the world and in the people around us.

This is the case for the main characters, in The Cathedral, by Raymond Carver and The Birthmark, by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Written almost 140 years apart, these short stories tell, in compelling and tragic ways, the age-old story of man’s illusive search for and focus on perfection, and the often uncomfortable, almost dismissive way we perceive imperfection, disability, and physical defects in others.

In laying the groundwork for both stories, Carver and Hawthorne focus first on the actual physical defects and imperfections of Roger and the scientists wife, Georgiana, before moving on to the transformation that takes place in both husbands as the stories progress. 

In the beginning of The Cathedral, Carver provides the foundation for the central premise of the story by describing the relationship, the main character’s wife has with Roger, a blind gentleman she’d met some years before their marriage. Roger has recently lost his wife to cancer and is coming for a visit. “A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to,” Carver wrote, admitting that his ideas on blindness mostly came from the movies.

Likewise, in The Birthmark, the scientist, Aylmer, although in his mind he loves his wife and thinks her beautiful, is focused so single-mindedly on the small hand-shaped birthmark upon her cheek, that soon this all he sees. After asking his wife if she’s ever considered that “the mark upon your cheek might be removed,” Aylmer is dismayed when Georgianna replies that she had not, seeing the mark as a “charm” instead, as it had often been called. Aylmer’s response that “upon another face” the mark might be considered thus, but not on hers deeply hurts Georgianna. ”No dear,” he says, “Nature made you so perfectly that this small defect shocks me as being a sign of earthly imperfection.”

Hawthorne’s use of the word “shock” here is especially poignant, since that is the emotion, we most commonly feel when faced with deformities and physical imperfections. We try not to stare, but in the end, like both men in the stories, the defect is often all we see.

As The Cathedral, progresses, Roger and his host find themselves sharing drinks and smokes before the television on which a documentary about cathedrals is playing. Having the benefit of sight, the host feels compelled to provide Roger with a synopsis of what’s being shown on the screen. While Roger can hear perfectly, the man is acutely aware that he can’t see and so “waits as long as he can before feeling he has to say something.”

Roger begins asking questions about some of the details the man is describing. For example, at one point the man mentions the cathedral’s paintings and Roger asks, “Are those fresco paintings, bub?” To which the man replies, “That’s a good question,” but that he doesn’t know.  It then occurs to him, that Roger in fact, may not even know what a cathedral is, having never actually seen one. This is the point in the story when the host’s preconceived notions about Roger will be challenged most.

The evolution of Aylmer and Georgiana in The Birthmark, occurs in a similar fashion. Georgianna becomes increasingly aware that her husband’s focus is not on her, but rather on the birthmark on her cheek.

“With the morning light, Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face and recognized the sign of imperfection. When they sat together in the evening near the fire, he would look at the mark,” Hawthorne describes.  Soon, Georgiana “began to fear his look,” and agrees to having him remove the mark through scientific means.

All things are literally better, lovelier, and more beloved for the imperfections which have been divinely appointed, that the law of human life may be Effort, and the law of human judgment, Mercy.


Ruskin

Hawthorne describes Georgianna’s trust in Aylmer’s scientific prowess, but also her apprehension going in. Following the description of Aylmer’s dream about his failed attempt at removing the mark, there’s an undercurrent that the outcome of this actual attempt will not be a good one.

The transformation that occurs in Roger’s host and Aylmer by the end of each story is markedly different, yet the underlying message is the same. In The Cathedral, Roger answers his hosts inquiry about whether he knows what a cathedral is with the detailed facts he has gleaned from listening to the television. Facts, it is apparent, the host himself has not picked up on since he focuses on what he sees rather than on what’s being said. 

Roger asks his host to describe the cathedral and in doing so, his host soon realizes that providing this description is quite a bit harder than he’d imagined it would be. “You’ll have to forgive me,” he finally says, “But I can’t tell you what a cathedral looks like. It just isn’t in me.”

Roger than suggests getting “a pen and some heavy paper” so they can draw one. It’s the experience of drawing the cathedral with Roger that ultimately changes the host’s perception of blindness and Roger himself. With Roger’s hand covering his, they begin to draw, in great detail, the cathedral that just moments before he’d been trying desperately to describe. By the end of the story, though he can see the world perfectly, he realizes that maybe he has suffered from “blindness” as well, and that Roger, even with his defect, has viewed the world with much more clarity.

In The Birthmark, the transformation of Aylmer is much more tragic and heartbreaking. Trusting implicitly in Aylmer’s scientific skill, Georgianna, though fully aware of the risks, agrees to try whatever Aylmer proscribes. By the final attempt Aylmer is certain “the chemical process went perfectly.” After testing the clear liquid on a plant, he gives it to Georgiana who drinks it trustingly.

Sitting by his wife and taking notes on the changes occurring, Aylmer is once again so focused on the now fading birthmark that he doesn’t see his wife’s imminent death. “My poor Aylmer,” Georgina says, before taking her last breath, “You have aimed so high. With so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the Earth could offer. I am dying, dearest.”  

As Hawthorn states at the end of the story, Aylmer’s focus on his wife’s meaningless imperfection cost him her life and along with it his own chance for happiness, “In trying to improve his lovely wife, he failed to realize she had been perfect all along.”

While the endings of The Cathedral and The Birthmark are very different, the message is the same. Roger’s host and Aylmer both discover that what they perceive as defective and imperfect are actually the things that make Roger and Georgianna who they are, and in reality, perfect just as they exist. True beauty, after all, goes much deeper than the just the surface and the skin. By focusing only on the imperfections confronting them, both men are incapable of appreciating these imperfectly perfect human beings.

For one the transformation comes too late. For the other, the opportunity to learn a beneficial lesson and experience a change of heart is provided by the blind man himself. By the end of The Cathedral, Roger’s host realizes that his “sight” had in fact, improved markedly when his eyes were closed. 

by Taylor Derbes