Dr. Katie Grubbs
8 April 2018
In “The Birth-Mark”, Nathaniel Hawthorne discusses different challenges throughout the short story. The challenge of science versus nature is very prevalent. The protagonist, Aylmer, is a scientist who has a deep love for science and his beloved wife, Georgiana. But Aylmer has also grown a pervasive discontent with the birthmark on his wife’s cheek. Hawthorne stated, “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 and uniting the strength of the latter to his own” (212). Aylmer experiments with science in an attempt to control nature. His research unfolds into a war of science versus nature, all to gain perfection in his life, which unfortunately results in significant repercussions when he looses his beloved wife, Georgiana.
Science was relatively new during the era that Aylmer lived and worked. Hawthorne stated, “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” (212). Individuals who did not possess a love or knowledge for science misunderstood Aylmer and believed his work to be a “mystery”. Aylmer became obsessed with the idea of perfection and his desire to obtain perfection through the use of science.
Aylmer’s love for Georgiana was deep, but the slightest imperfection of Georgiana’s tiny birthmark became a subject of strife between the two newlyweds. He allowed something so tiny to grow into something so big in their marriage. Aylmer referred to Georgiana that she “came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature, that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfections” (Hawthorne 212). He also viewed his wife as “otherwise so perfect, but he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their united lives. It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceable on all her productions …” (Hawthorne 213). The single imperfection was described as a small area of crimson color, which was deeply interwoven with texture and substance to her left cheek (Hawthorne 212). Aylmer even refused to kiss Georgiana on the cheek “which bore the impression of a crimson hand” (Hawthorne 215). Aylmer spent his time attempting to find a scientific way to rid his wife of her one imperfection. He thought by doing so it would make Georgiana completely perfect and in turn their marriage perfect also.
Initially, Georgiana was fond of her birthmark on her cheek, but over time she began to feel shameful towards the blemish, just as Aylmer did. Blushing she stated, “To tell you the truth, it has been so often called a charm, that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so” (Hawthorne 212). In “Science and Art in Hawthorne’s ‘The Birth-Mark'”, Mary Rucker stated, “She first consents to removal of the birthmark simply to secure her sanity and Aylmer’s peace. But she awakens to the limits of existence and becomes as discontent as her husband with actuality” (452). Jules Zanger also commented on Georgiana’s progressive change in thoughts toward her birthmark in “Speaking of the Unspeakable: Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark'”. Zanger stated, “The most telling expression of his dominance is the ease with which he convinces Georgiana, after her momentary futile flush of resistance, that the mark on her cheek, which she, until that time, had regarded as charming, is, indeed, a terrible imperfection, so that she completely accepts his valuation of her” (366). She eventually went her to husband requesting his scientific expertise to rid her of the “firm gripe of this little hand which was laid upon me before I came into this world” (Hawthorne 215). Georgiana could not live another day with the blemish on her face. Even still with a little bit of reluctance, Georgiana was willing to allow her husband to use her as a scientific experiment and gamble on her own life with hopes of removing only the slightest of imperfection.
Even after warning, Aylmer does not hesitate to use his scientific skills to rid Georgiana of her minor imperfection. The imperfection, or birthmark, that was bestowed upon her cheek by nature before she was born. After Georgiana questioned Aylmer regarding his dream he began to remember. The narrator tells of Aylmer’s dream, “He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab attempting an operation for the removal of the birth-mark; but the deeper when the knife, the deep sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away” (Hawthorne 214). In the journal article “Hawthorne’s Dream Imagery”, Jerry A. Herndon stated, “In “The Birthmark,” Aylmer, because he could not love Georgiana well enough to overlook her birthmark, “that sole token of human imperfection,” had nightmares of cutting it away which drove him to seek to perfect her at the cost of her life” (539). Hawthorne used foreshadowing in an attempt to warn Aylmer not to mess with nature, as there will be consequences that arise. Aylmer felt he had the authority to do so and continued with his plan to rid his wife of her imperfection using a scientific experiment.
Science and nature are two opposing forces that appeared throughout “The Birthmark.” Science was new and evolving during this time period or era, as mentioned above. Even so Aylmer truly believed that with his research and the power of science that he could overcome and change nature. Aylmer became so bothered by his wife’s slight imperfection he risked everything he had in order to gain perfection in his life. His desire to live in a perfect world and have a perfect wife clouded his judgment of science and the reality of imperfections from nature. Ultimately Aylmer paid the greatest price when his beloved wife, Georgiana, died. Ironically, she was the closest thing to perfection in his life. In the end, leaving him without Georgiana or perfection. Nature is a force that should not be messed with by humans. It is often shown to have disastrous consequences, as it did for Aylmer.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birth-Mark.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed.
Kelly J. Mays. New York: Norton, 2014. pp. 211-225.
Herndon, Jerry A. “Hawthorne’s Dream Imagery.” American Literature, vol. 46, no. 4, 1975,
pp. 538–545. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2924577.
Rucker, Mary E. “Science and Art in Hawthorne’s ‘The Birth-Mark.'” Nineteenth-Century
Literature, vol. 41, no. 4, 1987, pp. 445–461. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3045227.
Zanger, Jules. “Speaking of the Unspeakable: Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark.'” Modern Philology,
vol. 80, no. 4, 1983, pp. 364–371. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/437071.