Summary of The Birthmark
At the end of the last century (the 18th century), there was a proficient man of science living in the age of great discoveries, such as electricity. The scientists of that age had a philosophical belief they could lay their hands on the creative secrets of nature and make “new worlds.” This philosophic scientist, Aylmer, leaves his intellectual pursuits long enough to marry a beautiful woman, his beloved Georgiana.
Shortly after the marriage, the husband becomes troubled by a birthmark on his wife's cheek. He asks her if she ever thought of having it removed. She is surprised by this remark, saying many had considered her birthmark “ a charm.” The husband insists it is a sign of imperfection on her beauty. Georgiana is distressed that Aylmer finds her appearance “shocking,” as he has called the birthmark.
The narrator explains the birthmark is “deeply interwoven” into the texture of her cheek. When she blushes, it becomes indistinct. When she is pale, the birthmark looks like a bloody red hand. Her other suitors had thought it “magic,” a “fairy sign.” The birthmark is perceived differently by different observers. Aylmer, her husband, finds it repulsive, and this leads Georgiana to begin to loathe herself. She feels Aylmer has high ideals, and she cannot live up to them.
Aylmer, the perfectionist, decides the birthmark is a sign of human imperfection and wants to use his science to remedy that. He becomes obsessed with the idea of removing it. Soon he can no longer see her beauty, only the horror of the birthmark. One night he has a dream that the birthmark is so deep that when he and his lab assistant, Aminadab, try to remove it with a knife, they have to cut deeper and deeper. It is so deep it has infected her heart. Aylmer mumbles this in his sleep, and Georgiana wakes him up. She insists that he try to remove it at any cost, even if it causes her deformity or death, because she cannot stand his repulsion any longer. She asks if it is possible to remove a mark that was laid on her before birth. Aylmer is confident that he can correct Nature's flaw.
They seclude themselves in chambers off his laboratory where he became famous in Europe for his discoveries. His hairy, ape-like assistant, Aminadab, helps him make a beautiful boudoir for Georgiana, exclaiming if she were his wife, he would never part with the birthmark. In this chamber Aylmer amuses his wife, trying to impress her with his art. He creates unusual perfumes and optical illusions, pictures on a screen that seem lifelike. He causes a plant to grow instantly in a pot of soil, but when Georgiana picks the flower, the plant instantly dies. After this “abortive experiment” he tries to take her photograph on a metal plate, but her portrait is blurred while the birthmark is vivid.
He forgets his failures and tells her inspiring stories of famous alchemists who sought the secrets of nature and the elixir vitae for immortality. He says he can make such an elixir. Soon he returns with a vial of gold liquid claiming it gives immortality. In order to remove the birthmark, however, he will need something stronger. Georgiana begins to understand that he is already working on her as she smells a strange fragrance and feels painful sensations in the birthmark.
While Aylmer is out of the room she reads the books of alchemists such as Paracelsus, along with the Scientific Transactions of the Royal Society. Finally, she reads Aylmer's book of his own experiments and is saddened to find they are mostly failures. She does not find fault with him, but rather decides he is noble in his lofty attempts to conquer nature. She sees him as a “spirit burdened with clay and working in matter.” She weeps for his failures then sings him a song in her beautiful voice to encourage him.
Going into the laboratory, she sees Aylmer and Aminadab at work. The lab is dirty and ugly, with smoke and retorts, and a furnace. Aylmer looks anxious and not confident as before. He is upset to see Georgiana in the lab, accusing her of spying and ruining his work. He rushes to grab her arm, leaving the angry imprint of his hand as a red mark on her skin. She stands up to him, saying she has a right to know the dangers and share the responsibility. They must trust each other. He admits he has already given her enough chemicals to change her entire physical system. There is danger in going any further. When she consents, he says she is more noble than he thought. Georgiana prays she may satisfy Aylmer for one moment, because she knows she cannot do it longer than that.
To test the next drink he will give her, Aylmer pours some of it on a plant with yellow blotches on the leaves. The blotches fade. Georgiana drinks it and falls asleep while Aylmer observes her. For a moment he kisses the birthmark as it fades. When the birthmark is gone, she awakens and looks in the mirror. Then she forgives him for what he has done, for though the birthmark is gone, she is dying. Georgiana is at last perfect as she dies. Aminadab, the earthy man, chuckles at Aylmer the idealist's failure.
The narrator gives the moral of the story: “Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state.”Aminadab's chuckle is the mockery of the earth to those who seek to transcend the limitations of life. Aylmer failed to look beyond the shadow of time to eternity. He might have been content then to have what was present, thus weaving his mortal life with the celestial.
Commentary on “The Birthmark”
Hawthorne writes an allegory of the mad scientist who wants to find the secrets of nature and go beyond the common limitations of life, to correct nature or to control it. In this allegory he blends ideas from Western science and alchemy, making them into one quest of humanity for perfection. The story takes place in the 18th century when phenomena such as electricity were being discovered. Benjamin Franklin had demonstrated the connection of electricity and lightning in 1752. Luigi Galvani discovered bioelectricity in the body in 1791. This kind of modern scientific discovery is represented by Georgiana's reading the Transactions of the Royal Society in Aylmer's lab. The Royal Society is a learned scientific society in London still in existence, founded in 1660. Aylmer seems to be a distinguished scientist and to have prototypes of later real inventions, such as a primitive moving picture show and a camera.
Next to the book of scientific transactions, Georgiana finds and reads the more ancient texts of the alchemists, such as Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) who wrote an encyclopedia on alchemy, Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535) who combined alchemy and the occult, and Paracelsus (1493-1541) who used alchemy in medicine. Alchemy is popularly known as the art of trying to transmute common metals into gold. It was the forerunner of modern chemistry. It was also an ancient knowledge of medicine. The alchemists had lofty goals, such as finding an elixir that would make humans immortal. Aylmer shows Georgiana such an elixir that he has made. He also makes a plant grow instantly.
With the advances of Western science, alchemy was considered an attempt at magic or a philosophical folly, but Hawthorne lumps the two kinds of science together, practical and mystical, to show it is all the same quest of humans to outwit nature and death. Aylmer is a philosophical man who has ideals and aims high. He seems to forget his failures, ever the optimist about what can be achieved through human imagination. Aminadab's chuckle as he fails is the reality check on his idealism.
Many readers focus on Aylmer's repulsion for human and feminine flaws. Although Aylmer is what would now be called a dominant or even an abusive man, only aware of his wife's faults, Hawthorne does not draw a simple allegory with Aylmer as the villain. If read symbolically (poetically) instead of allegorically (emphasizing a black and white moral), Aylmer is a tragic hero because he fails through aiming too high and having egotistic illusions about fathoming nature's secrets. Even Georgiana admires her husband's idealism and his attempts to scale the heights of human ambition, to rival nature. She sees Aylmer as a noble hero, the human defeated by trying the impossible. Aminadab is the earthy realist who does not comprehend Aylmer's attempts to better nature. He would love Georgiana's birthmark as it is, he says. He laughs knowingly at the defeat of man who cannot enjoy what he has.
Aylmer, like Hawthorne himself, is obsessed with the idea of original sin. The ideas of Puritanism inform all of Hawthorne's work. He investigates the concept of the natural depravity of human beings, a doctrine of Calvinism. Aylmer sees the birthmark as the symbol of human evil. This idea of humans as flawed is opposed by his other obsession, his belief in the human ability to transcend nature and find a solution to correct it. Religion teaches the solution to original sin is to surrender to God to atone for it, but both science and alchemy in this story represent the optimism that humans can overcome nature and create perfection themselves. This optimism continues in the worldview of modern science, but Aylmer's punished arrogance is part of an even older worldview from Greek tragedy or Christianity. These two views, humans as flawed and humans as perfectionists, exist in the story side by side.
One hallmark of Hawthorne's style is this creation of oppositions that are never fully resolved in the story, such as original sin versus the idealism of science; knowledge versus faith; discontent versus acceptance, nobility versus failure. Although Hawthorne gives a moral at the end, it is stated as a paradox. It is not a simple moral that resolves the issues. The story, like Georgiana's birthmark, depends on the point of view of the reader. Some of Georgiana's suitors, and Aminadab, the lab assistant, see the birthmark as attractive. Aylmer sees it as imperfection and has to change his wife to suit his ideas. Similarly, different readers can find different meanings in the story. They can see Aylmer as arrogant or noble, Georgiana as loyal or foolishly subservient.
Hawthorne uses symbol, allegory, foreshadowing, irony, and ambiguity as techniques in his rich style of storytelling. An allegory is a story that teaches a moral. Seen as an allegory, the story shows that humans are not content with the limitations of life, but if they try to control life as in Aylmer's scientific experiment, it is an act of hubris (overreaching) that is punished. Read this way, the moral is black and white.
Hawthorne also uses symbol, an image that can suggest many things simultaneously, to create atmosphere and mystery. The birthmark is a symbol, but of what? Is it a symbol of Georgiana's innate imperfection, or Aylmer's imperfection that he cannot see his wife whole? Ambiguity leaves things unclear, so that more than one meaning can be found. Is there a villain in the story? A hero? Read from a deeper level, the story suggests the human condition itself where perfection and imperfection are deeply intertwined, as the birthmark on the cheek. Aylmer has been trained as a scientist not to be content with things as they are. He wants Mother Nature's secrets for his own use, and he plays God with the power of life and death, thinking his view of things is the truth.
Text: Hawthorne, Nathaniel, “The Birthmark” (1837), Feedbooks.com, pdf file from http://gutenberg.org