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The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does Aylmer's assistant, Aminadab, contrast with Aylmer in "The Birthmark," and why?

Aminadab represents the physical world. He is described as having "vast strength" and "shaggy hair" and being "incrusted" with "earthiness." Aylmer, on the contrary, is a man of spirit. He is "slender," "pale," and "intellectual." Aminadab is Aylmer's opposite, both in terms of their physical descriptions but also in terms of their attitudes toward Georgiana. Aminadab is connected to the earth rather than to the spirit, and whatever is earthly is also connected to decay and death, to what it means to live in the physical world. Aminadab is attracted to Georgiana's birthmark precisely because it isn't perfect, just as nothing in nature is "perfect." Aylmer, on the other hand, despises the birthmark for exactly these reasons and aspires to control and manipulate the material world in order to reach a higher state of spiritual perfection by removing the birthmark.

What is the significance of the "optical phenomena" with which Aylmer entertains Georgiana in "The Birthmark"?

Taken to her room adjacent to Aylmer's laboratory, Georgiana is afraid and worried, but Aylmer distracts her with a demonstration of his scientific powers, which consists mostly of flitting lights, shadows, and illusions. The narrator notes that these "optical phenomena" are often "more attractive than the original," and yet they are not "real." This is an indirect reference to Georgiana's birthmark, which is "original" to her and "real," while Aylmer's ideal of perfection, which requires the birthmark's removal, is an illusion that, like his visual spectacle, is "bodiless" and "insubstantial." Moreover, the "optical illusions" he demonstrates are like tricks at a children's magic show, suggesting to readers that Aylmer's scientific "powers" may be much less substantial than he has suggested to Georgiana.

In "The Birthmark" why does the plant Aylmer shows her suddenly wither and die when Georgiana touches it and what does this mean?

Aylmer is able to perform at least one amazing scientific feat, which is to make a plant suddenly grow and flower. But he admits that the "perfect and lovely" flower can only last for a short time, and as soon as Georgiana touches it, it dies even faster than he predicted. Aylmer's creation is itself an illusion, or at least imperfect, because it is so fragile and transitory. This foreshadows Aylmer's temporary "cure" of his wife's flaw, as well as her death. He achieves "perfection " by making the birthmark disappear, but only for a moment and at a great price. When Aylmer comments that his wife's touch is "too powerful a stimulus," this suggests that perhaps Georgiana has been "too powerful a stimulus" upon her husband's imagination, and therefore a threat to his scientific endeavors. Her touch also speeds up the mortality of the flower, a reminder that she represents the real, natural world, not the world of perfection.

Why does Aylmer destroy the photograph he creates of his wife in "The Birthmark"?

The portrait, created by the use of early photographic processes, is another example of Aylmer's scientific and technical knowledge, but the resulting portrait of Georgiana's face is blurry, except for the birthmark, which is the only feature that stands out. This symbolizes the fact that Aylmer fixates on the birthmark and therefore cannot see his wife as a whole person. His destruction of the portrait could also foreshadow the destruction of his wife at his hands, and it illustrates how Aylmer's scientific knowledge is imperfect and he sometimes fails. This is another example, following the death of the plant, of Aylmer's plans or experiments not meeting his expectations. This failure has become conflated for him with his obsessive desire to remove his wife's birthmark. The episode with the portrait is also a reminder of the limitations of science and technology, especially to replicate or control the physical world.

What is the significance of the golden principle and the elixir vitae in "The Birthmark"?

The golden principle, by which base metals can be turned into gold, and the elixir vitae, by which mortal life can be extended forever, are two discoveries scientists had sought for centuries. They represent infinite wealth and infinite life. They are also examples of how scientists can manipulate and disrupt the natural world to reach a higher form of perfection. Aylmer boasts that these discoveries are within his reach, both as a means to demonstrate his power to Georgiana and to calm her fears about his failures. He also says he would not "wrong" Georgiana or himself with these discoveries because they would be "inharmonious," or disruptive, to their lives. But Aylmer does not seem to realize that his attempt to remove the birthmark is similarly "inharmonious" with nature.

In "The Birthmark" why doesn't Aylmer use his remedy for removing freckles to remove Georgiana's birthmark?

Aylmer shows Georgiana a "cosmetic" he has invented that can wash away freckles. Georgiana imagines that if it could wash away freckles, then it could also wash away the birthmark. Aylmer, however, asserts that her birthmark "demands a remedy that shall go deeper." Aylmer is convinced that the birthmark is not only a physical flaw but symbolizes a deeper spiritual flaw as well. Therefore, to remove the birthmark completely from Georgiana's cheek, he believes that he needs a much more potent solution. The cosmetic also foreshadows Georgiana's death. Aylmer asserts that the cosmetic, if too strong, would leave her "a pale ghost," but this exactly what she becomes at the end of the story when she dies after drinking, not the cosmetic, but the potion that removes her birthmark.

Why does Georgiana cry when she reads Aylmer's journal in "The Birthmark"?

Reading Aylmer's journal causes Georgiana to cry, although her reasons for doing so are ambiguous. His journal reveals Aylmer's fantastic dreams of achievement but also that, despite his successes, his accomplishments mostly fall short of his aspirations. He seems to be struggling with the fact that his powers are limited and that he is far from perfect because his spiritual goals are repeatedly defeated by the blunt limitations of dealing with physical matter. A variety of interpretations of the reasons for Georgiana's tears are possible. Georgiana may weep not because she seems to fear Aylmer's failure, but because she admires his passion. Perhaps she feels moved that she is now the subject of his great work. Perhaps she cries because she realizes the suffering his failures must cause him. She may also shed tears because she has to acknowledge that she now "reverences Aylmer and loves him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore." She may also cry because she is now quite sure drinking the potion to remove her birthmark will likely result in her own death.

In "The Birthmark," when Georgiana visits Aylmer's lab, why is she shocked by what she sees, and how does she respond?

When Georgiana enters the lab, the veil is lifted on her husband's efforts. The laboratory contrasts sharply with the sweet warmth and elegance of her own rooms. Aylmer and his assistant Aminadab are laboriously and anxiously working over the cure for Georgiana's birthmark. The scene is dirty, hot, and loud. Aylmer is very agitated that Georgiana is there, calling her a "prying woman" and demanding that she leave. This is the most anger that he has shown his wife throughout the story, and it suggests that he is honestly worried about the outcome of his experiment, as well as concerned that she will see him as a failure. However, Georgiana does not run away in fear or agree to leave; rather, she confronts Aylmer about his work and asserts her commitment to the experiment to remove the birthmark despite the risks involved.

After he first tells her to leave the laboratory, why does Aylmer then consent to tell Georgiana about his work in "The Birthmark"?

When Aylmer tells Georgiana to leave, she insists that he does not trust her to know the full extent of the danger of the experiment, but she also says that she will take "whatever draught you bring me," even if it is poison. Her self-sacrifice and her trust move Aylmer to allow her to stay. He may also be impressed with her courage. Aylmer admits to Georgiana that he had no idea how hard it would be to remove the birthmark, and that the experiment is very dangerous. Georgiana says she doesn't care how dangerous it is, but the birthmark must be removed or they will both go "mad." Georgiana's insistence on proceeding with the experiment, despite the risks Aylmer describes, bonds them closer together because she has agreed to sacrifice herself to his work by fully committing to, or marrying, it.

In "The Birthmark," even after understanding the danger she is in, why does Georgiana adopt Aylmer's great passion for removing the birthmark?

Georgiana's reasons are ambiguous. She may believe the only way to earn and keep her husband's love is to agree to his plan to remove the birthmark. She may assume that, as a man of science and as her husband, he is an authority, and she should therefore submit to him. She may feel pity or compassion for him after reading about his struggles in his journal. She may simply have given up after being worn down by Aylmer's criticism of the birthmark or have become genuinely convinced her birthmark is indeed as repulsive as he claims. Georgiana admires her husband's desire to achieve perfection. At this point in the story, she makes an argument her husband would love, claiming that it would be "treason to holy love," or a sense of ideal, absolute love, if he were to accept her with her flaw.

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