NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE 1843
“The Birth-Mark” (often written as “The Birthmark”) is an allegorical short story by American author Nathaniel Hawthorne. The story was first published in 1843 in the Pioneer, a literary magazine edited by poet James Russell Lowell. It was later included in Hawthorne's 1846 collection of tales and stories Mosses from an Old Manse. “The Birth-Mark” tells of a scientist who becomes obsessed with an imperfection on the face of his beautiful young wife—a small birthmark in the shape of a hand. The scientist tries to remove the birthmark, with tragic results. The story has remained relevant in the twenty-first century as scientists continue to push beyond the boundaries of medical science; Hawthorne's story was actually discussed at the 2002 meeting of the U.S. President's Council on Bioethics.
Hawthorne, best known for his classic novel The Scarlet Letter, was a major figure in the American romantic movement. He is often regarded as a writer in the tradition of “dark romanticism,” a subgenre of romantic literature that features, among other elements, outcasts from society; the belief that the world is a dark, mysterious place; the conviction that humans are sinful, if not evil, and that they are often incapable of comprehending the realm of spirituality; and that the world cannot be reformed. At the extreme, the dark romantics—a group that included Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and others—featured in their works vampires, ghouls, and manifestations of Satan. Shelley's
gothic novel Frankenstein is probably the most widely known example of this phenomenon. In his novels and short stories, Hawthorne created allegories of the dark, irredeemable human condition, a point of view most likely traceable to the author's New England Puritan roots.
“The Birth-Mark” is widely available in anthologies of nineteenth-century American literature and in collections of Hawthorne's short stories, including Nathaniel Hawthorne: Tales and Sketches, published by the Library of America in 1982. The story is also available online at the Literature Network Web site (http://www.online-literature.com/hawthorne/125/ ).
Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts, the second of three children born to Nathaniel and Elizabeth Manning Hathorne; he added the w to his name sometime after 1830 as a way of distancing himself from relatives he found embarrassing. Hawthorne was raised in Salem and in Raymond, Maine, before attending Bowdoin College in Maine from 1821 to 1825, where he described himself as an idle student. After graduation, he returned to Salem to live with his mother and sister and tried to launch a writing career. One of his earliest efforts was an 1828 novel, Fanshawe, which he later called a failure. He tried to collect and burn all copies of the book—and got help from a later warehouse fire that destroyed the book's remaining unsold copies. He had more success with short stories, several of which were published in literary journals during these years. His first collection of short stories, Twice-Told Tales, was published in 1837, but it was not until the 1840s that his writing brought him enough of an income to enable him to marry Sophia Peabody. The couple moved into a house called Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts, giving rise to the title of his 1846 collection, Mosses from an Old Manse, which includes “The Birth-Mark.”
Hawthorne was connected with the American transcendentalist movement and counted among his friends such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott. Transcendentalism was a cultural and literary reformist movement that rejected orthodoxy and conformity and urged its followers to find an original relationship with creation, often through the natural world.
Because of growing debts, he and his family moved back to Salem, where in 1845 he took a position as a surveyor in the custom house (an official charged with collecting taxes on imported and exported goods). He lost this job in 1848, but in 1850 he published his major novel The Scarlet Letter, bringing him some measure of fame and financial security. He followed this novel with The House of the Seven Gables in 1851, The Blithedale Romance in 1852 (a novel based on his disillusionment with Brook Farm, a commune in Massachusetts where he lived in 1841), and The Marble Faun in 1860. Meanwhile, he produced dozens of short stories that are considered classics of American literature: “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” “Roger Malvin's Burial,” the witchcraft story “Young Goodman Brown,” “Rappaccini's Daughter,” “Ethan Brand,” “The Minister's Black Veil,” and many others. He also wrote literature for children, including A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (1852) and its sequel, Tanglewood Tales for Girls and Boys (1853).
In 1853 Hawthorne was appointed to a consulship in Liverpool, England, by his old college friend and classmate President Franklin Pierce.
After the position was eliminated in 1857, he toured Italy before returning home. He died in his sleep of undetermined causes on May 19, 1864, in Plymouth, New Hampshire.
“The Birth-Mark” is set in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Aylmer is introduced as a highly proficient scientist and student of natural philosophy. He decides, though, to put aside his work in his laboratory to take a wife, Georgiana, a remarkably beautiful woman with one flaw, at least in Aylmer's estimation: she has a small birthmark in the shape of a human hand on her left cheek. Shortly after their marriage, Aylmer asks her whether she has ever considered having the birthmark removed. Georgiana replies that others have found the birthmark charming. Aylmer replies that on another, less perfect face, it might add to her beauty, but on hers, it “shocks” him “as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.” Georgiana is initially angry, but her anger turns to sadness as she wonders how Aylmer could love anything that shocks him.
As time passes, Aylmer becomes increasingly obsessed with the birthmark—an obsession Georgiana begins to share as she sees how much her husband dislikes it. Because the birthmark represents the imperfections of the natural world, Aylmer finds it entirely intolerable. Georgiana asks her husband about a dream he had the previous night. Aylmer talked in his sleep, and his wife heard him say, “It is in her heart now—we must have it out.” Aylmer recalls the dream, in which he removed the birthmark with a knife and had to cut so deep that he had to cut his wife's heart out. Georgiana has no idea what the consequences of removing the birthmark might be, but she agrees to allow her husband to do so, believing that the birthmark has made her an object of disgust and horror to him.
So that he can better supervise his experiments, Aylmer moves Georgiana to an apartment connected with his laboratory. When Georgiana enters his laboratory, Aylmer “could not restrain a strong convulsive shudder,” causing Georgiana to faint. At this point, Aylmer's assistant, Aminadab, appears and expresses his opinion that if Georgiana were his wife, he would allow the birthmark to remain.
Georgiana recovers, and Aylmer shows her the results of some of his scientific investigations. Among them is a flower that dies when Georgiana touches it. He also proposes to make a likeness of her through a scientific process that seems similar to early photography. The image, though, is blurry, except for the birthmark, so Aylmer destroys it. He then describes the history of alchemy and the quest to find “the Golden Principle,” which “might be elicited from all things vile and base.” He shows her a poison he has concocted, as well as a cosmetic for removing freckles. Georgiana asks whether he will use this cosmetic to remove the birthmark. Aylmer replies that the cosmetic can treat only surface imperfections and that he needs to use something that will reach more deeply. As Aylmer questions her about her physical sensations and comfort, Georgiana begins to suspect that her husband has already begun to drug her, either through the air or in her food.
As Aylmer works in the laboratory, Georgiana finds a book in which her husband has outlined his past experiments. The volume is “rich with achievements” yet is also “the sad confession … of the short-comings of the composite man—the spirit burthened [burdened] with clay and working in matter.” Aylmer enters and finds his wife weeping over the book. He tells her that “it is dangerous to read in a sorcerer's books,” but Georgiana replies, “It has made me worship you more than ever.” Alymer then asks her to sing for
him, which she does, pouring out “the liquid music of her voice.”
As Aylmer works, Georgiana watches him. Alymer is irritated, accusing her of having no trust in him. Georgiana replies that she believes he has no trust in her. She then demands that he explain to her what he proposes to do. Aylmer concedes that he has tried various potions on her without her knowledge, but all have been unsuccessful. However, there is one more possibility, although it is dangerous. By now, Georgiana is willing to undergo any treatment before the birthmark drives them both mad. Aylmer sends his wife to her room and continues working.
Finally, Aylmer brings to his wife a drug, which she willingly drinks. She falls asleep, and her husband keeps watch over her. As he does, he notices that the birthmark is fading and is almost gone. At this point, he hears a low chuckle from Aminadab. Georgiana awakens, only to tell her husband that she is dying. She tells her husband not to repent the fact “that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer.” The hoarse laugh from Aminadab is heard again.
Aminadab is Aylmer's assistant. He is described as a man of “low stature, but bulky frame, with shaggy hair hanging about his visage, which was grimed with the vapors of the furnace.” He is described as incapable of understanding any of the scientific principles that are Aylmer's stock in trade, but he is able to execute practical matters. He is said to “represent man's physical nature,” in contrast to the intellectualism of Aylmer. Incidentally, the name Aminadab is taken from the Bible, appearing in the books of Exodus, Numbers, 1 Chronicles, Ruth, Matthew, and Luke.
Aylmer is the protagonist of “The Birth-Mark.” He is a “man of science—an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy.” He is described as a pale, melancholy man totally absorbed by his scientific pursuits, perhaps hoping that he “should lay his hand on the secret of creative force, and perhaps make new worlds for himself.” The essence of the story is his obsession with a birthmark—an imperfection—on the cheek of his new wife, Georgiana. To Aylmer, the birthmark is a symbol of human imperfection on an otherwise perfect face. He wants to remove the birthmark, which he tries to do with a potion, but the potion kills his wife. In the end, the narration says that Aylmer “reached a profounder wisdom,” at last gleaning that “he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial.”
Georgiana is Aylmer's new wife. She is described as remarkably beautiful, although her beauty is marred, at least in the estimation of her husband, by a small birthmark in the shape of a human hand on her left cheek. She had begun to believe that the birthmark was charming, principally because others thought it so. But when she realizes that the birthmark “shocks” her husband and ultimately disgusts him, she agrees to allow him to try to remove it. She drinks a potion that appears initially to be successful in removing the birthmark, but the potion kills her: “As the last crimson tint of the birth-mark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere.”
“The Birth-Mark” is set in the latter part of the eighteenth century. The reader is told that in those days “the comparatively recent discovery of electricity, and other kindred mysteries of nature, seemed to open paths into the region of miracle.” Aylmer is a scientist who devotes himself to his research:
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Seated calmly in this laboratory, the pale philosopher had investigated the secrets of the highest cloud-region, and of the profoundest mines; he had satisfied himself of the causes that kindled and kept alive the fires of the volcano; and had explained the mystery of fountains. … He had studied the wonders of the human frame, and attempted to fathom the very process by which Nature assimilates all her precious influences for earth and air, and from the spiritual world, to create and foster Man.
That he is a “pale philosopher” married to a strikingly beautiful woman suggests a sexual theme, for Aylmer as an intellectual finds it difficult to accept the imperfections of his earthly, sexual wife, with her “liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death,” and thus, as a scientist, wants to correct them.
Closely related to the theme of science is that of nature, in particular, the imperfection of the material world and the efforts of scientists to conquer nature. Early on, the reader is told that “Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man's ultimate control over nature.” He searches
for the “Elixir Vitae,” or the “Elixir of Life,” a substance that will defeat nature by conferring immortality. He also explains to his wife the history of alchemists,
who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent, by which the Golden Principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe, that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium.
The quest for perfection—or at least the eradication of imperfection—lies at the heart of “The Birth-Mark.” Aylmer's wife, Georgiana, is described as a “living specimen of ideal loveliness,” but she is flawed, in his view, by the presence of a birthmark on her cheek. Aylmer becomes obsessed with the birthmark, seeing it as emblematic of imperfection. As a scientist, he wants to erase the birthmark, but he fails to understand, despite his telling dream, that human imperfection extends far below the surface of the skin into the human heart. In trying to eliminate the birthmark, he kills his wife, for it is only through death that human imperfection can be ended.
“The Birth-Mark” does not make explicit reference to the nation's Puritan heritage, but Puritanism was part of Hawthorne's family and cultural origins. He grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, best remembered in American history as the site of the Salem witch trials in the seventeenth century. (Strictly speaking, the trials took place in a separate community, Salem Village, but the proximity of the two locales eroded the distinction over time.) Hawthorne's own ancestors were Puritans, and one of his great-great-grandfathers presided as a judge in the Salem witch trials.
While the early Puritans held to a number of theological tenets, an important one was their belief in the depravity of humans—in their essential sinfulness. This was a view that Hawthorne did not refute, and Harold Bloom quotes Hawthorne's journal as stating, “There is evil in every human heart.” In “The Birth-Mark,” Georgiana is never depicted as evil; quite the contrary. But she is human, and therefore she is weighted with the human imperfection wrought by original sin. This imperfection is signified by the “Crimson
Hand,” which suggests the mark of Satan. In contrast to his Puritan ancestors, though, Hawthorne calls implicitly for acceptance of human imperfection. At the end of the story, Aylmer achieves a “profounder wisdom,” realizing that “he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial.”
“The Birth-Mark” is in many respects an allegorical story. An allegory is any symbolic narrative that suggests a secondary meaning that is not explicit on the surface. In this sense, an allegory is similar to a parable or a fable. Some allegories rely on personification, where the characters represent recognizable types. A good example from English literature is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, in which characters, through their names—such as Christian, Despair, Feeble-mind, Evangelist, and Great-heart—represent abstract concepts and various Christian ideas.
Other allegories are described as symbolic allegories. In these, the characters have identities apart from the abstract concepts they represent. “The Birth-Mark” is an example of the latter type. Thus, Alymer might be regarded as symbolic of the arrogant scientist who wants to conquer nature, but within the confines of the story, he is a character, not purely an abstraction. The birthmark itself is an allegorical representation of human imperfection, of man's fall from grace. Aminadab, with his coarse, shaggy appearance and low chuckle, is said to “represent man's physical nature.” In the end, when Aylmer's experiment on his wife fails, Aminadab can be heard chuckling, as though the earth is laughing at Aylmer for his arrogance.
As would be expected in an allegorical story, “The Birth-Mark” relies heavily on symbolism. The chief symbol is Georgiana's birthmark, which the narrator says is a mark of human imperfection. That the birthmark is in the shape of a hand is symbolic, for it suggests the hand of Satan. It is also significant that the birthmark is on her left cheek. In Latin, the word for “left” is sinestra, from which the English word “sinister” is derived. Thus, left-handedness and “left-ness” in general have traditionally been associated with evil, inauspiciousness, or ill luck (despite the fact that a disproportionate number of artists, musicians, U.S. presidents, and the like have been left-handed). By placing the birthmark on Georgiana's left cheek, Hawthorne suggests that it is somehow sinister, associated with the depravity and imperfections of the human condition.
Much of the action of “The Birth-Mark” is similarly symbolic. For example, as Aylmer is dreaming, he talks in his sleep and says, referring to the birthmark, “It is in her heart now—we must have it out.” The clear implication is that Georgiana's imperfections extend below the surface into her heart. The only way to eradicate her imperfections is not to treat the surface manifestation but to root the evil out of her heart. Similarly, the chuckling and hoarse laughter of Aminadab can be thought of as symbolic of the earth, of matter, scoffing at the efforts of humans to conquer the natural world.
An allusion is a reference, either direct or indirect, to another literary or artistic work. In “The Birth-Mark,” Hawthorne alludes to the myth of Pygmalion, a story told in Metamorphoses by the classical Roman author Ovid. The myth concerns a sculptor, Pygmalion, who is convinced that women are faulty, so he resolves never to marry. But he winds up falling in love with one of his own marble sculptures, that of a beautiful woman. He then prays to the gods to send him a woman just like the statue to be his wife. In response, Venus, the goddess of love, imbues the statue with life. The sculptor, overjoyed that his marble creation has become real, marries her, with Venus's blessing. Like the sculptor in the Pygmalion myth, Aylmer cannot accept imperfection in the woman he marries; thus, he tries to change her.
“The Birth-Mark” also alludes very indirectly to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as related in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. Aylmer, the intellectual scientist, is celibate. He is tempted away from his laboratory, though, by a beautiful woman, much as Adam was tempted by Eve. The woman, though, is earthly and human. She is marked by the hand of Satan with a birthmark. Like Eve, she is slightly vain; about her birthmark she says, “it has been so often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.” Aylmer, like Adam, is prideful and in his own way tries to improve on God's creation. In the process, he destroys the Edenic purity and simplicity of Georgiana's inner nature. In the end, she dies as a result of his efforts. Aylmer, though, achieves a “profounder wisdom,” much as Adam and Eve achieve a kind of wisdom through their fall from grace and defiance of God. Like Adam, Aylmer has eaten from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (a reference to the source of the apple that Eve eats, then shares with Adam), leading to a recognition of human imperfection.
“The Birth-Mark” makes no reference to specific historical events. It was written, though, at a time when science was undergoing a radical transformation, and writers and intellectuals were thinking about the relationships among science, theology, philosophy, technology, and the social sciences. Of particular concern among many thinkers was that scientists, by attempting
to unlock the secrets of the material universe, were in effect usurping the place of God.
In the eighteenth century, when “The BirthMark” is set, “science,” as the term is understood in the twenty-first century, was in its infancy. The principles of the scientific method, with its emphasis on observation and experimentation, had been established by such earlier scientists as Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The eighteenth century came to be called the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason because thinkers began to adopt the scientific method in their quest to replace tradition and blind religious faith with skepticism and a quest for empirical truth—truth that could be ascertained by the evidence of the senses. By the late eighteenth century, many scientists were pursuing the study of what was then called “natural philosophy,” in attempts to understand the workings of the universe through the study of astronomy, the elements, mechanics, motion, light, etiology (that is, causes), and the like. These scientists laid the foundation for experimental science, as the term is understood in the modern world. Wonder was to be replaced by understanding, faith by skepticism, belief by proof, priests by men of science.
In the early nineteenth century, scientific knowledge began to explode. Developments in such fields as physics (especially electricity and electromagnetism), biology, chemistry, anatomy, and other fields were reshaping people's understanding of the physical world. Achievements in geology were bringing into question traditional Judeo-Christian beliefs about the origin and age of the universe as reflected in the biblical book of Genesis: the fossil record was showing that the earth was much older than the Bible suggested, and it was beginning to suggest that creation was not an event but an evolutionary process stretching across vast expanses of time.
Many people, though, were growing increasingly disquieted by these developments. They saw the quest for scientific, empirical truth as a denial of creativity and the imagination. They believed that science took an overly mechanistic view of the natural order, attempting to reduce it to the clarity of mathematics. At its worst, science was an attack on nature, an endeavor that suggested that the human imperative was to conquer nature rather than to be part of it or to live in harmony with it. This was a point of view given expression in Mary Shelley's classic 1818 novel Frankenstein, which depicts the arrogance of science through the manipulation of nature.
The result of this backlash against Age of Reason science was the emergence of an intellectual trend that has been called romantic science, a trend that emerged at about the beginning of the nineteenth century and extended roughly to the time of the publication of “The Birth-Mark,” or perhaps later, to the 1859 publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. There was no formal body of scientists who called themselves “romantic scientists,” nor was there a text or manifesto to which these scientists adhered. “Romantic science” is a term that loosely describes a new attitude toward science. It was a view that resisted efforts to reduce the natural world to a set of mechanistic forces; for this reason, romantic science has often been described as antireductionist. Romantic scientists warned against the abuse of science to manipulate nature, and in particular to manipulate human beings, much as Aylmer manipulates Georgiana in “The Birth-Mark.” Romantic scientists wanted to preserve the place of mankind within the natural order, and they argued that the natural order could be understood only in the context of self-understanding. The romantic scientists wanted not a cold, analytical, statistical understanding of nature but rather one that would reunite man with nature and the natural state. These views found their way into the romantic poetry of such British writers as William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats and the prose of such American writers as James Fenimore Cooper (in the “Leatherstocking Tales”), Ralph Waldo Emerson (in numerous essays such as “Nature”), Henry David Thoreau (in Walden), and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Within romantic science, a handful of names stand out. Friedrich Schlegel wrote that “all art should become science and all science art; poetry and philosophy should be made one.” Friedrich Schelling, the German idealist philosopher, referred to what he called Naturphilosophie (meaning, in throwback phrasing, “natural philosophy”), a philosophy of science that called for the reunification of man and nature. Sir Humphry Davy urged scientists to cultivate admiration for nature, even a sense of love and worship based on a highly personal response to nature. Biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck sought to replace mechanistic views of biology with views based on the belief that living organisms cannot be understood entirely by the laws of mechanics. Alexander von Humboldt tried to unite science and beauty. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe conducted experiments in which he claimed to prove that color was not a function of mechanistic optics but rather something inherent to human perception. Medical researchers adopted a view they referred to with the Latin phrase vis medicatrix naturae, or “healing powers of nature.” Many believed that the source of health and healing lay within the natural world and that human intervention was of limited value.
In sum, the romantic scientists attempted to forge harmony between man and nature. Nature was no longer something to be parsed, analyzed, reduced, and conquered. It could be seen, perhaps, but not appreciated under a microscope. Rather, humanity and human perceptions were part of the natural order of things, and an understanding of nature required an understanding of harmony, connectedness, and human imagination—all elements that Aylmer denies in “The Birth-Mark.”
The end of romantic science is often dated to the 1840s, when Auguste Comte was publishing his views on what he called positivism. Just as romantic science had been a backlash against Enlightenment views, positivism was a backlash against romantic science. Comte was a social scientist, but his goal was the application of the scientific method to social questions. His views gained ascendancy and continue to be applied to scientific questions today—although in the contemporary world, many people have adopted a more “romantic” view of science in the wake of such detrimental by-products of science as pollution, oil spills, atomic weaponry, biological and chemical weapons, bioengineering, cloning, and other applications of science that are destructive or perceived to be so.
“The Birth-Mark” has been a rich mine for scholars and critics. In “The Genesis of Hawthorne's ‘The Birthmark,”’ Karl P. Wentersdorf traces the origins of the story in Hawthorne's personal life and in earlier literature. He notes, for example, that Shakespeare's The Tempest, like “The Birth-Mark,”
is also an allegory on the eternal conflict between the spiritual and the sensual in humanity. Prospero, a man of science and reason, personifies intellectuality; his servant Caliban, a creature of brute ignorance and rank desire, typifies animality. They are paralleled in “The Birthmark.”
John Gatta, Jr., focuses attention on the alchemical origins of the story. In “Aylmer's Alchemy in ‘The Birthmark, ’” he writes,
The critical action of the tale is nothing less than an attempt on Aylmer's part to transmute the prima materia of Georgianna's human nature to a “golden” state of perfection, purging it of those normal earthly impurities that come to appear comparatively “vile and base” to the eye of the impassioned seeker.
Similarly, Robert D. Arner, in “The Legend of Pygmalion in ‘The Birthmark,”’ examines Hawthorne's use of the Pygmalion legend, noting that “the sculptor's story contains several key parallels to Hawthorne's tale. In the two protagonists … we have men whose work suggests the triumph of man's creative intellect over nature.”
Still other critics explore the story's Puritan origins. In “Hawthorne's ‘The Birthmark’: Puritan Inhibitions and Romantic Appeal in the Context of the Faustian Quest,” Roberto di Pietro concludes,
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In this tendency to exaggerate and make too much of a real but none the less acceptable flaw, Hawthorne takes the measure of Aylmer's Puritanism. That this particular aspect of the scientist's attitude reflects Hawthorne's idea of the Puritans' error of judgment one can hardly deny: like them, Aylmer shows a commendable amount of realism in detecting the basic “flaw”—but like them also, he is incapable of ascribing to it the proper degree of importance.
Other critics have focused on the imagery and symbolism of the story. A good example is Lewis B. Horne's essay “The Heart, the Hand and ‘The Birthmark.’” As the title suggests, the writer examines the interplay of heart and hand images in the story and concludes that
the journey into Aylmer's heart, is, in effect, what the reader makes with the unwitting and loving Georgiana when she moves into her husband's laboratory; and the clues to her danger appear in the references to Aylmer's hand.
Finally, some critics have looked at “The Birth-Mark” through a social and ideological lens. In “Eve's Daughter, Mary's Child: Women's Representation in Hawthorne's ‘The Birthmark,’” Kary Meyers Skredsvig examines the issue of gendered identities in the story and notes,
“The Birthmark” clearly revolves around a major concern of mid-nineteenth century U.S. society, the role of science in humans' lives, but in so doing it manifests crucial issues of gender identity and roles at personal and social levels.
Thus, she states, “Aylmer is not only introduced in the loftiest of terms, but is consistently associated throughout the story with the highest of intentions, standards, and worth.” In contrast, “Georgiana herself describes her own level of comprehension as ‘simple.”’
Michael J. O'Neal
O'Neal holds a Ph.D. in English. In the following essay, he examines Hawthorne's use of imagery in “The Birth-Mark.”
As an allegory, Nathaniel Hawthorne's “The Birth-Mark” might have run the risk of depicting characters and action in purely abstract terms, so that, for example, Aylmer would become little more than a pale, melancholy representation of a man of science bent on mastering the physical world. Perhaps one of the reasons that Hawthorne's work endures, though, is that he was able to root his fiction firmly in a sensory world, giving his stories a texture and depth that they might otherwise lack.
One way in which Hawthorne accomplishes this task is through his rich use of imagery. In literature, imagery refers to any language that evokes a sensory response. The most common type of imagery is visual: a visual image invites the reader to see the details of the setting. But other types of imagery, including sound, smell, texture, and the like, are common as well. The purpose of imagery, though, is not simply to create sensory effects. A person could toss off the word “scratchy” or “green,” and these words, as far as they go, are images. In literature, imagery is an important way to create a train of associations or render an abstraction in concrete terms to elicit from the reader an emotional or intellectual response. The imagery of “The BirthMark” prevents the story from becoming simply an essay on science, or pride, or the futility of seeking perfection in humanity, or the depravity of the human heart, or any other theme that the reader might take away. The imagery places the characters in a physical milieu that guides the reader's response to the story.
Here, for example, is Hawthorne on Georgiana's birthmark:
Had she been less beautiful … [Aylmer] might have felt his affection heightened by the prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again, and glimmering to-and-from with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart.
The birthmark itself is not just a mark, but a “hand.” The hand is a “mimic” hand, a word that suggests imitation and that is etymologically related to mime, referring to an actor, further suggesting that the birthmark is vital, not just a blotch of color. The birthmark is said to be sometimes “stealing forth,” suggesting something furtive or underhanded. The birthmark is sometimes “glimmering,” and Georgiana does more than simply have emotions: her emotions move in a “pulse,” and they “throbbed.” The imagery creates an almost sensual picture of Aylmer's young bride that contrasts sharply with his pale intellectualism. Aylmer thinks; Georgiana feels.
This distinction between thinking and feeling is one that is important to “The BirthMark.” This distinction is reflected in a further distinction, between masculine and feminine. Aylmer lives in a masculine world of the intellect. It is a world of the Transactions of the Royal Society, of the laboratory, of beakers, furnaces, fire, and smoke. His world is the material world inhabited by the hoarse, shaggy Aminadab, “grimed with the vapors of the furnace,” who wells up from the laboratory like a creature emerging from the earth—all images that reflect his earthly, “base” nature.
Georgiana, in contrast, inhabits a world that is overwhelmingly feminine:
When Georgiana recovered consciousness, she found herself breathing an atmosphere of penetrating fragrance, the gentle potency of which had recalled her from her deathlike faintness. The scene around her looked like enchantment. Aylmer had converted those smoky, dingy, sombre rooms … into an abode of a lovely woman. The walls were hung with gorgeous curtains. … And as they fell from the ceiling to the floor, their rich and ponderous folds, concealing all angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite space. … [Aylmer] now knelt by his wife's side, watching her earnestly, but without alarm; for he was confident in his science, and felt that he could draw a magic circle round her, within which no evil might intrude.
The sensory imagery creates a feminine world of enchantment, a fairy-tale world where Aylmer, the magician and sorcerer, can isolate Georgiana and protect her from evil. Here, “perfumed lamps” are “emitting flames of various
hue, but all uniting in a soft, empurpled radiance.” Aylmer wants to transcend mortality and the imperfect world of clay through science. One of his strategies is to isolate Georgiana, to wrap her in a feminine world of fragrance and hue. Georgiana, like many of Hawthorne's heroines, is willing to submit to Aylmer, in effect to sacrifice herself to his magic and sorcery.
It is possible to see a sexual theme in this imagery. Some of Hawthorne's women are characterized by a bit of a wild side, a vitality and sexuality that threatened both the underpinnings of Hawthorne's Puritan heritage and the social order in postcolonial America. The best example is Hester Prynne, the protagonist of The Scarlet Letter, who bears an illegitimate child fathered by a weak minister appropriately named Arthur Dimmesdale. She is a woman of fire and heat, in contrast to her appropriately named husband, Roger Chilling worth, and she pays a steep price for her humanity. In “The Birth-Mark,” Georgiana is depicted as sexually attractive, and her very sexuality, enhanced by the birthmark, is tempting to “many a desperate swain” who “would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand.” Aylmer, perhaps reflecting Hawthorne's own insecurities about his “manhood” and sexuality (Hawthorne was notoriously shy and conflicted about his vocation as a writer, sometimes expressing the view that writing and creativity were “feminine”), has to shackle and confine this sexuality, and ultimately to root it out. He thus converts a portion of his laboratory to a boudoir, where Georgiana learns to “worship” him—referring to the book in which he details his experiments, she says, “It has made me worship you more than ever”—and, in worshipping him, gives up her life.
Here is where literature diverges sharply from philosophy and history. The latter disciplines deal with the general. They explain. They take the raw materials of the world and squeeze out their essence in literal terms. Literature, in contrast, deals with the particular. Hawthorne could have written an essay about the arrogance of science, about the depravity of the human heart, about the connectedness of thought and feeling, about the admixture of the material and the celestial in the human makeup. And such an essay might have been interesting and thought provoking. But like creators everywhere, he was more interested in the particular—in a particular scientist who marries a particular wife under a
particular set of circumstances, all described using a set of sensory images that convey to the reader the particulars of their drama in a way that suggests more than it says. Those particulars well up from the artist's own peculiar beliefs, motivations, psychological urges, and social attitudes. Readers, then, have to tease out the meaning of the particulars, just as they have to tease out meaning from their own particular lives and circumstances. It is this appeal to the particular, created in large part through imagery, that allows a story like “The Birth-Mark” to endure, for the impulses that drive the characters may also be our own.
Source: Michael J. O'Neal, Critical Essay on “The BirthMark,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2012.
In the following essay, Rosenberg argues that Hawthorne “suggests in ‘The Birth-Mark’ that human nature is its own proof of divinity and human love its highest expression.”
“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 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,” symbolized by the tiny birthmark on her cheek. This mark becomes to him “the spectral Hand that wrote mortally, where he would fain have worshipped.” Aylmer's personality resists this: his lifelong search, Hawthorne suggests, has been for “ultimate control over nature.”
“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.” 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”).
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” (Burns 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 fiancée, 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 it “the existence of soul or spirit apart from matter” (“Animism”).
Aylmer's laboratory assistant or “under-worker” 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!” and “Ah, clod! Ah, earthly mass!” 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. …” 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….”
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.” Aylmer possesses “the higher nature,” Aminadab “the grunt or growl of a brute.” 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.” 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” 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.” 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. 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.” 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!”
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.”
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.” What Aylmer has rejected is “the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the self-same texture with the celestial.” 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)—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! … ’”
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”? 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)
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). 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”)
Aylmer's sin is in wanting “the ideal” 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). 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)
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 BirthMark” 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.
Source: Liz Rosenberg, “‘The Best That Earth Could Offer’: ‘The Birth-Mark,’ a Newlywed's Story,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 30, No. 2, Spring 1993, pp. 145–51.
Ellen E. Westbrook
In the following essay, Westbrook illustrates that Hawthorne's “verisimilar fictional world” in “The Birth-Mark,” as well as in some of his other works, “enable[s] us to perceive what familiarity masks.”
“INSTEAD, HAWTHORNE'S NARRATIVE MAKES PERCEPTIBLE THE SUBTLE, HERE FATAL VIOLENCE OF BOTH CHARACTERS' REALITIES THAT WE TYPICALLY DO NOT SEE, PRECISELY BECAUSE OF THEIR FAMILIARITY.”
… But “The Birth-Mark” does not affirm norms of the everyday world that we breathing readers take for granted; it generates renewed values from the conflict among the three characters and from the interpretative guidance of the narrator. At issue, of course, are not the ethical implications of striving for one's notion of perfection in itself. Instead, the narrative exposes the potentially fatal implications of such an ambition when pursued at the expense of what the narrator identifies as a fundamental aspect of reality that too often is taken for granted: Georgiana's birthmark “was the fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.”
In light of the tale's events, this explicit moral is a resounding understatement of what already has been demonstrated with much greater power by the tale's confluence of drama and symbol. This confluence occurs within Hawthorne's narrative play between the particular and the general pattern, the mimetic and the seemingly marvelous, the historical and the explicitly fictive, a play authorized as probable by standard conventions of romance. The understated moral does remind us when we listen closely that we are in a fictional world and under the guiding influence of a narrator's ordering consciousness. The crown of that ordering in this particular tale is the narrator's anti-climactic moral statement. Paradoxically, that statement lends credibility to the authority of the lived (fictional) experience over which the narrator's moral seems to assert judging authority by the very contrast invoked between statement and drama, cool observation and fatal event. The narrator's moral provides a neat and
safe closure to the tale, then, but it is deceptively so. The almost empty resonance of this moral's generalization against the particular, referential events of the tale directs us back to those events to decipher what the specific conflict is all about.
Glancing backward, we recognize the narrator's fictional challenge to fundamental cultural values by the tension he creates between the symbolic value of a natural phenomenon and its cultural context. By means of Georgiana's death, the narrator affirms the value of nature within everyday lived experience. He does so over and against Georgiana's perspective and that of her husband. Both of these perspectives are shaped by shared assumptions of what is natural as well as by shared cultural values that proscribe a deferential role to women and an assertive, controlling role to men. But if Aylmer's and Georgiana's fictional drama is fatally problematic, the narrator's affirmation of nature in the shape of Georgiana's death is equally so. As Georgiana lives out her role under Aylmer's tutelage, she is forced in effect to comply with her own death. The narrator's affirmation of nature, then, does not supplant Aylmer's magical endeavors with an alternative that the character of Georgiana can effectively embody. Indeed, the narrator's affirmation of nature shears those endeavors of their very physical and culturally-grounded material. He thereby allots character and reader sheer loss. Hawthorne's dramatized perspective of romance implicitly asks us a fundamental question: how can we live humanely within inescapably acculturated lives?
Hawthorne brings these fundamental contradictions between nature and culture before us in part by generating his perspective of romance from what we expect within our natural and acculturated reality. His mingling of the Actual and Imaginary dislodges our point of view from our taken-for-granted everyday world and dislodges our corresponding expectations for normatively mimetic narrative. But his method only displaces us superficially from our familiar world; finally it enables Hawthorne to direct us back with a horrific glance at the potential implications of our choices as we shape cultural values at the expense of humane motives. Hawthorne's “theatre” is indeed “a little removed.” But to describe his process of romance accurately, and to recognize the nature of his commitment to unseating our taken-for-granted frameworks of perception, we need to recognize his theater's proximity to everyday experience as well as its departure from it.
Our methods for such recognition have become both problematic and enriched by our debate about the relationship between fictional and non-fictional experience, by our “focus on referentiality as a problem rather than as something that reliably and unambiguously relates a reader to the ‘real world’ of history, of society, and of people acting within society on the stage of history” (Miller 283). Hawthorne's tales invited us into this problem long before we separated, by our theoretical debates, lived experience from aesthetic artifact, before we considered language our singularly rich and resisting access to reality, and before we contemplated the inscription of history within fiction as our means to clarify the miasma of fictional and critical discourse.
Our sometimes heated explorations of the relationship between theory, reading, and meaning help us to understand Hawthorne's particular style, his aesthetic concerns, and his place within our literary and larger social culture. They also enable us to interpret more subtly the problem Hawthorne shapes by the form of romance that he develops in his short fiction. With our discrete theoretical filters, however, we also continue to risk rarefying the problem. Symptomatic of our discretion is our critical separating out of “the Actual” from “the Imaginary” in our analysis of Hawthorne's work, an interpretative strategy that assumes methodological authority in our historical, psychoanalytic, generic, and formalist discourse. We can comprehend the problems posed by Hawthorne's short fictions more clearly if our critical methods less insistently separate what Hawthorne's forms of narrative representation integrate. We can do so by confronting directly Hawthorne's use of what is verisimilar to our natural and cultural reality in the context of his use of literary conventions.
By focusing on such standard methods of nineteenth-century American romance as idealizing, as marvelous events, and as explicit fictionalizing, we have emphasized what Hawthorne referred to as the “Imaginary” in order to explicate narrative techniques that imaginatively transform everyday experience. By focusing on the historical (Colacurcio), we have emphasized Hawthorne's “Actual” in order to explicate what we think romance transforms, usually the
historical underpinnings of the fictional artistry. Rarely in our criticism of Hawthorne's work have we considered the role of everyday objects or usual circumstances (Brodhead; Schlegel; DeJong). Shannon Burns does discuss five kinds of verisimilitude used by Hawthorne in his tales: present and actual circumstances, history, character, straightforward description of the physical world, and the realism of domestic, homey detail, especially the household hearth. These categories help considerably to establish Hawthorne's use of verisimilitude. But Hawthorne's practice is considerably broader than Burns's isolated examples of what is naturally and culturally verisimilar suggest. We have considered even less the relationships among the various types of references (Michael; Kinkead-Weekes; Carton).
Further segrating the Actual and the Imaginary, we have categorized Hawthorne's longer prose fictions as romances in contrast to novels, based on loose notions of their degree of mimetic representation, and we apply similar criteria to his short fiction. The mimeticism of novelistic styles asserts a correspondence between fictions and our assumptions about nature and our acculturated lives; the less mimetic form of romance asserts its ready departure from those assumptions. We are engaged by illusion as reality in novelistic styles, and in the nineteenth-century American romance by illusion as illusion. Novelistic styles create the illusion of reality in part by heightening the impression that what literature portrays in its unnatural, artificial form is natural or at least conventional. In contrast to novelistic styles, romance makes our everyday world appear unfamiliar in order to acquaint us with a different conception of reality, yet somehow probable nevertheless. Often we conclude that romance poses against our normative perspective an other reality that claims for itself a more authoritative world view. The generic distinctions that underlie such conclusions contrast sharply with how flexible the terms “novel” and “romance” were in the nineteenth century (Baym). They also disguise that period's concern with the distinction between fiction and fact and not between kinds of fiction such as novels and romances (Bell 9).
Hawthorne's use of different kinds of verisimilitude in a tale such as “The Birth-Mark” demonstrates an artistic style and project that are much more complex than our dichotomy between novelistic and romance styles suggests. Hawthorne himself draws our attention to the complexity of his method. Glancing backward to his tales as well as forward to The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne states in “The Custom-House” that under the influence of moonlight, “The floor of our familiar room has become a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other. …” But “the somewhat dim coal-fire has an essential influence in producing the effect which I would describe. … This warmer light mingles itself with the cold spirituality of the moonbeams, and communicates, as it were, a heart and sensibilities of human tenderness to the forms which fancy summons up.” Hawthorne's worlds of romance become credible not because we suspend our disbelief in the face of elderly women-become-witches, scientists/ministers-become-gothic-villains, or meteors-become-symbols radiating in the sky. Instead, Hawthorne generates the perspective of his other worlds of romance partly from the confluence of such apparent oppositions; for the imaginative activity of romance, Hawthorne's early method depends upon the transforming power of coal-fire as well as of moonlight.
Hawthorne's method in a tale such as “The Birth-Mark” suggests what is at stake in the frameworks of perception that characters enact in their fiction and that we choose as readers while we make sense of the theaters we enter. Georgiana embodies the values traditionally assigned to women and with which the narrator is most sympathetic; the narrator grants her the greatest potential to resolve the ethical conflicts raised by the tale. As a near-perfected representative of our imperfect sisters, she represents our potential to choose ethical lives within an everyday world. Conversely, Aylmer introduces a deviant reality that the narrator undermines in part by portraying him in less idealized, more referential terms. As a near-perfected representative of our less imperfect brothers, he too represents our potential choices within consensus reality but ones that we typically camouflage with our taken-for-granted modes of everyday perception—a world of judgment without compassion, of rational endeavor without humane purpose. “The Birth-Mark” does not promote the idealized reality of Georgiana. Nor of course does “The Birth-Mark” promote Aylmer's divergent reality that curiously reflects our own more than does Georgiana's. Instead, Hawthorne's narrative makes perceptible the subtle, here
“THE IMPORTANCE OF HAWTHORNE'S PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMBOL IS NOT THE SUSCEPTIBILITY OF MAN TO SIN AND DEATH, BUT THE SPECIAL MANNER IN WHICH THE MARKED WOMAN SUFFERS HER FATE: IT IS AYLMER WHO KILLS HER.”
fatal violence of both characters' realities that we typically do not see, precisely because of their familiarity. He does so by drawing on a range of narrative conventions to shape a verisimilar fictional world. That world portrays our everyday lives in the unfamiliar, exaggerated form allowed by the license of romance. Because the techniques of this form of Hawthorne's romance reveal difference, the unfamiliar perspectives they create enable us to perceive what familiarity masks. From these different vantage points, we are better able to renew our ethical stance within both lived and fictional experience.
Source: Ellen E. Westbrook, “Probable Improbabilities: Verisimilar Romance in Hawthorne's ‘The Birth-Mark,’” in American Transcendental Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 2, June 1989, pp. 203–17.
James Quinn and Ross Baldessarini
In the following essay, Quinn and Baldessarini delineate how in “The Birth-Mark” Hawthorne utilizes the narrative device of offering various characters' responses to a particular symbol.
Hawthorne's art in the creation of character in many ways anticipates modern psychoanalytic psychology. As a literary psychologist, he excels at revealing unconscious sources of obsessed behavior. In “The Birth-Mark,” Aylmer, a scientist whose ambition may be to control nature, provides an exceptionally good example of an obsessive character. He is obsessed with imperfection in human nature and is unable to achieve a mature human relationship.
In this tale, although we are presented with Aylmer's intense reactions to an apparently solitary imperfection in his bride, Hawthorne does not explicitly analyze them. Indeed, the reader is conditioned to accept ambiguity and multiplicity as inevitable features of human nature. Hawthorne evidently values a balanced view of a complex world and his appreciation of complexity is no more forcefully demonstrated than in his psychological analysis of character. As we noted earlier ain our analysis of “The Minister's Black Veil,” a crucial technique Hawthorne employs to achieve his psychological revelations is the literary device of multiple reactions of observers to a central symbol. Here the central symbol is a red nevus on the face of Georgiana, her birth-mark. Its power to evoke strong responses stems partly from the details which Hawthorne offers about its appearance. It is in the form of a hand appearing on her left (sinister and heart side) cheek. Hawthorne makes the red more vibrant by setting it off against Georgiana's changing complexion.
This method of the central symbol provides Hawthorne with a way to intrigue us by his revelations of the thoughts, feelings, and moods of leading characters as well as lesser observers. A short passage from “The Birth-Mark” illustrates his method:
Some fastidious persons—but they were exclusively of her own sex—affirmed that the Bloody Hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana's beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous. But it would be as reasonable to say, that one of those small blue stains which sometimes occur in purest statuary marble, would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster. Masculine observers, if the birth-mark did not heighten their admiration, contented themselves with wishing it away, that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness, without the semblance of a flaw.
We also know that “many a desperate swain would have risked life for the privilege of pressing his lips to the mysterious hand” and, toward the end of the tale, Aylmer himself, while attempting to eradicate the mark, “by a strange and unaccountable impulse … pressed it with his lips.” Reactions to Georgiana's birth-mark vary from the attraction of Aminadab and other men, to the ambivalence of Georgiana, to the negative reactions of Aylmer. In short, the chief narrative foci are the perceptions of the characters themselves. Hawthorne tells us that reactions to the hand-like blemish on Georgiana's cheek vary “according to the difference of temperament in the beholders.” That is to say, the “meaning” of this symbol is complex and colored by the personality of the observer. This is one of the
clearest revelations by Hawthorne of his method and psychology. Hawthorne shows that an object becomes what each viewer's personalized perceptions would have it become.
Hawthorne skillfully establishes the governing centrality of the birth-mark by describing its effect mainly from the standpoint of Aylmer's “sombre imagination.” Specifically, Hawthorne gives overpowering sway to Aylmer's attitude toward the birth-mark and at the same time contrasts his view with Georgiana's initially more innocent perspective. We are told, for example, that before his marriage Aylmer had thought “little or nothing of the matter,” while Georgiana had always imagined that the mark on her cheek was a kind of “charm” which, if anything, enhanced rather than detracted from her beauty. Soon after marrying, however, Aylmer discovers that he can think of little else but the birth-mark, “in spite of a purpose to the contrary,” and that it has become a “frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” What has happened to make Aylmer feel this way? What indeed ails him? The question is a natural one, but useless. Hawthorne does not supply an answer and by this omission seems to suggest that insights into human behavior are likely to be subjective, imperfect, unsatisfying. What is important is not the cause of obsessive thought or compulsive behavior but the effects.
The dramatic situation here is that Aylmer, by marrying Georgiana, is forced to deal with a conflict between his earlier, somewhat distant view of her as an intellectualized feminine ideal and her present tangible reality. Clearly one meaning of the red hand is a mark of her accessibility to touch, that is, of her sexuality. It also includes conflict between personal idealization and reality—a classical and ubiquitous obsessional neurotic conflict. While Aylmer's struggle is virtually universal, his fixation on Georgiana's blemish approaches a symptom that is considered characteristic of obsessive-compulsive neurosis in modern-day psycho-pathological terms. The function of such neurotic symptoms in the psychic economy is to inhibit intolerable anxiety by focusing on an isolated and somewhat concrete representation so as to avoid a larger emotional conflict.
The psychoanalytic theorist Fenichel has written, “Many compulsive neurotics have to worry very much about small and apparently insignificant things. In analysis, these small things turn out to be substitutes for important ones.” And further: “Compulsive neurotics try to use external objects for the solution or relief of their inner conflicts.” As “the compulsive neurotic tends … to extend the range of his symptoms …” so Aylmer's reaction to the birth-mark grew “more and more intolerable with every moment of their lives,” presumably as a result of Georgiana's unavoidable presence. What at first seemed a trifling matter “so connected itself with innumerable trains of thoughts and modes of feeling, that it became the central point of all” [Stress added]. Like Parson Hooper, Aylmer is another Hawthornian victim of morbid forces, largely internal, beyond his control. Surely Aylmer's aversion owes its intensity and its obsessive character precisely to the fact that it is not accessible to conscious examination.
In his morbid striving toward perfection for himself, Aylmer erects a monstrous structure to avoid engaging his bride directly and intimately. It is not clear that Aylmer has ever had a mature human relationship with Georgiana. Rather, his wife appears to be a wonderful possession meant to contribute to his own self-esteem. Having captured this object of desire, he then proceeds to isolate her in a setting of stagelike opulence.
Aylmer had converted those smoky, dingy, sombre rooms, where he had spent his brightest years in recondite pursuits, into a series of beautiful apartments, not unfit to be the secluded abode of a lovely woman. The walls were hung with gorgeous curtains, which imparted the combination of grandeur and grace, that no other species of adornment can achieve; and as they fell from the ceiling to the floor, their rich and ponderous folds, concealing all angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite space.
The description seems to reinforce the distance at which he wants to keep Georgiana. Again he is master and controller and isolates Georgiana from the real world in rooms unearthly and enchanted. Intimate and sexual desires he feels for Georgiana are presumably transferred to his efforts to create the perfect chamber for the perfect woman he desires. Yet Aylmer's attempt to “shut in the scene” hints at something concealed, secretive and perhaps guilty about his quest. This impression of Aylmer's aloofness is supported by his detached and icy approach toward life generally: “He had left his laboratory to the care of an assistant, cleared
his fine countenance from the furnace-smoke, washed the stains of acids from his fingers, and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife.”
Given the aloof nature of their relationship as well as Aylmer's obsession, it is perhaps not surprising that Georgiana is victimized by her husband's ill-disguised “horror and disgust.” From Hawthorne's description of the birthmark it is clear that it would not even be visible if Aylmer could accept Georgiana's humanity, her passion and sexuality:
In the usual state of her complexion—a healthy, though delicate bloom—the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed, it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood, that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But, if any shifting emotion caused her to turn pale, there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness.
But rather than keeping her happy, he ironically unleashes a vicious circle: his discomfort infects her with anxiety; her pallor makes the birth-mark more obvious; and his heightened anxiety completes the vicious circle. His coldness makes the problem worse: “It needed but a glance, with the peculiar expression that his face often wore, to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the Crimson Hand was brought strongly out, like a bas-relief of ruby on the whitest marble.” Then Aylmer “so started with the intense glow of the birth-mark upon the whiteness of her cheek … could not restrain a strong convulsive shudder.” This reaction clearly typifies a neurotic vicious circle: Aylmer's anxiety leading to neurotic compromise, leading to more anxiety.
Eventually Aylmer corrupts Georgiana into accepting his deluded quest for omnipotence and perfection. She never feels the birth-mark is evil as Aylmer does, but she suddenly realizes “you cannot love what shocks you.” Rather than drawing the reasonable conclusion that Aylmer's feelings toward her are grotesque, she misleads herself into believing how much more “precious” was Aylmer's sentiment “than that meaner kind which would have borne imperfection for her sake. …” This feat of illogic closely resembles a shared delusion and paves the way for Georgiana's ultimate destruction.
The mocking laugh of Aminadab, an ordinary if somewhat peculiar man, suggests he realizes the irony of the situation and mocks his master, Aylmer, for trying to reach too high to attain perfection and reject humanity. He senses that escape from the human condition is hubris and death; that the attempt to scale the heights leads to descent into hell; that the more man struggles to be god-like, the more he makes misery for himself and others. In fact, the odd earthman Aminadab, an embodiment of humanity's long past, in contrast to Aylmer, has a rational and pragmatic attitude: “If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birth-mark.”
Aylmer, unlike Aminadab, alternates between blacks and whites rather than accepting the grays of life. He draws distinct lines between good and bad as does Young Goodman Brown, who must see Faith, indeed all women, as Madonna or whore and who therefore remains immature and uncommitted. Aylmer, too, is like an adolescent, unable to find a point of equilibrium between two poles of thought, not realizing that “to be is to be imperfect, that the price of human existence is imperfection.”
An ironic aspect of such obsessed and morbid behavior so often seen in Hawthorne's works, is that the more one struggles to attain perfection or to retain an unreasonable fixed idea, the more one is caught up in dealing with its opposite—imperfection and destruction. Obsessional behavior characteristically presents such ironies: those who seek perfect cleanliness are preoccupied with dirt. Elsewhere in Hawthorne, Endicott and the Puritans in “The Maypole of Merry Mount,” in their attempt to deny sensual pleasure, are constantly preoccupied with it and deal with it sadistically. While Aylmer aspires to perfection, his daily world is a secret, hellish, smokey, fume-filled place of labor cloaked with heavy curtains and giving him a strong identification with the powers of darkness, a devilish and fiendish quality. As Georgiana found:
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The first thing that struck her eyes was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it, seemed to have been burning for ages … The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors, which had been tormented forth by the processes of science. [Stress added]
The culmination of this diabolical side of Aylmer is Georgiana's destruction and death in the attempt to offer her the “elixir of immortality.”
There are numerous foreshadowings of the ultimate outcome of Aylmer's crazed drive. There is Georgiana's discovery of her husband's past failures, of his inability to carry past experiments to fruition. The symbol itself is characterized by Hawthorne as a mark of Original Sin or the imperfection born with man as a race, as “the fatal flaw of humanity, which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions … to imply that they are temporary and finite.…” Most significant is Aylmer's dream that explicitly suggests the intense, violent and remarkably sexual reaction the birth-mark evokes in Aylmer:
He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of the birth-mark. 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.
This dream seems to arise from a waking fantasy [“for before I fell asleep, it had taken a pretty firm hold of my fancy”] of the vivid and often destructive and violent kind so typical in obsessional neurosis. Hawthorne makes an extremely perceptive statement for one living in the pre-Freudian world of 1843:
When the dream had shaped itself perfectly in his memory, Aylmer sat in his wife's presence with a guilty feeling. Truth often finds its way to the mind close-muffled in robes of sleep, and then speaks with uncompromising directness of matters in regard to which we practise an unconscious self-deception, during our waking moments. [Stress added]
Again typical of obsessional neurotics, Aylmer goes on to act upon his omnipotent fantasies in a most compulsive and repetitious way by drawing Georgiana into a series of experiments with “drugs, elixers and concoctions” that eventually prove fatally toxic.
Up to this point we have been concerned with Hawthorne's presentation of Aylmer as one more neurotic and troubled obsessional soul More important, however, is Aylmer's dramatically exaggerated representation of a more general struggle to adjust the ideal and the real. Likewise the birth-mark can be viewed on more than one level. It is a mark of Georgiana's accessibility to touch, of her sexuality. It is suggestive of the scarlet letter—another public sign of secret and lustful sin, of “putting hands upon” in a sexual sense, of being touched, tainted, having sexuality and womanly characteristics. And, within the Judeo-Christian tradition, as noted above, it seems to Hawthorne to symbolize the fallen and sinful nature of man. In an even wider application, it symbolizes the mortality of all mankind.
We miss the point, however, if we connect the birth-mark solely with neurotic conflicts of atypical individuals or even with the hold death has on everyone, for the mark is also connected with sexuality and new life, indeed with aspiration to beauty and achievement and with the joy and energy for living. The importance of Hawthorne's psychological symbol is not the susceptibility of man to sin and death, but the special manner in which the marked woman suffers her fate: it is Aylmer who kills her. When the inward life concentrates narcissistically on self, demonic violence flares up in the lust to control and possess another person. Yet the first to be destroyed is Aylmer himself, who steps out of the procession of life, suffering from an incapacity to accept and integrate human emotions. The price of perfection is spiritual atrophy or death, a withdrawal from what Hawthorne called “the magnetic chain of humanity.”
Source: James Quinn and Ross Baldessarini, “‘The BirthMark’: A Deathmark,” in Hartford Studies in Literature, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1981, pp. 91–98.
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Horne, Lewis B., “The Heart, the Hand and ‘The Birthmark,’” in American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 1, 1969, pp. 38–41.
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Skredsvig, Kary Meyers, “Eve's Daughter, Mary's Child: Women's Representation in Hawthorne's ‘The Birthmark,’” in Revista de Filologia y Lingüística de la Universidad de Costa Rica, Vol. 26, No. 2, July/December 2000, pp. 95–105.
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Berkovitch, Sacvan, The Puritan Origins of the American Self, Yale University Press, 2011.
First published in 1975, this volume is a classic study of the influence of Puritanism on American culture and literature. As the title suggests, it explores the way that Puritanism helped define an American sense of identity.
Leeming, David Adam, and Kathleen Morgan Drowne, Encyclopedia of Allegorical Literature, ABC-CLIO, 1996.
Readers interested in allegorical literature will find in this volume discussion of all aspects of allegory in the Western tradition, from parts of the Bible to modern fiction. It also includes works from Africa, the Middle East, South America, and other cultures.
Marshall, Megan, The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism, Mariner Books, 2006.
Marshall examines the lives of Elizabeth and Mary Peabody along with their younger sister, Sophia, who became Hawthorne's wife. Each of the sisters in her own way was influential in helping to forge and sustain the American romantic movement.
Meltzer, Milton, Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Biography, Twenty-first Century Books, 2006.
Meltzer has written a biography of Hawthorne suitable for young adults. The biography explores the drama and tragedy of Hawthorne's life and is made more appealing by its use of drawings, paintings, and photographs.
Miller, Edwin Haviland, Salem Is My Dwelling Place: Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne, University of Iowa Press, 1992.
Readers interested in a more comprehensive, scholarly biography of Hawthorne will find this entry satisfying. While steering clear of psychological jargon, the biography explores the suppression and anguish that marked much of Hawthorne's life.
Porte, Joel, In Respect to Egotism: Studies in American Romanticism, Cambridge University Press, 2009.
This volume is a wide-ranging study of American romanticism and places Hawthorne in the context of other American romantics, including Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, and others. A discussion of Hawthorne and his works, including “The BirthMark,” is contained in chapter 5, “Hawthorne: ‘The Obscurest Man of Letters in America.”’
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