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The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | Symbols


The Birthmark

Shaped like a small red hand, the birthmark takes on different meanings depending upon who is viewing it. Georgiana's lovers remark that it looks like an impression made by the hand of a fairy who, by touching her, gave Georgiana magical sway over her admirers. Other men, like Aylmer, who is noticeably not described as her "lover," simply wish the birthmark away so that Georgiana's beauty would be perfect. This suggests that Aylmer is not sexually attracted to his wife, which supports the idea that he marries her precisely because he wishes to experiment on her to satisfy his egotism. Women who seem jealous of her beauty refer to it as a "bloody hand" that destroys Georgiana's beauty.

The narrator, however, refers to the birthmark as the "fatal flaw of humanity," a symbol of the fact that human beings are mortal and flawed. Thus, it is a symbol of a larger physical and moral truth about existence—everything in nature eventually decays and dies, no one is perfect, and pain is inevitable. Aylmer's attempt to remove the birthmark then becomes his attempt to "cure" death itself, which is impossible. Aylmer, however, is so consumed with pride and self-importance he can't see that his goal is unattainable and that it has dehumanized and destroyed his wife.

Aylmer's Lab

Aylmer's lab is like an industrial factory. There is a fiery furnace, soot on the ceiling, and glass tubes and crucibles. The air is filled with noxious fumes, the walls are plain, and the floor is brick. This is where Aylmer labors over his creations, and it is where Aminadab, who is described as if he is a blacksmith, works as Aylmer's assistant. Here, Aylmer's soothing tones to Georgiana are replaced with exclamations and anxiety.

This space is where the work of "creation" takes place, and it is hard and anxiety-ridden. It is described in Gothic terms: there is "the intense glow of its fire"; it is filled with "gaseous odors"; and it "felt oppressively close." This is nearly a description of hell. It is also a male-dominated sphere, reflecting the gender attitudes of Hawthorne's time: men do the dangerous labor and intellectual experimentation, while women, confined for their "protection," recline in comfortable rooms.

Georgiana's Rooms

Aylmer's "hell," which is of his own creation, is contrasted with Georgiana's rooms, prepared by Aylmer, which are bright, pleasant, and decorated with beautiful curtains and various colored lamps that emit lovely perfumes. The rooms are also isolated, cut off from the sweat and toil of Aylmer's laboratory. This division between these physical spaces further suggests the gender divisions throughout the story. Further, Georgiana's isolation could represent Aylmer's fear of her sexuality, which is suggested by the fact that Aylmer is specifically not described as his wife's lover, as opposed to the men who wooed Georgiana before they were married.

Georgiana's rooms are meant to comfort her with their warmth and light, and yet they are really just a representation of Aylmer's pretense. Georgiana remarks at the optical "illusions" and the "representations" of "actual life," which Aylmer employs to entertain her there, and when he attempts to take her portrait, the image is blurred, and he destroys it.

When Georgiana is left on her own in her rooms, she reads from Aylmer's journals and discovers just how many times her husband's experiments have failed. Alone, she can uncover the truth. She dies in these rooms, but not before the birthmark is erased. Just as her rooms are a façade, meant to soothe her, the erasure of her birthmark is a temporary and ill-conceived illusion.

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