The Birthmark | Study Guide

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Birthmark | 10 Things You Didn't Know

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," first published in 1843 in the magazine The Pioneer, is one of the author's most memorable short stories. Hawthorne tells the tragic tale of Georgiana, a beautiful woman with a disfiguring birthmark on her face, and her husband Aylmer's obsession with her physical perfection. Aylmer, a man of science, desperately tries to remove the birthmark, as he feels that without it she would be flawless. This endeavor turns into his only fixation, and he goes to such great lengths to remove the birthmark that Georgiana dies needlessly. The story warns of the dangers of seeking perfection in a world that is, naturally and inherently, full of flaws.

1. Hawthorne was inspired to write "The Birthmark" after his wife suffered a miscarriage.

Hawthorne's wife, Sofia, suffered a miscarriage that she referred to as the death of "her own little Hawthorne flower." This tragic event influenced Hawthorne's perception of his wife, which critics have noted coincided with Aylmer's preoccupation with Georgiana's physical perfection.

2. Scholars have compared Georgiana's birthmark to original sin.

As Hawthorne was writing through the lens of American Puritan values, the birthmark itself can be seen as representative of original sin in Christianity. Georgiana is born with the mark, through no fault of her own, as humankind carries the burden of original sin. Despite her innocence, she still must endure Aylmer's attempts to remove it. Critic Robert B. Heilman notes, "Science itself has become religion [thus Aylmer fails to] regard evil as real." He views it as "manageable, subject to human control, indeed removable." However, just as original sin cannot be "removed" from human history, the birthmark cannot be removed without causing Georgiana's death.

3. Hawthorne wrote "The Birthmark" at Ralph Waldo Emerson's residence.

"The Birthmark" was composed at The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. This house had been home to transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson, who composed his famous essay "Nature" in the manor's study. Henry David Thoreau, another transcendentalist, also frequently visited and planted a garden in honor of Hawthorne's wedding.

4. "The Birthmark" inspired Hawthorne's daughter to care for the poor, sick, and disfigured.

Hawthorne's daughter Rose was reportedly moved by her father's depiction of a man who couldn't see beyond physical imperfection and began caring for sick and disfigured patients at hospitals. She established a home for people dying of cancer and other fatal diseases where they could live their final days with dignity and in comfort.

5. Walt Whitman protested that Hawthorne was underpaid for the publication of "The Birthmark."

Outraged at the paltry sum Hawthorne was offered for Mosses from an Old Manse, the volume containing "The Birthmark"—a mere $75 at the time—poet Walt Whitman protested, "Shall real American genius shiver with neglect while the public runs after this foreign trash?"

6. "The Birthmark" is often compared to a story by Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe's story "The Oval Portrait" also features a husband who holds his wife to an impossible standard of perfection, leading to her tragic death. In both stories the women submit to their husbands' demands willingly, despite the negative impact that doing so has on their health.

7. "The Birthmark" represents Hawthorne's views on romanticism.

Scholars have noted that Georgiana's final line in the story, "With so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer," coincides with Hawthorne's struggle to represent life realistically in his works while maintaining the idealism of the romantic genre. Hawthorne was often moved to portray a fanciful version of the world, despite seeking to incorporate elements of realism in his settings and characters.

8. Hawthorne changed his last name by adding the w.

The family name was originally spelled "Hathorne," but the author added the letter w for unknown reasons—although there's some speculation he may have changed it to hide his relation to someone involved in the Salem Witch Trials. He apparently was somewhat inconsistent, having signed documents with both spellings. Some of his family members retained the original spelling, although his sisters changed it along with him.

9. Hawthorne wrote the character Aminadab as a direct opposite of Aylmer.

The character Aminadab was intended to be a polarized version of his boss, Aylmer. While Aylmer represents scientific thought and reason, Aminadab is representative of the physical aspects of humankind, as he's shown to do the manual labor and tasks that are beneath Aylmer.

10. A childhood leg injury spurred Hawthorne's love for literature.

At age nine, Hawthorne's leg was broken during a game of bat-and-ball with his childhood friends. This injury left Hawthorne bedridden for a full year, during which he became fascinated with reading. This time spent with nothing but books for entertainment inspired him to begin writing later in life.

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