"The Birth-Mark"

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Author: Cindy Weinstein
Editors: Janet Gabler-Hover and Robert Sattelmeyer
Date: 2006
American History Through Literature 1820-1870
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) is perhaps best known for his novels of the 1850s, The Scarlet Letter (1850), The House of the Seven Gables (1851), and The Blithedale Romance (1852). Yet in the two decades before this creative outpouring, Hawthorne was busy composing some of the most famous short stories written by an American author. Titles such as "The Minister's Black Veil" and "The Shaker Bridal," both of which were originally published in The Token, found their way into Twice-Told Tales (1837, 1842), Hawthorne's first collection of short stories. Years later he took several stories that had previously appeared in literary journals such as the New-England Magazine and compiled them into Mosses from an Old Manse (1846), a volume that many readers, antebellum as well as contemporary, believe includes some of his greatest short works, for example, "Rappaccini's Daughter," "Young Goodman Brown," and "The Birth-mark." In fact, no less a reader than Herman Melville (1819–1891) composed a paean to this collection in his 1850 essay "Hawthorne and His Mosses," which, even though it has as much if not more to say about Melville's claims to originality and Shakespearean genius as it does about Hawthorne's stories, lavishes this praise upon the author of "The Old Apple Dealer": "Hawthorne is here almost alone in his generation,—at least, in the artistic manifestation of things" (p. 242).

One might reasonably argue that Hawthorne, far from being alone, keeps company with that other famous short-story writer of the period, Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849). Together they share a literary penchant for the gothic, an interest in popular science, and a continued fascination with the proposition that, in the infamous words of Poe, "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world" (p. 184). When it comes to dying women—and here one thinks of Poe's Ligeia and
Nathaniel Hawthorne. Photograph from a carte de visite. THE ART ARCHIVE/CULVER PICTURES Nathaniel Hawthorne. Photograph from a carte de visite. THE ART ARCHIVE/CULVER PICTURES Berenice and Hawthorne's Beatrice ("Rappaccini's Daughter") and Georgiana—the two are experts. In addition to which, like Poe, Hawthorne is profoundly interested in writing stories that self-consciously reflect upon "the artistic manifestation of things." Hawthorne's protagonists are often creators of some sort, whether sculptors, scientists, or artists, as in the case of Owen Warland of "The Artist of the Beautiful," about whom the narrator writes, "Alas, that the artist, whether in poetry or whatever other material, may not content himself with the inward enjoyment of the Beautiful, but must chase the flitting mystery beyond the verge of his ethereal domain, and crush its frail being in seizing it with a material grasp!" (p. 916). The violence done to nature by art, the search for perfect form at the expense of one's human relationships, and the tension between the artistic ideal of the human body and the reality of that flawed, and often female, body, are themes that run throughout Hawthorne's short stories. And because his stories are about the production of art, they are also stories aboutPage 122  |  Top of Article and admonitions to the artist himself. Time and again Hawthorne composes allegories of his own artistic production, desire, and what Melville identified as that "great power of blackness [which] derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin" ("Hawthorne and His Mosses," p. 243). Although Hawthorne acknowledges and even applauds the commitment that goes into the artist's desire for great art, more often than not he sees art as a powerful enticement away from the real and toward the unattainable ideal, away from generosity and toward hubris, away from the warmth of human beings and toward "a sensation of moral cold, that makes the spirit shiver" (p. 917). To what extent Hawthorne's own literary artistry is complicit in the very depravity, egotism, and absence of sympathy that he wishes to critique is a central question in many of his most memorable texts.


"The Birth-mark," first published in the Pioneer in March 1843, represents a particularly effective and sustained consideration of precisely these aesthetic issues and others of more cultural import. The plot is relatively simple. Aylmer, a scientist whose experiments are notable more for failing than succeeding, marries Georgiana, who, though perfect in every other way, has a birthmark he desperately wants to remove. Georgiana, unsurprisingly, is not as keen as Aylmer on this procedure, although as the story unfolds, she becomes as psychically afflicted by the birthmark as he. In the course of experimenting upon his wife, Aylmer adds yet another failure to his list, and Georgiana dies in the process of having the birthmark removed.

What is so powerful about this story? First is Hawthorne's portrayal of Aylmer's monomania, a psychological state whose characteristics were being formulated in the antebellum period by the American psychiatrist Isaac Ray. In his 1838 A Treatise on the Medical Jurisprudence of Insanity, Ray argues that "the mind is not observed to have lost any of its original vigor, [and] the patient suffers from delusion concerning one topic" (Smith, p. 38). Hawthorne describes Aylmer's monomaniacal state of mind as "the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind" (p. 767). Monomaniacs, it is known, populate American fiction (think of Ahab and the narrators of Poe's "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart"), and Aylmer is not Hawthorne's only specimen (Hollingsworth in The Blithedale Romance, Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter, Rappaccini, Richard Digby in "The Man of Adamant," and many others). Aylmer's particular version of monomania is fascinating because the "one topic" that obsesses him is his wife's birthmark. And as Hawthorne represents it, it is not just any birthmark. This "singular mark" wears "a tint of deeper crimson," bears "not a little similarity to the human hand," and signifies endlessly (p. 765). In the course of only a few pages, the hand is referred to as "the Bloody Hand," "the Crimson Hand," and "the odious Hand" and is likened to a "fairy sign-manual" (pp. 765, 766, 767). The hand, in other words, is a text not unlike the scarlet letter or the white whale, about which Ahab says, "he tasks me; he heaps me" (p. 164). Like Moby-Dick, the birthmark, both the physical mark and the story itself, begs to be read.

One should begin with the mark on Georgiana's body. Aylmer seizes upon the mark as evidence of the following: "it was the fatal flaw of humanity"; it "expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould"; it was "the symbol of imperfection" (p. 766). Such a reading, then, permits him to transform Georgiana into the subject of a scientific experiment, which is precisely what the narrator warns readers about in the opening paragraph: "He had devoted himself too unreservedly to scientific studies, ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science" (p. 764). Being the ideal wife, Georgiana comes to loathe the birthmark as much as her husband does and is desperate to do whatever it takes to get "the spectral Hand" (p. 766) removed and thereby regain Aylmer's love.

Aylmer gets the hand but loses Georgiana. He is "the man of science" (p. 779) whose commitment to knowledge and perfection becomes a mechanism for his egotism and cruelty, destroying everything in its path. But why would anyone get so worked up about a birthmark? Aylmer's interpretation of the birthmark as malevolent certainly aids and abets his scientific claims over it, and yet his readings are clearly informed by other aspects of the birthmark that are related to gender. Indeed, this is the second reason for the power of the story. The birthmark (both mark and story) oozes feminine sexuality. It seems no coincidence that Aylmer is not bothered by it during their courtship, but "very soon after their marriage" (p. 764), and presumably after they have had sexual intercourse, he is. The birthmark is crimson and bloody, signifying menstruation and a loss of virginity. It is also connected to Georgiana's emotions, more particularly "its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart" (p. 767). The stereotypical divide between reason and feeling is here represented and undermined by the two central characters. Hawthorne reveals the unbridled passion at the core of Aylmer's allegedlyPage 123  |  Top of Article rational dedication to science, and Georgiana, the one who blushes, reddens, and "burst[s] into tears" (p. 775) in typical sentimental fashion, is also the one who reads Aylmer's scientific journals, questions him about the drugs he is administering to her, and knows that she is dying well before Aylmer has a clue (even though he has had many clues as to the potentially disastrous consequences of his elixirs).

A key reason, then, that Aylmer wants to erase the birthmark is that it signifies a sexuality with which he is deeply uncomfortable. Unlike the true woman of antebellum domestic ideology, whose qualities include—according to the historian Barbara Welter's influential essay "The Cult of True Womanhood"—piety, submission, domesticity, and most importantly for the purposes of "The Birth-mark," purity, Georgiana is a sexualized being, and the birthmark registers "every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart" (p. 766). If that were not problematic enough, it also signals a wifely submission that is incomplete. Georgiana's birthmark gives away her interior state because it records "any shifting emotion," whether that be "momentary anger" (p. 765), sadness, or fear, such as when she is so white at the prospect of beginning the experiment that the birth-mark "intense[ly] glows," Aylmer "convulsive[ly] shudders," and she faints (p. 769).

The birthmark, therefore, not only becomes the mechanism through which Aylmer's aversion to Georgiana's sexuality gets played out but represents something of her that is wholly outside of his control (and hers too, but that does not matter much from Aylmer's point of view). The most obvious way to put this point is to say that she comes to him with a mark that he has not made. That Georgiana's mother (or father) has made it, or that "our great Creative Mother" (p. 769) might have made it, is irrelevant. The fact is that someone has been there before him, so he must destroy it and thereby remake her in his desired image à la Pygmalion, a text to which Hawthorne's refers (p. 768). The problem for Aylmer, though, runs deeper. Not only is the birthmark beyond his control, it controls him, and this configuration of power represents the antithesis of all that an antebellum domestic household should be.

Of course Georgiana is the victim of the story, but Hawthorne brilliantly represents how the birthmark (and her husband's obsession with it) victimizes Aylmer. It is important to remember that "its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand" (p. 765). In an almost comic way, as Aylmer furiously tries to erase that hand-shaped mark, hands, parts of hands, and the verbs used to describe what hands do start appearing throughout the text. For example, Aylmer tells Georgiana that the birthmark "had taken a pretty firm hold of my fancy" (p. 767). About Aylmer's scientific pursuits the narrator writes, "he handled physical details, as if there were nothing beyond them" and "in his grasp, the veriest clod of earth assumed a soul" (p. 774). Aylmer's hands are everywhere: Georgiana "returned the goblet to his hand" (p. 778); she read "a large folio from her husband's own hand" (p. 774); he "seized her arm with a gripe that left the print of his fingers upon it" (p. 776). "The Birth-mark" represents a power struggle between man and wife in which the man demands that the wife give up something that she herself does not exactly own. The birthmark is both hers and something over which she has no control, and as such, even with the best will in the world (which Georgiana has), she cannot lose it.

Being unable to divest herself of the birthmark can be read in multiple ways, one of which is as evidence of the fact of female sexuality. Another way, however, to think about the necessary visibility of the birthmark is in terms of property and antebellum marriage law. William Blackstone, whose legal decisions about marriage in the eighteenth century laid the groundwork for U.S. marriage laws, maintained that when a woman married, she became a femme couverte, or a covered woman. Although there were exceptions, as a general rule her property became her husband's, and she did too. That Hawthorne and Sophia Peabody had married (and happily so) less than a year before he wrote "The Birth-mark" provides biographical evidence to suggest that issues of marriage and property (and sex) were on Hawthorne's mind. Interestingly "The Birth-mark" seems to question the extent to which a woman can become the property of her husband by endowing Georgiana with a physical property that is so "deeply interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face" (p. 765) that when asked to give it up, she cannot. To read the story this way is to see Hawthorne challenging some fundamental assumptions of domestic ideology. There are some things that a woman simply cannot and should not be asked to give up.


"The Birth-mark" is at once a fascinating study of monomania and its potentially gothic implications for domestic relations, and yet the third reason for the continued critical interest in this short story has more to do with its representation of literary production. Once again, the shape of the birthmark is significant. Hawthorne's narrator and the characters in the story tirelessly call attention to the fact that thePage 124  |  Top of Article birthmark is in the shape of a hand. Aylmer is a scientist, but he is also, quite literally, a writer, an "author" whose volume "rich with achievements . . . was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned" (p. 775). Georgiana reads his works, which are testimonies of failure, presaging her own demise. Whereas the scientist-author does not foresee the consequences of his experiments, the unlike-liest character in the story does. That is Aminadab, Aylmer's "under-worker," who "seemed to represent man's physical nature." A fully embodied creature with "vast strength" and "indescribable earthiness," he understands how Aylmer's attacks on Georgiana's body spell doom. He remarks, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birth-mark" (p. 770). Aminadab comprehends the inextricability of Georgiana and her mark. To marry her is, on some level, to marry the birthmark. To divorce her from her mark is to kill her.

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In this passage from "The Birth-mark," Georgiana reads Aylmer's scientific record. Several points should be noted. First, Aylmer is an author. Second, Georgiana responds to his writings both as an ideal woman (she loves him even more for his ambitions) and as a transgressive woman (she begins to question his judgment). Third, the presence of hands is an inextricable part of the narrative, just as Georgiana's birthmark is an inalienable part of herself.

But, to Georgiana, the most engrossing volume was a large folio from her husband's own hand, in which he had recorded every experiment of his scientific career, with its original aim, the methods adopted for its development, and its final success or failure, with the circumstances to which either event was attributable. The book, in truth, was both the history and emblem of his ardent, ambitious, imaginative, yet practical and laborious, life. He handled physical details, as if there were nothing beyond them. . . . In his grasp, the veriest clod of earth assumed a soul. Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer, and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach. The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned.

Hawthorne, Tales and Sketches, pp. 774–775.

Aylmer is an author figure who reads "the fairy-sign manual" of the birthmark as evidence of his own need to write an even better manual, presumably one with no marks. And one with no women. In attempting to erase the hand on Georgiana's cheek, Aylmer wants to re-create Georgiana, only this time immaculately. There will be no reproduction, with its blood and messiness, but only production, with its calculation and rationality. What issues from this logic, which Mary Shelley had examined only twelve years before, is a model of male creation, dependent upon though deadly to the female body. Aylmer becomes, like so many of Hawthorne's scientists-artists gone mad, incapable of love, of community, of sympathy. As an allegory of the potential consequences of authorship, "The Birth-mark" seems to suggest that writing itself is a dangerous proposition for all concerned. In writing an allegory of the perversions of the creative process, Hawthorne acknowledges the philosophical lures of Alymer's search for perfection and yet protects himself from repeating the unpardonable sins that go along with just such a pursuit. This reading maintains that the pleasures of "The Birth-mark" are the result of the exquisite self-consciousness that Hawthorne's writing brings to bear on the issue of writing itself. It is, ironically enough, an allegory of the dangers of allegory. This is a topic about which Hawthorne eloquently wrote in an introductory and certainly autobiographical note to "Rappaccini's Daughter." The narrator states that the story one is about to read is M. de l'Aubepiné's, whose writings "might have won him greater reputation but for an inveterate love of allegory, which is apt to invest his plots and characters with the aspect of scenery and people in the clouds, and to steal away the human warmth out of his conceptions" (p. 975). Aylmer's fear and loathing of Georgiana's birthmark, and his concomitant desire to erase it, meets its match in Hawthorne's compulsion to erase the model of authorship that is getting represented in "The Birth-mark." After all, Aylmer is, if nothing else, an allegorist who plunders Georgiana's humanity under the guise of scientific knowledge. Hawthorne represents his self-consciousness about the dangers of allegory through the literary mode he knows best and fears most—allegory (think of "The Celestial Rail-road" and "Egotism; or, The Bosom-Serpent,"Page 125  |  Top of Article whose subtitle is "From the Unpublished 'Allegories of the Heart'").

In just a few pages "The Birth-mark" presents an account of antebellum domestic relations gone so awry so fast that readers continue to try to figure out how Hawthorne does it and what it means. Such an interpretive pursuit follows the author's lead, for even Hawthorne himself was sometimes perplexed by his own stories. In an 1854 letter to his publisher, James T. Fields, Hawthorne observes, "Upon my honor, I am not quite sure that I entirely comprehend my own meaning in some of these blasted allegories" (Crowley, p. 522). Does Hawthorne's story represent a critique of nineteenth-century conventions of marriage (no woman should be asked to give up essential aspects of herself when marrying) or an endorsement of the doctrine of separate spheres (if only Aylmer had stayed in the laboratory and kept Georgiana out of it)? Is the human "stain" (p. 765)—to invoke provocatively the title of Philip Roth's 2000 novel of hidden racial identity—of the birthmark a sign of a racialized identity about which Aylmer was unaware when he "washed the stain of acids from his fingers and persuaded a beautiful woman to become his wife" (p. 764)? Like Melville's Moby-Dick, the birthmark, whose waning is described at the end of Hawthorne's story as "the stain of the rainbow fading out of the sky" (p. 779), is erased at one's peril. To interpret the birthmark as the monomaniac Aylmer does is to make a natural object "fatal" (pp. 776, 779, 780). Indeed, such an interpretive move occurs both in Moby-Dick ("The Birth-mark" is one of the most heavily marked tales in Melville's copy of Mosses from an Old Manse, according to Richard Brodhead, even though he does not discuss it in "Hawthorne and His Mosses"), and in Billy Budd (published posthumously in 1924), when Vere calls Billy "fated boy" (p. 350) at the moment of Claggart's death. In fact, Billy's stutter is explicitly compared to Georgiana's birthmark in the following passage: "Like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales, there was just one thing amiss in him. No visible blemish indeed, as with the lady; no, but an occasional liability to a vocal defect" (p. 302). Like Georgiana, Billy is condemned to die by an act of ghastly interpretation. The power of Hawthorne's story, for Melville and for readers, continues to serve as a warning to writers who dare to tread in allegorical waters and to readers whose interpretations are required and regarded with suspicion.


Primary Works

Crowley, J. Donald. "Historical Commentary." In The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, edited by William Charvat, Roy Harvey Pearce, and Claude M. Simpson. Vol. 10, Mosses from an Old Manse, edited by J. Donald Crowley and Fredson Bowers. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1974.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Tales and Sketches. New York: Library of America, 1982. All page citations to Hawthorne works refer to this edition.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd and Other Stories. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Melville, Herman. "Hawthorne and His Mosses." 1850. In The Piazza Tales and Other Prose Pieces, 1839–1860, edited by Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. 1851. Edited by Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988.

Poe, Edgar Allan Poe. "The Philosophy of Composition." 1846. In The Complete Poetry and Selected Criticism of Edgar Allan Poe, edited and with an introduction by Allen Tate. New York: Meridian, 1986.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. The Shape of Hawthorne's Career. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1976.

Brodhead, Richard H. The School of Hawthorne. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Elbert, Monika. "The Surveillance of Woman's Body in Hawthorne's Short Stories." Women's Studies 33 (2004): 23–46.

Fetterley, Judith, "Woman Beware Science: 'The Birthmark.'" In The Scarlet Letter and Other Writings, edited by Leland S. Person. New York: Norton, 2004.

Herbert, T. Walter. Dearest Beloved: The Hawthornes and the Making of the Middle-Class Family. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Pfister, Joel. The Production of Personal Life: Class, Gender, and the Psychological in Hawthorne's Fiction. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Smith, Henry Nash. Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Weinstein, Cindy. Family, Kinship, and Sympathy in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Weinstein, Cindy. The Literature of Labor and the Labors of Literature: Allegory in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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Welter, Barbara. Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978.

Cindy Weinstein

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3450700033