The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne
In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Birthmark, the narrator introduces us to Aylmer, a brilliant scientist who spent his life studying nature extensively to the detriment of his own personal life. His wife, Georgiana, has been marked with a small, red birthmark on her cheek that most men found attractive all her life. Aylmer only sees this birthmark as a flaw and his desire for perfection can only result in death for Georgiana because becoming an ideal, perfect being means she cannot exist in this world.
He decides he is going to remove the birthmark to make his wife perfect, without knowing that by doing so he kills her. Aylmer sees Georgiana’s birthmark as a symbol of human imperfection, which results in hi insatiable desire to perfect her.
Tensions grew strong between the two and their marriage slowly began to suffer. One night, Aylmer dreamed that he had surgically removed the birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek and he goes on to explain to her this dream.
The more he cut into her birthmark, the deeper the birthmark went until it led to Georgiana’s very heart. He kept cutting and cutting until he cut through her heart to completely remove the birthmark. Once Georgiana hears this dream, she became infatuated with removing her birthmark so she could be perfect for her husband. Hawthorne warns us that the birthmark is deeply interwoven into Georgiana’s face. He does this through Aylmer’s dream that anticipates that the birthmark goes deeper than the surface. Little by little, Aylmer becomes so intertwined with his love of science and his love for Georgiana that he feels compelled to “correct with Nature left imperfect” (207). The death of Georgiana happens so quickly that there really is nothing that Aylmer can do to stop it.
Aylmer begins his procedure by taking Georgiana into his laboratory, where he has set up elixirs for her to drink. Once the elixir is ready, Georgiana drinks it and quickly falls asleep. As she lay there, the birthmark starts to fade entirely from her face. Once Georgiana wakes up, she tells Aylmer that she is dying and then she slowly passes. The moral behind this story is that no human can live as a perfect being, since we are naturally imperfect. In the article written by Lynn Shakinovsky, “The Return Of The Repressed,” she states that the birthmark is a metaphor for Georgiana’s identity, her sexuality, and her being.
Consequently, Aylmer does not realize that in removing the mark, he removes all there is of his wife. The narrator warns us by implying that the mark is “deeply interwoven with the texture and substance of her face” (37). Aylmer’s assistant, Aminadab, even comments that “if she were his wife, he would never part with that birthmark” (43), and even Georgiana herself says, “the stain goes as deep as life itself” (41). We are repeatedly warned that the birthmark has a significant importance and that it embodies more than just a physical imperfect.
The motif even surfaces in Aylmer’s dream: “the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart.” (40). Shakinovsky further analyzes the reasons for Aylmer meddling with science and nature. She states that, “For Aylmer, the mark supposedly represents Georgiana’s connection to earthliness, her lack of heavenly perfection, and is therefore unacceptable. The narrator shifts this view only slightly. Like Aylmer, he regards the mark as a blemish; he simply sees it as a blemish, which implies her true perfection. He cannot grasp the mark’s symbolizing quality, its capacity for multiple significations.” (7). The role of Georgiana’s character is analyzed more thoroughly in an article by Barbara Eckstein titled, “ Hawthorne’s The Birthmark: Science and Romance as Belief.”
She states that before Georgiana was married to Aylmer, “she had lovers to court her, a mother to protect her, and other women to compete with.” (4) Many men who had courted Georgiana thought of her birthmark as a “fairy mythology” and this always flattered her. Georgiana had no experience of her birthmark being a burden to her beauty and never expected Aylmer to wish the birthmark to be removed. Eckstein asserts that it was no shock that Georgiana was hurt and angered by Aylmer’s desire to remove her birthmark to make her perfect. She states, “ It is no wonder that soon after their marriage, when Aylmer proposes removing the crimson hand, that Georgiana is hurt and angered. Nothing in courtship has prepared her for this.” (4).
Throughout Georgiana’s life, romance has prepared her for submission in marriage, but not martyrdom. After many “seasons” (205) of being aware of Aylmer’s obsession to maker her perfect, Georgiana “voluntarily took up the subject” of removing her birthmark (206). Inevitably she becomes to see herself as a “burden” (207) and “a sad possession” (217). Eckstein suggests that Georgiana “is a victim who participates in her own destruction” (5) and ends up dying a martyr to romance. By surgically removing Georgiana of her imperfection, Aylmer also removes her of her humanity. Therefore by removing Georgiana of her flaws and creating her to be perfect, she can no longer live, because she is no longer a person.
The narrator implies that in one way or another, every living thing is flawed and that is nature’s way of telling us that every living thing will die. The birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek is truly only a blemish that does not take away from her perfect beauty and only marks her as human. Aylmer cannot get past his sense of disgust for Georgiana’s birthmark and this inevitably leads him astray. Aylmer becomes obsessed with his desire to perfect his wife and misinterprets the symbol of Georgiana’s birthmark. Aylmer’s desire to make his wife perfect only leads him to failure because perfection “is the exclusive province of heaven and can’t be found on earth.” (Shakinovsky 9). His desire for perfection can only result in death for Georgiana because becoming an ideal, perfect being means she cannot exist in this world. By the end of the story, Aylmer’s insatiable desire to control nature with science ends only in the loss of his wife and unhappiness.
Eckstein, Barbara. “Hawthorne’s The Birthmark’: Science and Romance as Belief.” Studies inShort Fiction. 26: 1989, 511-19. Shakinovsky, Lynn. “The Return Of The Repressed: Illiteracy And The Death Of The NarrativeIn Hawthorne’s `The..” Atq 9.4 (1995): 269. Academic Search Premier. Web. 26 Mar.2013. Quinn, James and Ross Baldessarini. ” ‘The Birthmark’: A Deathmark.” University of HartfordStudies in Literature: A Journal of Interdisciplinary-Criticism. 1981, 13: 2, 91-98. Zanger, Jules. “Speaking of the Unspeakable: Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark.’ ” ModernPhilolosopy. May 1983, 80:4, 364-71.
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