By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Birthmark’ is a short story by the nineteenth-century American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, first published in 1843. Although not as well-known as ‘Young Goodman Brown’ or ‘The Minister’s Black Veil’, ‘The Birthmark’ is an intriguing tale which, like those more famous stories, contains ambiguous symbolism within its straightforward plot.
You can read ‘The Birthmark’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Hawthorne’s story below.
‘The Birthmark’: plot summary
The protagonist of ‘The Birthmark’ is Aylmer, a ‘natural philosopher’ (what we would now call a ‘scientist’), who is revered throughout the scientific community for his genius. He is married to Georgina, who is praised for her beauty. However, Georgina has one glaring imperfection: her left cheek contains a birthmark or blemish, a small crimson mark in the shape of a hand.
Aylmer proposes to remove the birthmark so as to make his nearly-perfect wife completely perfect in every physical aspect. Georgina eventually agrees, trusting her husband’s talents, although she is initially hurt that he finds her birthmark so shocking to look at. She comes to the conclusion that she may as well risk the experiment, since she would rather die than continue to live with such a blemish, since it generates such horror in her husband.
Aylmer shows Georgina his laboratory where he conducts his experiments. She is later shocked when she finds his journal detailing the various experiments he has conducted, and vows to trust him when he experiments on her.
Aylmer, with the help of his servant, Aminadab, creates a potion which he demonstrates on a plant, bringing its leaves back to life. Satisfied that the potion will work, Georgina then drinks it down. She falls into a slumber, and Aylmer notices that, sure enough, the hand-shaped birthmark on his wife’s cheek is fading.
When she wakes up, Aylmer shows her that the birthmark has disappeared and he has been successful. However, his wife reveals that she is dying, and shortly after this she dies in front of him.
‘The Birthmark’: analysis
Like many of Hawthorne’s stories, ‘The Birthmark’ is, at bottom, allegorical: it is about the dangers of seeking perfection, especially human perfection, of all kinds, because to do so runs the risk of destroying what makes us ‘human’ in the first place. We use the phrase ‘you’re only human’ when someone acknowledges their own flaws or mistakes.
Georgina’s birthmark is a ‘flaw’ which makes her not only human, but the woman Aylmer married in the first place. It is deliberate on Hawthorne’s part that the birthmark only becomes a problem for Aylmer after he has married her.
The birthmark also represents Aylmer’s determination to use scientific means to change nature at all costs: at one point, he calls himself a ‘sorcerer’, and he has much in common with the older magicians in folklore and literature, such as Faust or that latter-day magician, Victor Frankenstein.
He views it as a challenge, his next great project, and is committed to removing it using his own ingenuity and experimentation. He is, in a sense, another fictional scientist playing God, using his powers to try to alter what God or Mother Nature have created. In the first paragraph of the story, Hawthorne tells us,
In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy.
This not only shows how Godlike men like Aylmer consider themselves, and their powers, to be; it also brings together the two loves of Aylmer’s life, his love of Georgina and his love of science. But in many ways his love of science will not only ‘rival’ but come to supersede his love for his wife, since he is prepared to risk her life (as proves to be the case) in order to remove the birthmark from her face.
A birthmark, in being a cosmetic defect, poses no danger to Georgina’s own health, but his own horror at it, and determination to rid himself of the ‘shudder’ which it inspires in him, convinces her to let him remove it at any cost.
Indeed, Aylmer’s dream is revealing in that, as so often in literary works, it acts as a premonition. Early on in ‘The Birthmark’, Hawthorne establishes a link between Georgina’s outward appearance, including that hand-shaped birthmark, and her inner self, symbolised by the heart: he describes the blemish as a ‘mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart’. Then comes his dream:
Aylmer now remembered his dream. He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark; but 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; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.
Despite this warning, Aylmer – supported by Georgina – remains determined to find a way of ridding his wife of this blemish, with the inevitable tragic results. He has triumphed in a scientific sense, but he has failed in a bigger one.
Indeed, if we wished to reduce ‘The Birthmark’ to a single ‘moral’ (a dangerous thing to do, but a handy ‘way in’ to the story), we could do worse than to summarise it as being about the dangers of focusing too much on one problem without taking into account the broader context of that problem.
Aylmer’s monomaniacal focus on his wife’s birthmark blinds him to her otherwise beautiful features, and he is not unlike the proverbial man who found a rat in his house so burned the place to the ground. In seeking to destroy one unwanted detail, he unwittingly destroys all of the things around it which he loved and treasured.