The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


Why does Aylmer reference the myth of Pygmalion in "The Birthmark"?

When Georgiana tells Aylmer that he should try to remove her birthmark "at whatever risk," Aylmer is filled with joy. He says that when he removes it, "Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be." Aylmer alludes to the Roman poet Ovid's myth of the artist, Pygmalion, who sculpts an ivory statue of a woman and falls in love with it. The goddess Aphrodite grants his wish that the statue come to life and become his wife. Aylmer mistakenly compares himself to Pygmalion, however, not realizing that their situations are actually quite different. Pygmalion, an artist, wants the statue he creates to become a flesh-and-blood woman because he loves it so much. His wish is granted by a goddess. Aylmer, a scientist, takes a flesh-and-blood woman and attempts to make her into a perfect work of art through his scientific expertise, at one point comparing her birthmark to a flaw in a marble statue. He does this not from love, but from egotism and anxiety over their marriage. Unlike Pygmalion, Aylmer does not require the intervention of any divine power to make the transformation he desires occur since he relies his own godlike abilities to do it himself.

What is the relevance of the "golden principle" in "The Birthmark," and how is the reference to it an example of situational irony?

Aylmer describes to Georgiana the history of the alchemists and their search for a the "golden principle," a chemical formula that might turn "all things vile and base" into gold. This parallels his own desire to remove his wife's birthmark, which he considers "vile and base" in order to make her beauty pure and therefore perfect. Aylmer goes on to say while it is within his power to do this, whoever is wise enough to discover the "golden principle" should also be wise enough not to use it and thereby abuse it. Aylmer's remark provides an example of situational irony, in which an expected result conflicts with its actual outcome. He may come across as egotistical and overconfident about his skills, but Aylmer sounds as if knows perfectly well that he should not and would not put such a dangerous discovery to use. However, this is exactly what he does when he creates and administers the potion that removes the birthmark but kills his wife.

In "The Birthmark" what does Aylmer mean when he tells Georgiana "there is no taint of imperfection on thy spirit" just before she drinks the potion?

The potion is supposed to erase Georgiana's birthmark, and the physical as well as spiritual "imperfection" it represents. From Aylmer's perspective, his wife's insistence that she needs no proof of the potion's power and her willingness to drink it has already done half the job by removing the "taint of imperfection" from her spirit. He is impressed that she agrees with his assessment of the birthmark and trusts his scientific skills. Aylmer's comment reveals how much his love for Georgiana depends on her willingness to go along with his plan to remove the birthmark. It also suggests that this willingness, and not just the removal of the birthmark itself, is what he needs to be convinced his wife is "perfect" in his eyes.

In "The Birthmark" what is the significance of locating Georgiana's birthmark on the left cheek instead of the right?

In many ancient superstitions, the left side was often considered to be sinister as opposed to the right, which signified virtue. The word sinister comes from the Latin meaning "on the left." The left side is also where the heart is located, which suggests it is closer to the source of life and the symbol of love. The location of the birthmark on Georgiana's left cheek represents both Aylmer's view that it is dangerous or morally corrupt and the possibility that it is the very opposite. Aylmer kisses Georgiana's right cheek after she agrees to let her husband attempt to remove the birthmark, thus connecting himself to her immortal or spiritual self. He cannot bring himself to love her mortal, earthly side. He does not attempt to kiss her left cheek until the birthmark has nearly disappeared, just before Georgiana's death.

In "The Birthmark" what is the significance of the photograph Aylmer takes of his wife?

Aylmer takes a photograph of Georgiana "to make up for [the] abortive experiment" in which a flower wilts instantly when Georgiana touches it. A photograph is meant to last even beyond the death of its subject, whose appearance at one moment in time it preserves permanently, cheating death. In addition, Aylmer is demonstrating his technological prowess to his wife: photography was still a recent discovery at the time Hawthorne wrote his short story. However, photography, although innovative, is not infallible. Georgiana is "affrighted to find the features of the portrait blurred and indefinable; while the minute figure of a hand appeared where the cheek should have been." The birthmark is the only recognizable feature in the image. Not only does the photograph fail to preserve her beauty for all time, it reveals a truth Aylmer would prefer not to acknowledge: his fixation on her birthmark comes at the expense of Georgiana's identity. She is concerned her husband only sees the birthmark to the exclusion of all else. Now the photograph proves this to be true.

How does "Young Goodman Brown," which was published in the same collection as "The Birthmark," relate to its characters and themes?

In "Young Goodman Brown," the protagonist learns about the flaws in the people that he admires most. As a result, he forever after doubts the goodness of humanity. His wife, Faith, wears pink ribbons in her cap, and in Brown's estimation, is a pure representation of femininity. When he discovers that she, too, may be less than completely good, he rejects her. Georgiana is marked with a crimson hand, similar to Faith's pink ribbons, and when Aylmer decides that she is less than pure, he also rejects her. In both stories, the protagonists fear their wives' sensuality. In another similarity, the endings of the two stories are ambiguous. At the conclusion of "Young Goodman Brown," it's unclear if Brown has dreamed the entire narrative, and in "The Birthmark," it's unclear how Aylmer reacts to his wife's death and what his next steps will be.

How does "The Birthmark" relate to "Rappaccini's Daughter," which was published in the same short story collection?

In "Rappaccini's Daughter" the protagonist, Giovanni, a student at university, falls in love with the young Beatrice. Her father, Rappaccini, is a scientist who has developed a deadly poisonous garden, which only Beatrice can tend. As Giovanni woos her, he realizes that she is as poisonous as the plants in the garden, whose toxins she has absorbed. Finally, he is convinced that he can "cure" her and they can live happily together if she will just drink an "antidote" that he has acquired from her father's scholarly rival. Upon drinking the antidote, however, Beatrice dies. Similarly, soon after he is married, Aylmer finds a "flaw" in Georgiana, which he attempts to erase, though of course he subsequently kills her. Like Beatrice, Georgiana is judged by her lover to be impure and is victimized by a scholarly man who believes that he holds the answers that will "cure" her.

In "The Birthmark" in what sense is egotism Aylmer's version of a birthmark?

Aylmer views his wife's birthmark as a flaw. He expresses to Georgiana several times his absolute belief that he can be successful, but he is blind to the destructiveness of his drive to eliminate the "impure stain" decorating his wife's face until he has killed her, and maybe not even then. For Aylmer, the birthmark passes from being a fairy hand that alternately glowed and vanished depending on the bearer's mood into "the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death." A strong component of Aylmer's egotism is the way he reduces Georgiana's identity to a single flaw that overwhelms the rest of her personality. He also believes that he is the only one who can "fix" her by removing the birthmark. This egotism, in which Aylmer believes that he has all the answers, is his and his wife's undoing. Hawthorne is suggesting in "The Birthmark" that anyone who believes they have absolute knowledge is ultimately wrong and dangerous. Aylmer's egotism is the flaw that defines him as he believes Georgiana's birthmark is a flaw that defines her.

In what sense is "The Birthmark" about male anxiety?

The narrator of "The Birthmark" leads the reader to believe that Aylmer has toiled away as a scientist for years alone. Soon after marrying, Aylmer finds a "flaw" in his wife that he feels compelled to correct. Metaphorically, this "flaw" could be his fear of sexuality or his fear of his commitment and responsibility as a husband. In any case, he engineers a way to be rid of her, under the guise of cleansing her of what he perceives as a physical and spiritual flaw. Arguably, Aylmer knows the limits of his powers because his many failures are cataloged in the journal which Georgiana finds and reads. His egotism may lead him to dupe himself as well as his wife, but psychologically, he may be searching subconsciously for a way to get rid of her so that he can return to the freedom of his unmarried life.

Why does Aylmer have "a guilty feeling" in "The Birthmark" after he remembers his dream?

Aylmer remembers his dream about his attempt to remove Georgiana's birthmark. This leaves him with "a guilty feeling" because he realizes that the dream communicates a terrible truth he would prefer to avoid. As an intellectual and a scientist, his mind defines him. But now he has become obsessed with the birthmark, which has taken over his thoughts completely: "until now he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind." To make matters worse, Aylmer is so fixated upon the birthmark that he realizes that he is capable of acting in extreme and questionable ways to get rid of it.

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