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The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


How does Aylmer respond to Georgiana's beauty in "The Birthmark"?

Aylmer's response to Georgiana's beauty is ambivalent. It seems to attract him and repulse him at the same time. He claims he wants to remove the birthmark to perfect her beauty—he admires his wife's beauty and therefore wants to enhance it. However, the birthmark upsets him precisely because she "came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature." In effect, he uses his wife's beauty against her, as if it is responsible for making the birthmark stand out to him as a "defect." Aylmer further implies that if Georgiana were not so beautiful to begin with, he might appreciate the birthmark: "had she been less beautiful ... he might have felt his affection heightened by the prettiness of this mimic hand."

Why is "The Birthmark" set during the period of the Enlightenment?

"The Birthmark" is set sometime in the second half of the 18th century during the period of the Enlightenment. During this period, philosophers, scientists, and statesmen applied rationalism, which favored reason over religious beliefs or emotions, to nature and society. For this reason rationalism was particularly well-suited to science, which uses physical evidence and objective data to reach its conclusions. As a scientist, Aylmer would therefore seem to be someone who would put rationalism into practice in his laboratory on a regular basis. However, Aylmer uses rationalism and his role as a man of science as the excuse for removing his wife's birthmark. Beneath the planned experiment lies a web of highly charged psychological and emotional motivations for his actions that are anything but rational or objective. His scientific methodology, which should be based in reason, is actually based on his obsession with purity and perfection, including his assertion that Georgiana's birthmark represents her moral corruption. Aylmer's desperate ambition to succeed only adds to the problem. Hawthorne may be pointing out that science is not infallible but subject to human flaws.

How does Aylmer succeed and fail to fit the role of a villain in "The Birthmark"?

Aylmer demonstrates several characteristics of a villain. He is egotistical, sinister, manipulative, and creepy in his fixation on the birthmark. He tortures Georgiana about her supposed "flaw," overlooks the pain he causes her, and then kills her in a dangerous and selfish scientific experiment. In this sense, Aylmer appears to fit the definition of a villain as a morally bankrupt person who sets out to cause deliberate harm to others for his own wicked ends. But the story also highlights Aylmer's vulnerability, particularly in the eyes of his wife, who discovers how much failure and frustration lie behind his efforts. This has the odd effect of humanizing him. While his deeds are horrifying and reprehensible, he is so driven by his mania for purity and perfection that he may also be incapable of seeing the dire consequences of his actions or how they prevent him from experiencing love and happiness. He cannot self-reflect, while Georgiana, on the other hand, does seem to be aware of her husband's failings, and yet as a dutiful wife, she succumbs to him anyway. Aylmer fails to live with flawed reality, but is a part of that flawed reality himself, making it possible to view him as a tragic figure.

In "The Birthmark" why does Aylmer marry Georgina though he knows about her "flaw"?

The beginning of the story is very ambiguous about Aylmer's motivation to marry Georgiana. The narrator says that something had "made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one," which suggests that Aylmer was drawn to some spiritual quality in his wife that he hadn't found in his work. It could be that he is drawn to Georgiana in this way precisely because of the "flaw" her birthmark represents. Aylmer notes that she "came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect ... shocks me." Aylmer may have subconsciously wanted to marry Georgiana because he wanted to experiment on her, believing that if he could remove this one blemish, then he would create something entirely perfect that fulfills his ambitions as a scientist.

In "The Birthmark" how is Georgiana's birthmark symbolic of her role as an object of sexual desire?

The birthmark is a physical focal point that attracts or repels men throughout the story. Georgiana's male lovers say it is a "fairy hand" that gives her magical power over their hearts, and they would risk their lives in order to kiss it. Other men find the birthmark off-putting and want to get rid of it in order to "perfect," and thus idealize, Georgiana's beauty, which sexualizes her in a different way. Meanwhile, Aminadab, Aylmer's opposite, says that he would never part with the birthmark, if he were married to Georgiana, as if it is a special key to her uniqueness and desirability as a wife. Aylmer, however, is disgusted by it. He cannot bring himself to kiss it, although he tries. Nevertheless, this specific point on his wife's body becomes an all-consuming obsession for him that he must possess by eliminating it.

What is the importance of the works by philosophers that Georgiana reads in Aylmer's scientific library in "The Birthmark"?

The books Georgiana reads are "the works of philosophers of the middle ages." These philosophers mirror her husband's ambitions and also serve as a warning to Georgiana about how dangerous those ambitions are. Like him, the "philosophers" are brilliant and imaginative, but they also echo Aylmer's egotism and his extreme ambition: "[they] perhaps imagined themselves to have acquired from the investigation of Nature a power above Nature, and from physics a sway over the spiritual world." The natural philosophers whose works Georgiana reads are also invested in creating "wonders" and obsessed with going "beyond the limits of natural possibility." To Aylmer, the birthmark symbolizes the natural, imperfect world he wishes to transcend. He is supposed to be a scientist, but this resemblance to the natural philosophers suggests he is more interested in performing a magical feat than working with scientific fact. In addition, the works of the natural philosophers serve to foreshadow the cost of Aylmer's experiment. His desire to transcend nature will cost Georgiana her life.

What do the colors red and white represent in "The Birthmark"?

Red and white have different meanings in the story depending on their context. Red represents blood, and therefore of life, as well as love. But this is not what the color means to Aylmer. Georgiana's birthmark, which is often described as a red "stain" or flaw on the white background of her skin, reminds him of imperfection, sin, and mortality. From his perspective, removing the birthmark would leave an unblemished white surface that would symbolize perfection, spiritual purity, and his ability to transcend death through his scientific expertise. In this context, the redness of the birthmark may also symbolize the violence Aylmer will do to his wife as a result. In Georgiana's case, red and white represent that purity and impurity, matter and spirit, are interrelated. If she blushes, the birthmark vanishes in the rush of blood to her cheeks. But when Georgiana turns pale under Aylmer's critical gaze, it only brings out the redness of the birthmark more forcefully as if it is resisting his desire to eliminate it. In this context, red is a sign of life and whiteness serves to reveal the impossibility of perfection by providing a background against which the birthmark can stand out.

How does "The Birthmark" represent the perspective of writers known as the Dark Romantics?

The Dark Romantics included writers such as Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe, whose works, while influenced by romanticism, took a more pessimistic and skeptical view of human nature. In some ways, "The Birthmark" very much represents this aspect of the Dark Romantics' perspective. While the romantics praise individuality, the Dark Romantics see the dangers inherent in uncontrolled ego. What also marks Hawthorne's Dark Romanticism is his pessimism and his bleak rejection of the "ideal" as a possible goal or result of human striving. Aylmer is a perfect example of both issues, as his relentless need to apply his scientific knowledge to remove his wife's birthmark in the name of perfection leads to destruction and death. However, the Dark Romantics also consider nature to be an often dangerous, even evil, force. In this respect, "The Birthmark" does not represent their perspective. In "The Birthmark" humanity is the dangerous force and a threat to nature. The consequences of Aylmer's disrespect for nature are catastrophic. His inability to accept the imperfection of the natural world and his obsession with its "impurity," in the form of the birthmark, is destructive in every way.

How does Georgiana's view of Aylmer's love for her change over the course of "The Birthmark"?

As Georgiana comes to view her birthmark as negatively as Aylmer does, she also comes to view his love in a very different light. His desire to remove the birthmark causes her to worry earlier in the story that he might not love her. She now believes that same desire has become the very definition of Aylmer's love for her. She no longer takes Aylmer's obsession with removing the birthmark as a criticism, but as proof that her husband's idealism is an essential aspect of his love for her, "so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of." Georgiana comes to feel that this kind of idealizing love is superior to one in which Aylmer would love her fully, with all her imperfections: "more precious was such a sentiment than that meaner kind which would have borne with the imperfection for her sake, and have been guilty of treason to holy love by degrading its perfect idea to the level of the actual." This is an example of dramatic irony, since it could be argued Alymer degrades Georgiana throughout the story.

What is the purpose of the reference to the statue called "Eve of Powers" in "The Birthmark"?

"Eve of Powers" is a reference to a statue of the biblical Eve created by the American sculptor Hiram Powers titled "Eve Tempted" (1842). The sculpture depicts a naked Eve, with an apple in her hand, looking downward toward a serpent at her feet. The narrator notes the relationship between perfection and imperfection the statue represents. Georgiana's birthmark is often called "hideous," but "it would be as reasonable to say one of those small blue stains which sometimes occur in the purest statuary marble would convert the Eve of Powers to a monster." The narrator points out that it would be unreasonable to fixate on a natural occurrence as a monstrous "flaw," but this is exactly how Aylmer views the birthmark. The statue's subject matter is interesting given the story's themes of sin and perfection. When the snake persuades Eve to taste the apple of knowledge, the result is original sin and death. This seems to go along with Aylmer's view that the birthmark represents his wife's sinfulness. But the narrator brings up the statue of Eve to defend Georgiana, not to accuse her of moral corruption. In addition, because the statue is of Eve, a woman, it might seem to refer to Georgiana, but it is Aylmer whose thirst for knowledge results in irreversible destruction.

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