By Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2012
Type of Work
......."The Birthmark" is a short story centering on an eighteenth-century scientist's obsession with removing a birthmark from the cheek of his extraordinarily beautiful wife. The story is sometimes categorized as a dark romance.
......."The Birthmark" first appeared in March 1843 in The Pioneer, a short-lived literary journal. In 1846, Wiley & Putnam published the story in New York as part of a collection of Hawthorne's works entitled Mosses from an Old Manse.
.......The action takes place in the late 1700s at an unidentified location in Britain.
Aylmer: Scientist recognized throughout Europe for his breakthrough achievements. He marries an extraordinarily beautiful woman whose only flaw is a tiny birthmark on her cheek. Aylmer wants to use his scientific know-how to remove the mark.
.......The tone is ominous, as this passage in paragraph 8 indicates: “Aylmer's sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” The reader thus has a sense early on that the story will not have a happy ending.
.......One day, not long after the wedding, he tells Georgiana that her beauty is flawless except for the birthmark on her cheek, which others told her was a “charm.” The mark resembles a very tiny hand. It disappears when her face reddens but becomes more visible when her face is pale. Men who had wooed her told her that a fairy must have placed his hand on her cheek when she was born as a sign of the magical power she had over their hearts. Women, on the other hand, regarded it as a distinct flaw.
Aylmer tells her that the tiny hand “shocks” him as a “mark of earthly imperfection.” Deeply hurt, his wife becomes angry and cries, then asks him why he ever married her if her appearance shocks him.
.......Because she is so beautiful, this one tiny mark of imperfection becomes more and more objectionable to Aylmer as time passes. Eventually, it becomes a “symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death." His imagination has turned it into a fearful thing.
.......Late one evening, she asks him to try to recall a dream he had the previous night. While he was sleeping, she says, he spoke these words: “It is in her heart now; we must have it out!” At this prompting, Aylmer remembers the dream. With the help of his laboratory assistant, Aminadab, Aylmer recalls that he was operating on his wife to remove the birthmark. But the deeper he cut, the deeper into her body the tiny hand retreated, until it grasped her heart. He was determined to cut it out. Aylmer feels guilty about the dream, which makes him realize that his fixation on the birthmark has become an obsession. His wife then tells him she is willing to undergo treatment if there is a possibility of removing it. He says, “"I am convinced of the perfect practicability of its removal."
.......Georgiana tells him to proceed with the operation whatever the risk, for she cannot endure living as long as he regards the mark as an “object of your horror and disgust.” He assures her that he has the skill to excise the mark, making her beautiful beyond description. In fact, Aylmer is famous throughout Europe for his research into clouds, volcanoes, the medicinal properties in some spring waters, and the human body.
.......When he takes her to a bedroom in his laboratory apartments, she turns pale with fright. Against the whiteness of her complexion, the birthmark becomes pronounced. He reacts with a shudder, and Georgiana faints. Aylmer shouts for Aminadab. From another room comes a short, stocky man with shaggy hair. He is very strong. Aminadab does not understand science, but he follows Aylmer's orders to the last detail. In the laboratory, he represents the body; Aylmer represents the intellect. Aylmer tells his assistant to open the door to a bedroom and then burn a pastil, a small tablet that perfumes the air. Before going about his tasks, Aminadab says, “If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark.”
.......When Georgiana awakens in the bedroom to fragrance released by the pastil, she sees a room richly decorated with curtains and lamps emitting different hues of light. By some trick of his scientific skill, Aylmer causes airy figures to dance over and bewitch her. When she looks at a container of soil, a plant arises from it, unfolds its leaves, and reveals a perfect flower. Aylmer says the flower lives for only a moment and then dies. But seeds remain for other perfect flowers that also bloom and die in a single moment. He urges Georgiana to pluck the flower before it withers so that she can smell its fragrance. However, when she touches it, it turns black—as if fire has burned it. He then demonstrates another of his inventions—a photography device. After he takes her picture, she looks at the metal plate on which her image is reproduced. But the image is blurred, and a hand appears in place of her cheek. Aylmer quickly places the plate in a jar of acid.
.......After discussing other results of his various experiments, he goes into a room and works with the assistance of Aminadab. He emerges a considerable time later and shows Georgiana a cabinet with containers of chemicals. He removes a vial. If he cast the contents to the winds, he could perfume an entire kingdom, he says. In a demonstration, he releases some of the contents, and the room fills with a delightful fragrance. The smell of the perfumed air and a tingling sensation Georgiana feels in her veins make her wonder whether she is already undergoing treatment. But whenever she looks into a mirror, she sees the mark unchanged.
.......While Aylmer continues to labor in his laboratory, she browses through books on the history of medical research in the in the Middle Ages. But the most interesting book is Aylmer's own handwritten volume. In it, she discovers that he considers his greatest successes as failures, for they take him only so far into the mystery of things. The narrator says, "[The book] was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay . . . and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part."
.......Georgiana enters the laboratory to report a strange feeling in her birthmark that makes her feel restless. She sees a furnace blazing to effect distillation of a liquid. She also sees tubes, crucibles, an electrical machine, and other laboratory devices. The room, which is very warm, has bare walls and a brick floor. Aylmer is pale and anxious as he distills the liquid. When Aminadab calls his attention to the presence of Georgiana, Aylmer gruffly escorts her out, saying, "Would you throw the blight of that fatal birthmark over my labors? It is not well done. Go, prying woman, go!"
.......She refuses to leave, saying she has a right to know why he is so anxious and what risks she will face. Aylmer then tells her that he has in fact given her agents—as she had suspected—designed to banish the birthmark. But they did not work, so deeply ingrained is the mark. Only one possible remedy remains, he says, but it could be dangerous. She tells him to use it, “or we shall both go mad.”
.......She returns to the bedroom and, moments later, Aylmer comes in with a crystal goblet of a colorless liquid. He assures her it will succeed. To prove that it will, he directs her attention to the window seat, where there is a diseased geranium with yellow blotches on all the leaves. He pours the liquid into the soil, and in a few minutes the leaves turn green. Georgiana then drinks the liquid, which is fragrant and delicious, then asks her husband to let her rest.
.......Moments later, she falls asleep. Aylmer sits beside her and writes down what he observes—a reddening of the cheek, a slight breathing irregularity, a movement of an eyelid, a slight tremor in her body. Gradually, the birthmark becomes less and less prominent until he says, “Success!” When he opens a curtain to admit light, he hears Aminadab laugh and tells him his hard work has earned him the right to laugh.
.......Georgiana awakens, looks into a mirror, and sees only a faint hint of the birthmark. Then she gazes with troubled eyes at Aylmer, who is rejoicing, and tells him that he has done well. However, she says, she is dying. The narrator says,
.......Alas! it was too true! The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight........Aminadab laughs again. As a creature who relies on his body rather than his intellect—a creature who is of the earth rather than of the world of the spirit—he glories in the triumph of physical imperfection over “immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state.”
.......The main conflict is between Aylmer and the birthmark, a sign of imperfection that he finds intolerable. Because Georgiana wishes to please her husband, she adopts his attitude toward the birthmark.
.......The climax occurs when Georgiana tells Aylmer that she is dying.
The Limits of Science
.......Aylmer uses science to attempt to make his wife flawless. But science has limits; it cannot achieve what only God can provide: perfection. Science functions only in the physical world. When it tries to assume godlike powers, it fails.
.......Aylmer becomes obsessed with scientific research. Like other scientists of the time, the narrator says, Aylmer believes that “The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from
one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself.”
Women's Inferior Role
.......Hawthorne wrote “The Birthmark” at a time when men generally treated women as inferiors. The main role of a woman was to support her husband and rear the children. The husband made the decisions and ruled the home. In Aylmer's home, Georgiana bows to her husband in all things. Although deeply hurt at first that he regards her birthmark as a serious flaw, she comes to agree with him and even is ready to risk death to please him. For his part, Aylmer does not hesitate to experiment on her as if she were a defective gem, flower, or another object.
.......Foreshadowings occur several times in the story. One example is Aylmer's reference to the birthmark in the third paragraph as "the visible mark of earthly imperfection." The reader becomes aware at this point that Aylmer, described in the first paragraph as deeply involved in science, will want to attempt to remove it. Another example that foreshadows Aylmer's intentions is the dream in which he talks in his sleep, saying, "It is in her heart now; we must have it out!"
Albertus Magnus: Albert the Great (1206-1280), a Roman Catholic priest who was one of the greatest philosophers and theologians of his age. He promoted harmony between science and religion.
.......Following are examples of figures of speech in "The Hungry Stones." For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow.Anaphora
Had she been less beautiful,—if Envy's self could have found aught else to sneer at,—he might have felt his affection heightened by the prettiness of this mimic hand, now vaguely portrayed, now lost, now stealing forth again and glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heartIrony
Aminadab, a man of small intellect, speaks the most sensible words in the story: "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark.”Metaphor
the roses of her cheekPersonification
It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productionsSimile
the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bas-relief of ruby on the whitest marble.Study Questions and Writing Topics