"The best that earth could offer": "The Birth-mark," a newlywed's story

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Author: Liz Rosenberg
Date: Spring 1993
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 30, Issue 2)
Publisher: Studies in Short Fiction
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,958 words

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story 'The Birth-mark' portrays a newlywed coming to terms with his wife's mortality and, in doing so, the imperfect and mortal aspects of human nature. The struggles of the protagonist, an idealist who searches for control over nature, is portrayed in terms of alchemy, animism and Emersonian Transcendentalism. The husband eventually comes to terms with mind/body dualism by seeing human nature as its own proof of divinity. This theme would posses Hawthorne's writing for the rest of his life.

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The Birth-mark" is a love story, like most of Hawthorne's greatest fiction, concerned with the relation between men and women. The "love" in Hawthorne's fiction seldom takes any other form--his women are not mothers but wives, not angels but household saints: even in one notable exception, Hester's relation to her daughter Pearl comes to seem peripheral to her union (or disunion) with Reverend Dimmesdale.

This question of marriage--and the larger issue of union and separation--has a special piquancy in "The Birth-mark," perhaps largely for biographical reasons. Written in 1843, it was Hawthorne's first work of fiction following his own marriage to Sophia. It remains clearly a newlywed's story, fresh with the author's anxieties, hopes, and fears. This very freshness helps make the story as peculiar in Hawthorne's oeuvre as it is characteristic. In "The Birth-mark" Hawthorne takes to task his own "etherealizing" protagonist; he reveals a deep suspicion of mind/body theories current in his time; and, strangest of all, he ends by praising the imperfect and mortal quality of human nature.

The story's problematic "hero," Aylmer, is a scientist, artist, aesthete--and newlywed. An idealist by nature and profession, he falls prey soon after his marriage to a haunting awareness of "his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death" (39), symbolized by the tiny birthmark on her cheek. This mark becomes to him "the spectral Hand that wrote mortality, where he would fain have worshipped" (39). Aylmer's personality resists this: his lifelong search, Hawthorne suggests, has been for "ultimate control over nature" (36).

"The Birth-mark" examines Aylmer's dilemma chiefly by way of three systems of thought: alchemy, animism, and Emersonian Transcendentalism. All three systems address the issue of union versus separation--all three also bear upon "marriage," in its larger context of spirit and matter.

Alchemical references and imagery recur throughout "The Birth-mark," as has been amply documented by Shannon Burns, David Van Leer and others. Aylmer's scientific aims are at one with alchemy, to "ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force, and perhaps make new worlds for himself" (36). Aylmer relates to his wife "a history of the long dynasty of the Alchemists," and his library is filled with alchemical and other pseudo-scientific works.

The alchemists' fundamental project stems from an ambition to "peer beyond the experimental veil in their search for an all-embracing cosmical scheme" (Read 24) and further, to effect this transformation by human will. This kind of overweening pride renders Chillingworth--Hawthorne's most famous alchemist--"a demon," and Ethan Brand "a fiend," since it suggests not only a supplanting of God's powers but a violation of the "Mystery of life." For Aylmer, as for Chillingworth and Ethan Brand, this pride leads inevitably to the Unpardonable Sin: "an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man, and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!" ("Ethan Brand" 90)

Aylmer is not only an alchemist, which is bad enough: he is a bad alchemist besides. As Burns points out, "The old alchemists searched for an integrated, unified personality; Aylmer wants a perfect and pure distillation" (Bums 154). According to Burns, the alchemical process "was carried out by a man and woman working together" (Burns 148) and several alchemical texts point to alchemy as a kind of marriage: "The Great Work . . . being equivalent to the marriage of the King and Queen" (Read 19) and "the conjunction of the masculine and feminine principles . . . sometimes indicated as a hermaphroditic figure or androgyne" (Read 17).

What Aylmer effects is not a marriage but his own wife's death, the ultimate divorce. Distillation leads to separation, separation to loss. Aylmer's failures arise from his confusion about spirit and matter. In 1841, Hawthorne had written to Sophia, at that time his fiancee, regarding mesmerism: ". . . what delusion can be more lamentable and mischievous, than to mistake the physical and material for the spiritual?" In Aylmer's "delusion," he mistakes Georgiana's physical imperfection for a spiritual one, and, in trying to cure her of her human nature, he kills her.

Animism--a word coined in the mid nineteenth century--is a system of thought that simultaneously conflates and divorces spirit and matter. The nineteenth-century animists believed that inanimate objects--stones, clods of earth--were imbued with spirit; they also believed in "the existence of soul or spirit apart from matter" ("Animism").

Aylmer's laboratory assistant or "under-worker" (43) is Aminadab, whose name is a reverse anagram for "bad anima." He embodies man's physical nature in its lowest form. Aylmer calls him "thou human machine ...thou man of clay!" (51), and "Ah, clod! Ah, earthly mass!" (55) Aminadab is a "clod" imbued with spirit, a "bad anima" of the almost-purely physical. Aylmer represents an opposite "bad anima," etherealized man who creates "Airy figures, absolutely bodiless ideas, and forms of unsubstantial beauty . . ." (44). Only in his repeated failures as a scientist does Aylmer reveal "the short-comings of the composite man--the spirit burthened with clay and working in matter . . ." (49).

Aminadab and Aylmer are alter-egos, mirror images. Aylmer is introduced to us as "an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy," while Aminadab enters as one "issued from an inner apartment, a man of low stature" (36, 43). Aylmer possesses "the higher nature," Aminadab "the grunt or growl of a brute" (49, 46). To make matters perfectly clear, Hawthorne tells us in an authorial aside that Aminadab "seemed to represent man's physical nature; while Aylmer's slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element" (43). What is "bad" in both is their lack of integration. Here, as elsewhere, Hawthorne reveals his distrust of polarizing extremes: "There is no surer method of arriving at the Hall of Fantasy, than to throw oneself into the current of a theory . . ." ("The Hall of Fantasy" 180). Fanaticism, Hawthorne suggests, kills the real.

Between Aylmer, the airy intellectual, and his "bad anima," the cloddish Aminadab, stands Aylmer's wife Georgiana--associated throughout the story with love, marriage, blood, and the heart. Her name, as Burns points out, is a feminized masculine, suggesting the "Two-thing" of the alchemical process, and perhaps also geo, "earth," poised between the "highest cloud-region" (42) of Aylmer and the underworld "furnace" of Aminadab. Georgiana's birthmark is controlled by her heart's blood, as is Georgiana herself: she feels the effects of Aylmer's remedy as a "tingling, half painfully, half pleasurably, at her heart" (48). In a story about the dangers of one-strandedness, Georgiana's failure of excessive heart-while to Hawthorne the most pardonable of sins--is ultimately deadly to her. As Barbara Eckstein has pointed out, "Romance is Georgiana's religion" (511) and she dies its martyr.

If the heart sees only the heart's truth, "The Birth-mark" indicates that it is nonetheless closer to reality than either abstraction or cloddishness. Georgiana differs from Aylmer and Aminadab not only in the nature of her failure but in her clear-sightedness. Aylmer never truly sees his wife; even when she is dying, he misperceives the true import of her symptoms. Aminadab, on the other hand, feels only the physical: he says, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birth-mark" and expresses "delight" in a "gross, hoarse chuckle" while Georgiana lies dying (43, 55). But Georgiana observes her husband's failures clearly, even while she admires him for his passionate convictions. She sees herself and her situation no less accurately: "Life is but a sad possession to those who have attained precisely the degree of moral advancement at which I stand. Were I weaker and blinder, it might be happiness. Were I stronger, it might be endured hopefully" (53). It is Georgiana who proposes the operation, Georgiana who first observes its failure: "My poor Aylmer! . . . Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer. Aylmer--dearest Aylmer--I am dying!" (55).

Aylmer--failed scientist, failed husband--is the very type and symbol of Emersonian Transcendentalism at its worst. He appears, indeed, almost a caricature of Emerson himself In his journals, Hawthorne described Emerson as "a great searcher for facts; but they seem to melt away and become unsubstantial in his grasp" (Mellow 208). Of Aylmer he writes, "He handled physical details, as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all . . . . In his grasp, the veriest clod of earth assumed a soul" (49).

As E. Michael Jones points out in The Angel and the Machine, "The age of Emerson was preeminently the age of the opposition of mind and matter, the age of the great clash between the mechanist and idealist philosophies" jones 18). Emerson was, at least according to Hawthorne, the victim of both: "Mr. Emerson--the mystic, stretching his hand out of cloud-land, in vain search for something real; and the man of sturdy sense, all whose ideas seem to be dug out of his mind, hard and substantial, as he digs potatoes" (Mellow 208). Transcendentalists like Orestes A. Brownson addressed themselves directly to this "clash" and sought to "reconcile spirit and matter" (Miller 120):

We cannot then go back either to exclusive Spiritualism, or to

exclusive Materialism. Both these systems have received so full a

development, have acquired so much strength, that neither can be

subdued. Both have their foundation in our nature, and both will

exist and exert their influence. Shall they exist as antagonist

principles? Shall the spirit forever lust against the flesh, and the

flesh against the spirit? Is the bosom of Humanity to be eternally

torn by these two contending factions? No. It cannot be. The war

must end. Peace must be made.

This discloses our Mission. We are to reconcile spirit and matter;

that is, we must realize the atonement. (Miller 120)

While Brownson proposes a reconciliation and an "atonement," Hawthorne proposes a marriage. Aylmer's failure to see, love, and accept Georgiana's imperfect, human nature is the failure to live "once for all in Eternity, to find the perfect Future in the present" (56). What Aylmer has rejected is "the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial" (56). The recommendation is so radical that Hawthorne--while often suggesting it again in his fiction's imagery or his sympathies with some of his "darker" characters--never again proposed it so directly. The ramifications of his own beliefs would--and did--appall him. There is no great leap from Georgiana's scarlet birthmark to Hester's scarlet letter. The difference is one of degree. Georgiana is not guilty, like Hawthorne's greatest heroines, of adultery or murder--she is guilty only of being human-liable to "sin, sorrow, decay and death." Yet if love between human beings, with all their innate imperfections and frailties, is "the best that earth could offer," then Hester's final question to Dimmesdale must be read in a new light--"Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!" (Scarlet Letter 256)-as must the minister's response: "|Hush, Hester, hush!' said he, with tremulous solemnity. |The law we broke!--the sin here so awfully revealed!--let these alone be in thy thoughts! I fear! I fear! . . .'" (256).

What is it that Dimmesdale and Hester are guilty of, if not expressing their human nature? Is a pro-forma marriage a stronger link in the "magnetic chain of humanity" than love? What can their adultery be if not the very thing that Aylmer has tossed away, "the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial" (56)? Miriam's speech to Kenyon goes still further:

". . . How wonderful is this! I tremble at my own thoughts, yet

must needs probe them to their depths. Was the crime--in which

he and I were wedded--was it a blessing in that strange disguise?

And may we follow the analogy yet farther? Was that very

sin--into which Adam precipitated himself and all his race--was it

the destined means by which, over a long pathway of toil and

sorrow, we are to attain a higher, brighter, and profounder

happiness, than our lost birthright gave?" (Marble Faun 434)

In The Marble Faun, Hawthorne's only answer is to "tremble" at the mystery, "the riddle of the Soul's growth, taking its first impulse amid remorse and pain, and struggling through the incrustations of the senses" (Marble Faun 381). But that is in 1860, after years of his own struggle, remorse and pain. In 1843, writing "The Birth-mark" he was still the hopeful newlywed, critiquing not human nature but its critic, Aylmer.

"The Birth-mark" proposes that human nature is a compound--a sacred mystery. The only way to effect a celebration of the body is not through distillation--separateness, voyeurism, science, etc.--but through unification, sympathy and love. "The Birth-mark" is a hymn to earthly marriage, just as the story that immediately preceded it, "The Hall of Fantasy," is a hymn to the earth itself.

"Oh, you are ungrateful to our Mother Earth!" rejoined I. "Come

what may, I never will forget her! Neither will it satisfy me to have

her exist merely in idea. I want her great, round, solid self to

endure interminably, and still to be peopled with the kindly race of

man, whom I uphold to be much better than he thinks

himself. . ." ("The Hall of Fantasy" 184-85)

Aylmer's sin is in wanting "the ideal" (271) instead of what Hawthorne in "The Artist of the Beautiful" would call "the enjoyment of the Reality." In 1843, Hawthorne's love of reality was inseparable from his love for Sophia. He told her as much, in his letters: "Thou art my reality; and nothing is real for me, unless thou give it that golden quality by thy touch" (Love Letters 231). She was, to use the alchemist's terms, his Active Agent, her love and understanding his Philosopher's Stone. Had these been his active agents, the author of The Scarlet Letter preface suggests, he might have come to better love this world, the Custom House of Earth:

It was a folly, with the materiality of this daily life pressing so

intrusively upon me, to attempt to fling myself back into another

age; or to insist on creating the semblance of a world out of airy

matter. . . . The wiser effort would have been, to diffuse thought

and imagination through the opaque substance of to-day, and thus

to make it a bright transparency; to spiritualize the burden that

began to weigh so heavily; to seek, resolutely, the true and

indestructible value that lay hidden in the petty and wearisome

incidents, and ordinary characters, with which I was now

conversant. The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread

out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had

not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever

write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was

written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast

as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand

the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall

remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and

write them down, and find the letters turned to gold upon the

page. (Scarlet Letter 37)

Here is the true alchemy of connection, a marriage between spirit and matter, the love of "the best that earth could offer." It has been said that the Romantics found proof of God in nature, while the Victorians found proof of God in human doubt. Hawthorne, poised as he was between the two, suggests in "The Birth-mark" that human nature is its own proof of divinity and human love its highest expression. It was a daring supposition, one he himself could bear neither to sustain nor to follow out to its logical conclusions. But in 1843, he set out clearly enough the questions that were to haunt him all the rest of his life.


"Animism." Oxford English Dictionary. 1971 ed. Burns, Shannon. "Alchemy and |The Birth-mark.'" American Transcendental Quarterly 48 (1979): 147-58. Charvat, William, et al., eds. The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. 20 vols. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1962-85. Hawthorne, Nathaniel. "The Birth-mark." Mosses 36-56. ---. "Ethan Brand." Snow-Image 83-102. ---. "The Hall of Fantasy." Mosses 172-85. ---. The Love Letters of Nathaniel Hawthorne: 1839-1863. Washington. NCR Microcard Editions, 1972. ---. The Marble Faun. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1968. Vol. 4 of Charvat et al. ---. Mosses from an Old Manse. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1974. Vol. 10 of Charvat et al. ---. The Scarlet Letter. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1962. Vol. 1 of Charvat et al. ---. The Snow-Image and Uncollected Tales. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1974. Vol. 11 of Charvat et al. Jones, E. Michael. The Angel and the Machine. Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden, 1991. Mellow, James. Nathaniel Hawthorne in his Times. Boston: Houghton, 1980. Miller, Perry. The Transcendentalists. An Anthology. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1950. Read, John. The Alchemist in Life, Literature and Art. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1947. Van Leer, David M. "Aylmer's Library: Transcendental Alchemy in Hawthorne's |The Birth-Mark.'" ESQ 22 (1976): 211-20.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A14081423