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Hawthorne at Salem

Hawthorne - Literature

The Birth-mark

Introduction to "The Birth-mark"

Material prepared by:
David Donavel , Department of English 
Masconomet High School, Topsfield, MA
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, Acc#121459)
 

Like many of Hawthorne’s stories, "The Birth-mark" illustrates the author’s idea that artistic or intellectual passion can separate an individual from common humanity and cause him, in the pursuit of the ideal, to lose touch with any regard for the flawed, but life sustaining real world by which he is surrounded. "The Birth-mark" is the tale of a marriage tragically and ironically flawed by the idea of perfection. By the time the scientist Aylmer takes the beautiful Georgiana for a bride, his heart has already been so tainted by his intellectual pursuits that the love he feels for her is inextricably intertwined with his devotion to science. Consequently, from the outset, however strong his affection for her might be, Georgiana cannot be for him simply a close and joyful companion of his heart, but also always something apart, an object of intellectual speculation, a problem to be solved.

The birthmark that gives the tale its title is a tiny crimson hand on Georgiana’s left cheek, something she has considered a "charm" until Aylmer admits to her that he finds it shocking, "the visible mark of earthly imperfection." Angry and hurt, Georgiana feels he cannot love what shocks him and together they decide that the best course is for Aylmer to use his tremendous scientific prowess to remove the birthmark, thereby repairing Nature’s flaws and making Georgiana perfect.

Toward this end and to make his wife as comfortable as possible, Aylmer remodels rooms adjacent to his laboratory. As claustrophobic as they are elegant, these rooms serve as a place of confinement for Georgiana during the period of time that Aylmer studies and experiments in the next apartment, aided by his Caliban-like assistant, Aminadab. (Whether it is a coincidence that this servant’s name spelled backwards read "Bad anima" is a question left to interpretation, as is the significance of such an oddity.) Unbeknownst to Georgiana, Aylmer is experimenting upon her during the greater part of her confinement and is learning that the birthmark is no superficial blemish, but rather has, as he says to her in a rare moment of honesty, "clutched its grasp into your being, with a strength of which I had no previous conception." He explains that he has one last possible remedy, but that it is fraught with danger and she, made miserable by his revulsion at her imperfection, nobly agrees to drink whatever potion he may concoct regardless of the risk. In the end, he does effect a "cure." The final treatment works; the birthmark disappears, but in ridding Georgiana of the offensive blemish, he also rids her of her life. The hand, we’re told near the story’s conclusion, was the "bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame," suggesting that to live is to be flawed and conversely that perfection can only be achieved in death. Georgiana’s beauty is complete, but her life has fled. It is as if Aylmer were the opposite of Pygmalion, a figure the story cites, in that his intellect turns the living woman into a statue whereas Pygmalion’s love brings the statue to life.

Passages Relating to Alienation in "The Birth-mark"

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, Acc#121459)
 

  • Despite the appearance of modesty in Aylmer's claim that it would be disruptive to nature to create what he is sure he can produce, the very claim itself exemplifies his intellectual pride, a pride that shines through the remainder of the passage, and the story as a whole. 
     
  • Aylmer's prophetic dream illustrates that he is more inclined to cherish his intellectual pursuits than the life of his spouse. The fact that he dreams a dark future for himself yet pursues it, underscores the chilliness of his own heart. 
     
  • This passage illustrates the temptations to which intellectuals are susceptible and to which Aylmer yielded even before meeting Georgiana. Like Roger Chillingworth of The Scarlet Letter, Aylmer enters marriage with a heart already so pledged to science that there remained little room for regular human affections. 
     
  • At the end, Georgiana dies; Aminadab, representative of all that's gross and tainted, laughs in triumph; and Hawthorne-and Georgiana-offer judgments of Aylmer's folly. Aylmer failed to appreciate that "the best the earth could offer," is necessarily tainted with mortality, but that, as the ending of the tale suggests, it may be possible to find the "perfect Future in the present" by abandoning a pursuit of the ideal, noble as that pursuit might be. One thinks, at this point of Owen Warland, the artist from "The Artist of the Beautiful" and the "far other butterfly" he finds that, in the end, brings him a kind of peace. 
     
  • As this passage makes clear, the birthmark on Georgiana's cheek "expressed the ineludible gripe, in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould." Aylmer's ambition, then, is nothing short of immortality for Georgiana and his distaste for the birthmark can be understood as antipathy for her very mortality, the quality that, ironically, makes her worth saving. To bring Georgiana to perfection is to bring her to stasis, or death. 
     
  • In his explanation to Georgiana of his ironically named poison, "the Elixir of Immortality," Aylmer's pride powerfully shows itself. The attitude he expresses is one demonstrative of the distance he feels from the commonality of mankind. 
     
  • In expressing utter confidence in his scientific skill, Aylmer not only misleads Georgiana, but also places himself proudly above Nature, purporting to repair what is imperfect in Nature's "fairest work." In comparing himself to Pygmalion he suggests that for him Georgiana is more object than companion and reminds the reader that where the myth moves from death to life, this tale moves in the opposite direction. 
     
  • In what may be Aylmer's most discouraging moment, we see him almost coolly observing Georgiana as her body struggles with the concoction he has prepared for her. His affection and concern for her, it appears, are overridden by his pursuit of knowledge. Georgiana's last episode becomes another entry in his chronicle of experiments. 
     
  • That Georgiana is no mere victim is made clear in this disturbing passage. She appears almost eager to sacrifice herself on the altar of her husband's idealism, an impulse matching her husband's pride and consistent with the characterization of herself she offers at her death as "the best the earth could offer." 
      Full text of "The Birth-mark"

Criticial Commentary Relating to Alienation in "The Birth-mark"

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, Acc#121459)
 

  • Excerpt from Hawthorne and Women Engendering and Expanding the Hawthorne Tradition Ed. John Idol and Melinda M. Ponder (courtesy of University of Massachusetts Press) (Excerpt taken from the introduction to the bibliography) John Idol and Melinda Ponder clearly imply that it is Aylmer's discontent with his mortal bride, Georgiana, that leads to her demise.
     
  • Excerpt from Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorneby Melissa McFarland Pennell (courtesy of Greenwood Press) In showing that Hawthorne connects Aylmer to alchemy and sorcery, Melinda Pennell draws our attention to his overriding intellectual pride, one that leads him to believe he will someday penetrate the very secrets of life. This alienating pride, this fascination with potentially dark forces, suggests a connection between Aylmer and Old Mother Rigby, the artist-witch of "Feathertop."
     
  • Excerpt from Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by Melissa McFarland Pennell (courtesy of Greenwood Press) In this passage Melissa Pennell makes clear that Aylmer's obsession with perfection has driven him from the possibility of heartfelt sympathy with Georgiana, and probably with anyone else. Like many of Hawthorne's artist or intellectuals, Aylmer is alienated.
     
  • Excerpt from Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne by Melissa McFarland Pennell (courtesy of Greenwood Press) Melinda Pennell's suggestive observations on the setting of "The Birth-mark" help the reader see that the world in which Aylmer is most comfortable is one lacking connection both to common domestic comforts and to the life-giving light of the sun, further evidence of his alienation.

     
  • Excerpt from Hawthorne: A Life by Brenda Wineapple (courtesy of Knopf Press) Wineapple discusses the "deadly ambivalence about women and, more broadly, sexual bodies and fatherhood" that permeates the stories Hawthorne wrote in the years just after his marriage and in this excerpt asserts that one of those stories, "The Birth-mark," is, in a sense, "a fantasy of abortion" (pp.174-175). 

     
  • Excerpt from "The Meanings of Hawthorne's Women," lecture delivered Dr. Richard Millington, Smith College. at The House of the Seven Gables Historic Site on September 8, 2000 Dr. Millington points out that "The Birth-mark" is one of a number of Hawthorne's stories that presents male characters as rejecting "the invitation to full, complex, and human life offered by their female counterparts." 

     
  • Excerpt from "Hawthorne and Melville," lecture delivered by Dr. David Kesterson, University of North Texas, at the Phillips Library, the Peabody Essex Museum on September 23, 2000 (courtesy of the author) In this excerpt Dr. Kesterson discusses the links between Melville's Billy Budd and Hawthorne's story "The Birth-mark." Full text of "The Birth-mark"

Learning Activities Related to "The Birth-mark"

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, Acc#121459)
 

1. Both Owen Warland in "The Artist of the Beautiful" and Aylmer in "The Birth-mark" strive to achieve something fine and ideal and in both stories they achieve their goals. What price do they pay for their achievements? What are the effects of their ambitions on their relationships with others? What are their differences between the two characters and what do those differences show us?

 

2. In the myth, Pygmalion, a sculptor convinced of the faultiness of women, resolves to remain unmarried. Nevertheless, he falls in love with one of his own creations: a beautiful marble statue of a young maiden and prays to the gods that they send him a woman just like her to be his bride. Listening to his prayers, Venus, brings Pygmalion's statue to life and when he returns to his home, he is delighted to find that the marble figure as become a real woman. Venus blesses the wedding between the two.

Hawthorne makes direct allusions to the Pygmalion myth in both "Drowne's Wooden Image" and in "The Birth-mark." How do Drowne and Aylmer act as latter day Pygmalions? How do their stories differ from the original and from each other and, most important, what can we learn from these difference? 

 

3. This learning activity is the activity submitted by Donna Reiss, Professor of English at Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, VA for "Rappaccini's Daughter" but edited for a focus on "The Birth-mark" which she also addresses in that activity.

Two of Nathaniel Hawthorne's best-known short stories are excellent companions to a reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: "The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter." Like Frankenstein, they dramatize the impact of science and technology on human behavior and relationships. Although set in the nineteenth century, these works provoke our thinking about similar issues in the current century and help set the stage for an exploration of these issues throughout the twentieth century. This Explore activity is relevant for both "Rappaccini's Daughter" and "The Birth-mark."

As you read "The Birth-mark," consider the list of ideas and topics below that are also related to Frankenstein. I recommend that you review the Frankenstein Project Guidelines for suggestions such as the following:

  1. Ethics and science (responsibility of scientists)
  2. Relationship between creator/inventor and creations/inventions
  3. Educational approaches and curricula
  4. Relationships among families and friends
  5. Impact of obsessions on self and others

Many scholarly resources are available for research into Hawthorne, including the literary and historical resources available through TCC Libraries and Online Resources.

The Literature section of the Hawthorne in Salem Website has several topics that you can relate to your reading of "The Birth-mark." Even when the sources do not refer specifically to that story, sometimes the authors of the online articles discuss other Hawthorne works in ways that you can recognize as similar to "The Birth-mark." In particular, the sections titled "Women in Hawthorne" and "Alienation" might be of interest.

· In addition, the Explore section links to some graphical and resources and other commentary that might interest you. Ideas of good and evil, for example, are emphasized in the Faith and Religion section.

Lectures and Articles Related to "The Birth-mark"

Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840
Portrait of Nathaniel Hawthorne by Charles Osgood, 1840 (courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA, Gift of Professor Richard C. Manning, Acc#121459)
 

Echoes of Hawthorne in Melville's Billy Budd: an essay by Dr. John W. Stuart, Department of English 
Manchester-Essex Regional High School, Manchester, MA, prepared for the Hawthorne in Salem Website, November 2003

Melville's novelette Billy Budd connects with Hawthorne in several respects: I.) an allusion to Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark"; II.) tensions of same sex relationships that mirror situations in both the real lives and fictional narratives of Hawthorne and Melville; and III.) a preoccupation with the nature of evil, an ongoing subject of fascination for both authors.

"Playing with the (Birth) Mark: Aylmer’s Failed Attempt to Achieve Perfect Whiteness," paper by Dr. John Gruesser, Department of English, Kean University, delivered at the American Literature Association Conference in May, 2001.

"Neoconservative Nathaniel: Bioethics and 'The Birth-Mark'", paper 
by Albert Keith Whitaker,Boston College, delivered at the conference of the 
Nathaniel Hawthorne Society, celebrating the Hawthorne bicentennial in Salem, 
MA, July 1-4, 2004