An epiphany is a moment of great or sudden revelation. In many of his stories, Nathaniel Hawthorne brings his characters to a moment of epiphany. In Young Goodman Brown, the protagonist learns that the people that he believed were good and pious were involved in a secret dark society. In The Birth-Mark, Aylmer discovers that the cure that he developed to remove Georgiana's birthmark works, but it causes her death. In his essay, "Fire, Flutter, Fall, and Scatter: A Structure in the Epiphanies of Hawthorne's Tales," Martin Bidney states that "epiphanies are typically the creative center, the imaginative climax, of Nathaniel Hawthorne's tales" (58). Hawthorne used epiphanies in his character's stories to illustrate a moment of truth, where the protagonist has an opportunity to make a change in his behavior or way of thinking.
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In The Birth-Mark, Aylmer is never described as a perfect specimen of beauty. His discoveries in science are extolled highly by the scientific community. Many were surprised that he found the time to get married because of his commitment to science and research. Georgiana was a beautiful woman, and her birthmark was believed by some to be a mystical blessing from nature. She mentioned to her husband that she had begun to believe the idea that it was a charm, rather than some repulsive disfiguring blemish.
Aylmer is warned in a dream about removing the birthmark on Georgiana's cheek. Georgiana tells Aylmer that she awoke to hear him say, "It is in her heart now; we must have it out" (The Birthmark). Aylmer could have realized his arrogance and accepted Georgiana as the gift that she was. Instead, he became all the more obsessed with performing the experiment, much like the eponymous mad scientist in Frankenstein. Aylmer was so sure of his success and had such faith in his understanding of science that he seemed to have assumed a "divine right over others" (Fairbanks 103). Georgiana had become nothing more than a possession to him, and one might wonder whether he really loved her. Aylmer can no longer make rational decisions because he is so overdosed on ego.
Aylmer is given another warning that the cure that he believes will remove Georgiana's mark is poison. He produces an experiment that he has been growing in a flower pot, and the flower grows out of the soil before her eyes. Aylmer encourages her to pluck the flower and inhale its perfume. But when she touches the flower, it dies immediately. Aylmer dismisses the failure by saying that the stimulus was too powerful. He tries to distract her by taking her picture, but the resulting image is blurry, while the birthmark is quite prominent. Aylmer is spooked by the picture and throws it into corrosive acid. He never considers that these failures might be warning signs that his science is not infallible as he believes. He continues with the experiment, and even as Georgiana is dying, he fails to realize that his meddling with science is at fault. "In the epiphanic climax of elixir drinking, as Georgiana's senses are 'closing over' her 'spirit' like 'leaves around the heart of a rose at sunset'"(Epiphanies 69), Aylmer observes with scientific detachment, and chalks up the entire thing to a failed experiment. The saddest thing about this story is that there is no great sorrow exhibited by Aylmer at the loss of his wife. The author's lament in the last paragraph is not echoed by Aylmer, and there is not any evidence that this experience changed him at all. "Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present" (The Birthmark).
In Hawthorne's stories, an epiphany is not always good news. It is a moment of revelation, but the revelation does not always mean something positive. Goodman Brown finds out in his midnight walk that the opinions that he held about the people in his community were not true. The people who attended church and held positions of leadership were assumed to be pious and holy, but one night in the woods changed that.
Goodman Brown takes a journey into the woods, and meets up with the devil. He is inclined to put a stop to the walk with the devil several times during the experience, but his attempts are half-hearted and his strong protests ring hollow because he doesn't follow through with action. He informs the devil that he is a good Puritan, and such people do not associate with evildoings and dark walks in the woods with unsavory characters. The devil laughs heartily and mocks him. As the story continues, Goodman Brown observes various people from the town that are making their way to a meeting in the woods. Goody Cloyse, Deacon Gookin, and the minister make an appearance in the dark wood. They discuss the horrible things that they do when they think no one is around to see them, and they have a good laugh. Goodman Brown is shocked to hear their speech, but he is even more shocked when he enters the clearing and sees what is going on. All of the people from the town that he thought were good Christians were performing some kind of satanic ritual, along with a group of unsavory characters with whom they would never associate themselves in the light of day. Goodman Brown noted that "it was strange to see that the good shrank not from the wicked, nor were the sinners abashed by the saints" (Young Goodman Brown).
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As he is drawn into the wicked circle, he notices that Faith is also in attendance. She is the other young person who is being initiated into this evil congregation. He is rightfully shocked, and "the aspersions this horrid epiphany scattered on Goodman's love and 'Faith' took the light from his heart" (Epiphanies 82). Goodman Brown has an epiphany that not only are the "Christians" just as wicked as any carousing drunk in the tavern, but also his beloved Faith is among their ranks. He shouts to Faith to resist evil, and at that moment he wakes in the woods alone. Was it a dream? To Goodman Brown it doesn't matter. He "is unable to understand or accept the evil revealed to him in the forest of the soul," he "loses faith in the reality of the good, and lives the rest of his long life in gloomy alienation" (Waggoner 16). Goodman Brown is profoundly affected by what he sees in the woods. He "concludes that his Faith is gone, there is no good on earth, and sin is only a name" (Gale 170). His epiphany does not bring about a change for the better in his life, and "he becomes a desperate man hearing evil and blasphemy in church anthems and sermons" (Gale 171).
Hawthorne's use of epiphany intertwined with the climax of the story creates a powerful emotional moment for the characters and for the readers. Perhaps Mr. Hawthorne is warning his audience that moments of revelation can sneak up on a person, and if they miss it, they can spend the rest of their lives in regret. Aylmer's "quest for a scientific ideal destroys Georgiana" (Male 84). Goodman Brown was "baffled and benumbed by the ambiguity of good and evil he discovers in his Faith" (Male 71). He lives a long and sad life, and appears to make everyone around him miserable as well. Hawthorne used epiphany to convey to his audience that they are just as capable of missing a moment of clarity, and this mistake could be as costly as it was for Aylmer and Goodman Brown.
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