The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


What is the attitude of the narrator toward the characters and events in "The Birthmark"?

The narrator says that the events of this story are "remarkable" and contain "a deeply impressive moral." The narrator acts throughout the story as a moral arbiter, commenting on whether the thoughts and actions of the characters are right or wrong. Clues early in the story show that the narrator sympathizes with Georgiana, especially when he compares the birthmark to a vein of blue in an otherwise perfectly white marble statue of Eve. The blue, like the crimson-colored birthmark, is a natural physical attribute that does not diminish beauty but enhances it. Aylmer, however, feels the opposite about the birthmark, which he believes creates a distracting flaw that spoils Georgiana's beauty. After Georgiana's death, in the story's final paragraph, the narrator, acting as a moral authority, expresses his view that Aylmer has "failed ... to find the perfect future in the present" by failing to appreciate his wife for who she is.

In "The Birthmark" why does the narrator say the birthmark is "deeply interwoven ... with the texture and substance of [Georgiana's] face"?

The birthmark is a physical mark, but it's a "spiritual" mark, too, and connected to who Georgiana is, not just what she looks like. Its appearance changes according to what she is feeling. When she is pale, it is more prominent. When she blushes, it nearly disappears. Because it represents her emotions, this means that in order for Aylmer to remove it, he must not only remove the physical mark but also must remove some essential part of Georgiana's inner being as well. Aylmer fails to recognize how high the cost is, in this sense, of getting rid of the birthmark.

How do people other than her husband interpret Georgiana's birthmark differently in "The Birthmark," and why?

Some women, who may be jealous of Georgiana's beauty, refer to the birthmark as a "bloody hand" that renders her "hideous." Her male lovers viewed the birthmark as the imprint of a "fairy hand" and a key to her charm. Aminadab, Aylmer's assistant, notes that if Georgiana were his wife, he "would never part with that birthmark," suggesting its powerful charm. Other men, however, regard the birthmark as a "flaw" that, if removed, would leave Georgiana a "living specimen of ideal loveliness." These varied interpretations suggest that the truth of what the birthmark represents is ambiguous and depends on the perspective of the viewer who projects his or her own feelings upon it.

In "The Birthmark" how does Aylmer interpret his wife's birthmark?

Aylmer falls into the category of those men who believe that if Georgiana's birthmark were to be removed, then she would be a picture of ideal beauty. Interestingly, this means that Aylmer does not fall within the category of Georgiana's lovers, who regarded the birthmark as a delightful symbol of Georgiana's charm. Aylmer is more on the side of idealism than of loving his wife for who she is, flaws and all. As a scientist, Aylmer strives to solve problems in the physical world, to create perfection. The physical fact of death is one of these problems to overcome, as is the spiritual "fact" of original sin. The birthmark is thus connected to sin and death in Aylmer's mind and becomes a personification of the problems that he is trying to overcome. This means that Aylmer's experiment is a religious one as much as it is physical. Puritanism, of which Hawthorne very often writes, is concerned with those outward physical signs that might signify spiritual purity or spiritual disease. Hawthorne's ancestors were Puritans and in fact one of them, John Hathorne, participated in the Salem witch trials, a fact that embarrassed Hawthorne and prompted him to change the spelling of the family name from Hathorne to Hawthorne. In this sense, "The Birthmark" is a critique of Puritanism.

In "The Birthmark" why does Georgiana begin to refer to her birthmark as "odious"?

When Georgiana overhears Aylmer talking in his sleep during a dream about the necessity of removing the birthmark, she realizes how much doing so means to him. Once Aylmer begins to fixate on the birthmark as her "flaw," it becomes "the central point of all" in their marriage, and Georgiana also begins to wish it be removed. Increasingly unable to withstand her husband's harsh scrutiny, Georgiana internalizes his disgust, referring to the birthmark as "odious." At this point in the story, Georgiana adopts her husband's view of her birthmark, perhaps because she fears that her husband will reject her unless she agrees that the birthmark should be removed.

In "The Birthmark" when Aylmer dreams, why does he say, "It is in her heart now," when referring to Georgiana's birthmark?

Aylmer connects his wife's physical birthmark to an ailment "in her heart" because he views it as a symptom of a larger flaw in her very being that is not just physical, but spiritual. She has done nothing to make him feel this way, however. Rather, Aylmer believes that the physical world is linked to the spiritual world, an idea based in Christianity. His response is also connected to the common belief in 17th-century Puritanism that all humans are born marked by original sin. In his dream Aylmer tries to operate on his wife to remove the birthmark, but he finds that it recedes farther and farther from his knife, eluding his attempt to get rid of it. In fact, it appears to "have caught hold of Georgiana's heart." The heart is the symbolic location of the emotions, especially love, and of life itself. Aylmer sees the birthmark's movement toward Georgiana's heart as a threat to her, but it may be that it moves closer to her heart because it is attempting to escape Aylmer's ruthless scientific probing in favor of love and life.

In "The Birthmark" why does Georgiana insist that Aylmer must remove the birthmark, even it means killing her?

Georgiana has come to feel that the birthmark is horrendous and must be removed. While she did not feel this way when they were first married, her husband's fixation upon it, especially his insistence that the birthmark is connected with some flaw in her being, has driven her to be as disgusted by it as her husband. The fact that it is supposedly connected to her heart is symbolic of the fact that Aylmer's love for her seems connected to its removal. In the same way, her heart is now indeed poisoned by the birthmark because it has been given such power over their marriage. It is also possible that Georgiana has been absorbed into her husband's obsession with perfection so completely that she feels that death is preferable to not fulfilling Aylmer's ideals.

In "The Birthmark" how does Aylmer feel about his wife, once she asks him to remove her birthmark?

Aylmer exclaims, "Noblest—dearest—tenderest wife!" when Georgiana asks him to remove the birthmark. Her willingness to submit to his scientific knowledge is exciting for Aylmer, who views the operation as an opportunity for him to be empowered by achieving human perfection. He insists to her that he can do this, though an argument could be made that if he really loved and valued her, then he wouldn't feel so compelled to remove the birthmark at all. It also may be that he wants to save their marriage, and feels he cannot go on with it if this "stain" isn't removed. Of course, however, the birthmark is not new, and this begs the question of why Aylmer married Georgiana in the first place.

What is the significance of the fact that Aylmer kisses Georgiana on her right cheek in "The Birthmark"?

Aylmer avoids kissing the left cheek with his wife's "hideous" birthmark and kisses her right cheek instead. Her unblemished right cheek represents the ideal of perfection that he is fixated on. He cannot imagine loving what he considers the "flawed" side of his wife. Aylmer is thrilled that Georgiana wants him to remove the birthmark, which is why he kisses her, but it is a kiss that shows he cannot ever love her wholly unless and until she meets his ideal of perfection. He later kisses Georgiana a second time, but this time on her left cheek, after she has drunk his potion to remove the birthmark. It may be that at the moment the birthmark may be about to disappear, he realizes that it is some vital aspect of her, or it may be that he is simply saying farewell to the flawed "old wife" in anticipation of the flawless "new" one. But even as he attempts to kiss the birthmark on her left cheek, he "recoils," still unable to overcome his disgust.

In "The Birthmark" why does Georgiana's birthmark "glow" as she is led into her husband's laboratory?

As Georgiana enters her husband's laboratory, her birthmark seems to glow bright red across her check because she has grown terribly pale, filled with fear and foreboding. This foreshadows Georgiana's forthcoming death. It is also a bit of situational irony in which what is expected to happen differs from what actually does happen. Georgiana is entering the laboratory so that she might have the birthmark removed, but as she gets deeper into Aylmer's cold, intellectual world, the birthmark grows even more pronounced. His love of science (and of his own powers) seems to heighten the birthmark's power, rather than lessen it, as if it is insisting on its right to exist and resisting his attempt to remove it.

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