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The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In "The Birthmark" why does Georgiana tell Aylmer that if it were not for him, she might wish to kill herself rather than live with the birthmark?

In the moments before she is to swallow Aylmer's potion, Georgiana expresses that she is exasperated with herself. She says that if she were morally weak, she might accept the birthmark and be happy, or if she were morally stronger, she might live with the birthmark "hopefully." She is highly self-critical and feels as if the only solution is to die. In this respect, she has internalized Aylmer's own impossibly high standards and applied them ruthlessly to herself. These sentiments show that Georgiana has become as obsessed with her birthmark as Aylmer. When she drinks Aylmer's potion, Georgiana says it "allays a feverish thirst," which could be her thirst for perfection or her thirst for an end to this torture. Considering she has just spoken to Aylmer about wishing to die, her comments suggest she suspects the potion will be her doom.

Why does the narrator in "The Birthmark" compare the birthmark to a rainbow?

As Aylmer watches the birthmark fade from Georgiana's cheek, the narrator compares the experience to watching a rainbow fade from the sky. Rainbows are relatively rare and beautiful occurrences in nature, and Georgiana's birthmark is similarly rare and perhaps as beautiful. In the Bible, the rainbow is a sign from God. It symbolically connects the human and the divine and conveys a sense of peace, reconciliation, and hope for the future. In the story of Noah, for example, a rainbow appears after the flood as a sign of God's promise never to attempt to destroy the earth's inhabitants again. Beauty, like a rainbow, is inherently unusual, fleeting, and mysterious. When the birthmark fades from Georgiana's cheek, the comparison to the fading rainbow is a reminder that the loss of the birthmark is the loss of a connection to the natural world, to individuality, to beauty, to life, and to hope.

Why does Aminadab laugh at the end of "The Birthmark" as Georgiana is about to die?

Aminadab had previously said he would never remove the birthmark if Georgiana had been his wife. Now that Georgiana is on the verge of death, Aminadab's laugh seems sarcastic or bitter. He has served his "master," Aylmer, by helping him concoct the potion to remove the birthmark, but Aylmer's cure has killed Georgiana. Aminadab's sarcasm could reflect his disgust with Aylmer, who has destroyed what Aminadab would embrace. Aminadab represents the earthly, physical aspect of humanity, the material world. Aminadab's laugh symbolizes the triumph of nature over the pride of man. People will always succumb to natural, physical processes like decay and death, no matter how hard they try to fight them. In the end, science cannot provide the dominance over nature Aylmer seeks and his pursuit of perfection is revealed as a delusion.

Why does Georgiana say Aylmer has rejected "the best that earth could offer" in "The Birthmark"?

Georgiana knows she is dying, and in her dying, she tells her husband that by removing the birthmark he has rejected the reality of earthly life—life with all its flaws and limitations. The narrator says the birthmark was the visible connection between an "angelic spirit" and "a mortal frame." Consequently, erasing the physical birthmark also means erasing Georgiana's spirit. In his rush to eradicate the birthmark, Aylmer has lost her and their chance at love. She is not bitter, though, calling Aylmer her "dearest," and telling him not to repent what he has done in pursuit of his lofty ideals. She still admires her husband's desire to achieve perfection; however, she is also aware that instead of appearing supremely skillful, her husband is rendered as supremely blind to what his wife had to offer.

What is the "profounder wisdom" that the narrator claims Aylmer failed to achieve in "The Birthmark"?

The narrator suggests that if Aylmer had been able to accept human flaws, in his wife as in himself, then they might have led a happy life together. Instead, Aylmer, and later Georgiana, both assume that there is a state of perfection toward which they should aim, but in striving for such perfection they fail, with tragic results. In the last sentence of "The Birthmark," the narrator says that Aylmer "failed ... to find the perfect future in the present." This suggests that the moral of the story is that we can find perfection all around us right now, if we are able to live in the moment. Aylmer is always striving, through his scientific experiments, to create something perfect, but in the case of Georgiana, he destroys instead of creates. However, Aylmer is not described as evil or mean-spirited. He seems to feel real affection for his wife, even as he objectifies her and is insensitive toward her. Perhaps he fears physical perfection in his wife and unconsciously kills her because he fears physical intimacy with her, fears her sexuality. This makes the moral of the story more ambiguous. Should people simply live with what is not "perfect," or should people strive to make things better, even if they make mistakes along the way? Perhaps what a person views as a flaw is really a reflection of their own self-doubts and fears. Perhaps the idea of perfection is itself the flaw in human thinking.

What do flowers represent in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark"?

Flowers represent the natural world, of transient beauty, and of femininity. Georgiana uses flower imagery to describe her appearance. In one instance, the birthmark is a stain on the perfect bloom of Georgiana herself: "she beheld herself pale as a white rose and with the crimson birthmark stamped upon her cheek." Later, after drinking the potion for removing the birthmark, she equates herself with a flower again when she says, "My earthly senses are closing over my spirit like the leaves around the heart of a rose at sunset." For Aylmer, however, flowers are the subject of his scientific experiments. They become, like Georgiana, things for him to manipulate and make unnatural. Aylmer presents Georgiana with a flower on two occasions. To calm her as he works on the potion to remove her birthmark, he shows her an unusual flower that rises from the soil and blooms in front of her. The flower is supposed to demonstrate his scientific expertise at creating objects of wonder, but it fails to deliver, withering on contact more quickly than he predicts when Georgiana touches it. This flower acts as a reminder of both Aylmer's abilities and their limitations and foreshadows his wife's death. Later, he sprinkles the potion that will remove the birthmark over a geranium covered with blotches, which miraculously disappear. In this case, the flower appears to prove Aylmer's experiment to remove the birthmark will succeed. But this flower, too, is a failure because it does not accurately predict what will actually happen to Georgiana, who dies after using the potion.

How is the philosophy of transcendentalism related to "The Birthmark"?

Aylmer rejects nature and therefore does not embrace one of transcendentalism's core beliefs. Transcendentalism argues that there is spiritual truth within the physical world, and that it is possible to experience a connection to the divine through nature. The birthmark is, among other things, a symbol of the natural world and the inevitable decay and mortality of all living things. For Aylmer, this is precisely what makes it a "defect" that must be eliminated. He views the natural world, represented by the birthmark, as something he must control and overcome in order to reach what he considers a higher level of spiritual perfection. Aylmer's behavior also echoes another aspect of transcendentalism. American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), often credited as one of the founders of transcendentalism, advocates embracing individuality and the power of self-determination in his essay "Self-Reliance" (1841): "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius." However, Aylmer follows this advice to a fault, pursuing his own thoughts without any regard to their deadly consequences in order to demonstrate his "genius." In this respect, Aylmer's egotism may be seen as pointing to a dark side of transcendentalism.

Why is Aylmer called a "composite man" in "The Birthmark"?

Aylmer has "won renown," or fame, as a scientist. But when Georgiana reads in Aylmer's journal about his work, she discovers that "his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed." The word composite means to be made up of different parts. Aylmer is a "composite man" because he is made up of successes, but also failures. Opposing forces coexist and struggle painfully within him, revealing his inability to achieve the perfection he desires: "the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, the higher nature ... so miserably thwarted by the earthly part." Georgiana has discovered Aylmer's equivalent of her birthmark, the proof that he is flawed because he is human.

Why does "The Birthmark" end without showing Aylmer's reaction to his wife's death?

The last voice readers hear in "The Birthmark" is Georgiana's, as she tells Aylmer that she is dying. The story provides no further sense of what happens next for Aylmer. In one sense, this leaves room for the narrator's moralizing, in which he argues that Aylmer fails to learn the "profounder wisdom" that his happiness would result from embracing both the earthly and the spiritual. Because it is unclear how Aylmer responds to his wife's death, the end of the story also puts special emphasis on her tragic loss, rather than his response to it, emphasizing Georgiana's point of view over Aylmer's, as if the story ends when she ends. However, the rather abrupt ending also creates a greater sense of ambiguity. Will Aylmer give up on science or will he delve into it even more deeply? Has he learned anything from his wife's death? Readers' knowledge of the outcome remains imperfect. The ambiguous ending leaves these questions unanswered and so opens the story to further interpretation.

How do the settings of Aylmer's lab and Georgiana's rooms symbolize their different gender roles in "The Birthmark"?

Aylmer's lab represents a stereotypical masculine world of action and ambition. It is a utilitarian work space with hard surfaces, fiery furnaces, and little decoration. Georgiana's rooms, on the other hand, are designed not for work, but for relaxation. An idealized feminine space, they are sensual and soothing, an enchanted "boudoir" carefully decorated with undulating curtains and perfumed lamps. Aylmer designs these clean, elegant rooms to separate and protect Georgiana from the hot, sooty lab where he toils to "cure" her birthmark. When Georgiana crosses the threshold of his laboratory for the first time, Aylmer is shocked, as if she has trespassed. He immediately calls attention to her gender in a negative fashion, labeling her "a prying woman" who does not trust her husband. He demands that she leave, but Georgiana stays. She accuses Aylmer of not trusting her with the knowledge of the difficulty of his experiment. She insists she is strong enough to understand and to come to terms with the danger she is facing. Thus, when his wife enters the "male sphere" of Aylmer's laboratory, she claims her place in a male-dominated culture, but it will lead to her demise.

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