Failed attempts to attain perfection are a frequent subject in Hawthorne's short stories; these attempts at perfection fail because Hawthorne's protagonists are misguided and their own innate imperfections cloud their judgments. Hawthorne's short stories "The Birthmark" and "Rappaccini's Daughter" both feature a male protagonist who desires to recreate a woman into their own view of perfection.
However, a person's desires often tell more about themselves than others: the belief that something is imperfect reflects the believer not the thing. Judith Fetterly, in her essay "Women Beware Science: ‘The Birthmark,'" argues that Hawthorne's portrayal of women's imperfections in "The Birthmark" and other short stories says less about the women than the men who fixate on these imperfections and try to reshape them. A more Freudian approach by Frederick Crews focuses on the birthmark and the garden as icons of feminine sexuality. Yet another approach is the more conservative approach taken by Hyatt Waggoner and Richard Fogle who argue a more psychological and religious aspect to Hawthorne's writing.
It is necessary to examine each of these three sometimes-conflicting views to fully explore Hawthorne's writing and his perception of perfection.Aylmer of "The Birthmark" is haunted by a tiny birthmark on the cheek of his wife that he "one day, very soon after their marriage" notices. Aylmer then mentions it to his wife stating that she "came so nearly perfect from nature that this defect is the visible mark of earthly imperfection." As with most things, the meaning of this line changes and can be reinterpreted over time.
Reacting to this remark from a feminist perspective, Fetterly argues that Aylmer's "lofty talk about wanting Georgina to be perfect is but a cover of his central emotion of revulsion at her feminine nature." She adds that Georgiana's innate flaw is not the birthmark but the female sexuality that the birthmark represents. Crews, remarking from a Freudian perspective, agrees with this assessment saying, "His medical curiosity and his willingness to risk Georgiana's death…are thinly disguised substitutes for his urges to know and destroy her sexuality" (126).
Waggoner is slower to condemn Aylmer's behavior stating that Aylmer "does wrong things from a motive not in itself wrong" (108). Waggoner does not condemn Aylmer's action as an attempt to control or even acknowledge Georgiana's sexuality, but as just a man who is overrun by the desire to create perfection. This libido sciendi view of Aylmer is also reflected by Fogle who focuses on Aylmer's Faustian desire to know and understand (120).
While it is obvious that Aylmer desires perfection and wishes to control nature, is the focus on Georgina's sexuality by Crews and Fetterly just an effect of rampant Freudianism? It is possible to interpret the birthmark as a representation of Georgiana's sexuality because Hawthorne's stories tend to have a sexual undercurrent, but to reduce the entire story to an attack on the female persona as Fetterly does or the misplacement of lustful thoughts onto women as Crews does is an over simplification. Had Aylmer become obsessed with science after his marriage, these interpretations would have been correct, but Hawthorne states that Aylmer was "a man of science" who "left his laboratory… and pursued a beautiful woman to become his wife" and could only love his wife by "intertwining his love with her with his love of science." From the beginning, the focus of Aylmer's life is on science; his desire for perfection in his wife is just a manifestation of his need to know and create perfection. While he does focus on the birthmark as a representation of his wife's female nature and sexuality, it is his love of science that pushes him to remove it.The greatest argument for Waggoner and Fogle's interpretation of "The Birthmark" is that, eventually, Aylmer achieves a flawed state of perfection, creates perfect beauty, and controls nature, but all are temporary and his perfections destroy each other because the greatest flaw in Aylmer's attempts to gain perfection is his inability to understand real perfection in beauty and nature. His attempt to gain physical perfection is fettered by his belief that physical perfection is intrinsically part of beauty: beauty does not necessarily imply perfection because beauty can be defined by some thing's imperfections as well as its perfections.
Similarly, his attempt to gain a perfect understanding of nature was flawed because he believed that controlling nature was part of understanding nature; however, the control and the comprehension of nature are separate, so.