The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Plot Summary & Analysis

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Summary

The Birthmark

Aylmer is a scientist who lives and breathes "natural philosophy." He believes scientific discoveries represent the pinnacle of human achievement and may even hold the key to creation itself. Recently, he has taken a wife, Georgiana, and now must divide his energies between love and science. His wife is perfect in every way, Aylmer believes, except that she has a small birthmark on her left cheek. He calls it a "defect" and says it "shocks" him. Georgiana worries whether this means he can ever truly love her.

The birthmark resembles a very tiny human hand, reddish in color, which nearly disappears when Georgiana blushes. It is most noticeable when she turns pale due to fear or anxiety. Her former lovers had liked to say the birthmark was created when a fairy placed its hand on her cheek when she was a baby, and they longed to kiss it. Some women, perhaps from jealousy, argue the birthmark is a "bloody hand" and ugly, while some men simply wish it away, believing Georgiana would be more beautiful without this "flaw."

Aylmer might have overlooked the birthmark had his wife been less perfect, but he becomes fixated on it because it seems to be the only flaw she possesses. For him, it symbolizes everything about human frailty and death, which as a scientist, he wishes to overcome. Whenever Aylmer looks at his wife, all he sees is the birthmark, so much so Georgiana begins to grow pale under his gaze. This, of course, makes the reddish birthmark even more prominent.

It Must Be Removed

One night Aylmer dreams about his wife's birthmark, and he talks in his sleep, saying, "It is in her heart now—we must have it out!" He imagines himself cutting the birthmark out with a knife, but as he tries to do so, it retreats all the way to her heart. Georgiana overhears him and, terrified, asks him if there is any way the birthmark can be removed. He thinks he knows a way to do it. She insists he remove it, even if it leads to her death.

Aylmer devises a plan. He will bring Georgiana to live in some comfortable rooms adjoining his laboratory where he has studied since his youth, making discoveries in the physical sciences as well as human physiology. He had, however, given up trying to understand the nature of creation itself, but he hopes to do so now by discovering how to create a "perfect" woman by removing Georgiana's birthmark.

When Aylmer leads her into the laboratory, Georgiana grows pale, her crimson birthmark glows against her check, and she faints. Aylmer calls to his assistant Aminadab for help. He is a brawny, working man—Aylmer's intellectual opposite—and when he sees Georgiana, he comments to himself that, if he were married to her, he would never want the birthmark removed.

A Peek Behind the Veil

When she wakes from having fainted, Georgiana finds she is in an elegant apartment, decorated with flowing curtains and lit with perfumed lamps. Aylmer has prepared the space for her as a place to wait while he perfects his plan to remove her birthmark. When she speaks to Aylmer, she covers her birthmark with her hand, but Aylmer insists he can now "rejoice" in this "imperfection" because now he gets pleasure and excitement in removing it.

In order to distract her, Aylmer entertains Georgiana with a show of his scientific powers, most of which are optical illusions of some kind. He also shows her a pot containing earth, out of which suddenly grows a plant with a "perfect" perfumed flower. When he encourages her to pluck and smell the beautiful flower, however, it suddenly withers and dies. He then attempts to create a portrait of Georgiana, using early photographic methods, but the result is blurry, except for the birthmark. Angered and disgusted, Aylmer destroys the portrait.

Despite these failures, Aylmer describes two scientific discoveries—the ability to turn base metals into gold and a potion to extend life or perhaps make it immortal. He suggests these discoveries are well within his grasp and he would never abuse them, but this does little to calm Georgiana's nerves. After working in his hot and harsh laboratory, he returns to Georgiana to show her more of his scientific oddities. One of them is a vial of liquid that he calls "the elixir of immortality." This is actually a "precious poison," which may lengthen a person's life or kill him instantly, depending on the dose he chooses to administer. Georgiana is shocked. He then shows her a cosmetic that removes freckles. Georgiana asks if it is meant to remove her birthmark, but Aylmer informs her the cure for her birthmark requires something more powerful.

Georgiana has the feeling Aylmer has already been subtly experimenting on her, through the smells in the air or through her food, though when she looks in the mirror, the birthmark is still there. She has grown to hate it as much as her husband does. While Aylmer is out of the room, she examines his books of science and philosophy. Each is about trying to acquire power over nature or over the spiritual world. She also finds a journal describing her husband's experiments over the years. The journal reveals his great seriousness and determination about his work, combined with an interest in what lies beyond nature—the spiritual world. However, she also discovers that his aspirations are rarely matched by his achievements because his experiments frequently fail.

When Aylmer finds Georgiana crying over the journal, he believes she is upset because she has discovered his failures, but she says the record of his experiments makes her "worship him even more." He then asks her to sing. Happy, she sings lovingly as he leaves her, but she has failed to mention she feels a sensation in her birthmark, and she follows him into the laboratory to tell him about it.

The setting of the laboratory is radically different from her own rooms. Georgiana sees a burning furnace, a soot-covered ceiling, and bare walls with Aylmer laboring furiously over his experiments. Gone is his calm demeanor. He is full of anxiety. His assistant Aminadab sees Georgiana watching them and alerts Aylmer, who is distraught to be caught in his work.

He demands she leave, accusing her of not trusting him. She, however, says he does not trust her to know how anxious he is over his work. When Georgiana insists she will participate in the experiment, even if it kills her, Aylmer confesses the work has been much harder than he anticipated, and indeed it is very dangerous. He feels greater affection for her, however, when she declares her wish to continue with the experiment despite the risk.

Georgiana feels more delighted than ever to be participating in Aylmer's experiment because she admires how he is always striving toward perfection. A less driven man might satisfy himself with her imperfection. Nevertheless, she recognizes his striving means he will never be satisfied, and even if the birthmark is removed, Aylmer will move on to another challenge.

Taking the "Cure"

Aylmer brings Georgiana a potion he has concocted. He is pale, but the narrator suggests this is more from tension than fear. He believes his potion is perfect. Georgiana is resigned. She implies that if it were not for Aylmer, she would kill herself, rather than live with her birthmark, but Aylmer ignores what she says. To prove his potion works, he pours a little bit onto a diseased plant, and it seems to return to health. Convinced by the demonstration, Georgiana agrees to drink the potion.

As she drinks the liquid, Aylmer assures Georgiana that as her spirit is pure, so her physical nature will be pure as well. Soon after she drinks it, she falls asleep. Aylmer watches her intently for the slightest physical changes. Surprising himself, he bends to kiss the birthmark, but he is still repulsed by it. He watches the hand slowly fade away, though Georgiana has grown very pale.

When Aylmer pulls back the curtains to let in some sunlight, his assistant Aminadab begins to laugh, though it is not immediately clear why. Aylmer believes Aminadab laughs out of relief that they have been successful. However, Georgiana awakes briefly to tell Aylmer that she is dying. Then, just as the birthmark fades entirely, she dies. There is no indication at the end of the story how Aylmer feels. Instead, Aminadab laughs again, and the narrator suggests Aylmer has misunderstood his wife's genuine value.

Analysis

The Dark Side of Science

In many of his works, such as the short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" and the novels The House of the Seven Gables and The Blithedale Romance, Hawthorne is skeptical of scientific progress and social reform. In Hawthorne's fiction, men of learning and science are often selfish, egotistical, and blind to the suffering of others. Scientific improvements do not guarantee similar improvements in the human character. This is certainly the case in "The Birthmark," in which Aylmer is so obsessed with removing his wife's "flaw," he can no longer see her as a human being. His lack of self-awareness renders him oblivious to his motivations or the consequences of his actions. He succeeds in creating a potion that removes the birthmark but kills his wife.

Aylmer's desire to erase his wife's birthmark has a hidden agenda driven by his intense ambition. He wonders if the birthmark is "the stain [that] goes as deep as life itself" and longs to be like the "philosophers of the middle ages" who "have acquired from the investigation of Nature a power above Nature, and from physics a sway over the spiritual world." At one point, he even claims he is capable of producing an elixir, or potion, that would "prolong life for years, perhaps interminably." A classic example of a scientist with a God complex, Aylmer aims for perfection by trying to surpass the physical world.

As a Dark Romantic, Hawthorne often explores the psychology, or inner motivations, of his characters. Aylmer's attempt to eradicate the birthmark is not based in scientific objectivity, but is heavily colored by his emotions, including obsession, ambition, and egotism. He projects his own desires on his experiments: "He handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspiration towards the infinite."

Aylmer's scientific results frequently fall short of his aspirations. As he attempts to fuse matter and spirit into a perfect whole, he only becomes more determined to succeed and less able to understand the cost of that success. He does not acknowledge Georgiana's pain or that it is damaging to her to share his obsession. He also does not register how much his own vulnerability about failing to achieve his ideals has warped his perception of the situation and that he, too, is an imperfect being in an imperfect world.

Aylmer suffers from "the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part." His need to wipe out the birthmark is a projection of his own desire to control and dominate the material world, and by extension the spiritual world, through scientific experimentation and innovation. In other words, it is less about perfecting Georgiana's beauty than perfecting his own power. The success of his experiment comes at the expense of his wife's life, suggesting the cost of such scientific ambition is too high.

Love and Marriage

Aylmer and Georgiana's relationship forms the core of "The Birthmark." Why Aylmer decides to marry remains a mystery. The story also provides no specifics about his and Georgiana's courtship. From the opening paragraph, however, a struggle clearly exists between Aylmer's identity as a scientist and his role as a loving husband: "In those days when the comparatively recent discovery of electricity and other kindred mysteries of Nature seemed to open paths into the region of miracle, it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy."

Aylmer attempts to resolve this tension by marrying, or "intertwining," love and science: "His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science." But science dominates love in this equation. The combination of Georgiana's physical beauty and the birthmark that her husband considers a flaw form a gateway to Aylmer's greatest obsession: his wish to perfect the physical world. Rather than loving Georgiana for who she is, Aylmer reduces his wife to no more than a physical flaw that he fixates upon. His actions imply that his love for her is conditional upon her agreement to remove the birthmark. In effect, he has erased her as a person. She is only present to him when she mirrors his obsession by agreeing with him about the birthmark and his plot to remove it.

While Aylmer remains focused on his experiment, Georgiana considers its effect on their relationship. The story raises the issue of the boundaries of love. Is it legitimate to ask someone one loves to change, and if so, how much? If someone asks their beloved to change, do they actually love that person at all? As her husband's obsession with removing her birthmark escalates, Georgiana struggles with this issue. How should she respond to Aylmer's negative judgment? How can he truly love her if he cannot wholly accept her as she is? Should she appease him to ensure his love, and if so, how far should she go?

Georgiana tries to deal with Aylmer's disgust about her birthmark by appealing to what he most values in himself: that he is a man of science. She makes a genuine effort to understand and accept her husband, even as he disregards her feelings at every turn. Having read in his journals how most of his experiments fail, Georgiana realizes that she "reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore." She sees a flaw in her husband and, rather than rejecting him for it, agrees to embrace it, at full risk to herself. While Aylmer focuses on his need to dominate matter and achieve perfection using her as his experimental object, Georgiana remains loyal to him to the end.

But Georgiana's response to Aylmer is also paradoxical. On the one hand, she appears to be demonstrating love and compassion, or at least pity, for him. On the other hand, she is so self-sacrificing she is willing to die to satisfy his obsession. Is this love, or just another twisted form of obsession itself? In "The Birthmark," the author presents a male character who is sure of his intellectual power but nevertheless blind to his wife's true worth. She, however, appears to possess powers of perception about humanity that outweigh her husband's. The fact that Georgiana is more perceptive about their relationship than Aylmer, however, is not enough to save her life. This is the case with most female protagonists in Hawthorne's fiction, such as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance, and Beatrice in "Rappaccini's Daughter." And as with Georgiana, all three of these women are mistreated or misunderstood by the men in their lives. Even Faith in "Young Goodman Brown," who has done nothing overtly wrong, is finally shunned by her husband Goodman Brown, who demands spiritual purity from his wife and his community.

The Search for Immortality

In "The Birthmark," Aylmer refers to the elixir vitae, or the elixir of life. Aylmer discusses the historical search for the elixir vitae and he infers that that he could create such a potion but that it "would produce a discord in nature" if he were to do so. He may be referring to the fact that, in nature, everything eventually dies, so a person who lived forever would be "unnatural"—a freak or monster who disturbs the natural order. Nevertheless, the potion that Aylmer creates to rid Georgiana of her birthmark is described as clear and "bright enough to be the draught of immortality," and he does not hesitate to let her drink it no matter the cost.

Related to the scientific discoveries of the time, especially the seemingly magical properties of electricity and photography, there was an intense interest in the occult in the mid-19th century. Traveling spiritual mediums could, for a fee, make contact with the spirit world, and séances were held whereby people could supposedly speak with the spirits of the dead. This fad was occurring at the same time that the British were exploring ancient Egyptian archaeological sites and bringing knowledge of seemingly occult practices to the Western world. All of this suggested that the veil or divide between the body and the "spirit," between this world and the "next," is potentially permeable. Hawthorne's interest in the occult is a notable part of his novel The Blithedale Romance.

Moreover, Puritanism itself, which figures strongly in almost all of Hawthorne's fiction, posits that the physical world is just a "type" of the divine. Related to symbolism but more literal, the early 18th-century Puritan Jonathan Edwards describes in Images or Shadows of Divine Things how the natural world—stars, roses, flesh wounds—is a mask for the divine world, and to see through the mask is to understand something of God's design.

In a similar manner, Aylmer is convinced that his wife's birthmark is connected to her spirit as much to her physical body, and in removing her birthmark, he will purify both. While he succeeds in removing the birthmark, he fails to understand that he has disrupted the balance between spirit and matter, creating exactly the "discord in nature" he claimed he would produce with his elixir vitae.

The Birthmark Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Aylmer, a man of science, marries Georgiana.

Rising Action

2 His wife's birthmark shocks Aylmer, who wants it removed.

3 Georgiana agrees to let her husband remove the birthmark.

4 Aylmer takes Georgiana to live beside his laboratory.

5 Aylmer shows his wife an elixir of immortality he invented.

6 Aylmer and Aminadab mix a potion to remove the birthmark.

7 Georgiana learns about Aylmer's failures as a scientist.

8 Georgiana tells Aylmer she will drink the potion.

Climax

9 Georgiana drinks Aylmer's potion.

Falling Action

10 The birthmark begins to vanish. Aminadab laughs.

11 The birthmark disappears.

Resolution

12 Georgiana dies.

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