In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Birthmark,” we come to know a crazed scientist whose strive for perfection not only leads to the death of his beautiful wife, but the attempt of man to have power and control over nature.
As an accomplished scientist, who views nature not as the most beautiful thing on earth, but as imperfect and requiring a range of corrections, Aylmer feels that it is in his power to “have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!” (Hawthorne, pg. 347). The small, hand-like birthmark on his wife Georgiana’s left cheek, once oblivious to him, now harbors a sense of disgust. Consumed by his thoughts, “Wishing it away, that the world might possess on living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw,” he becomes obsessed with her having it removed. He finds his wife beautiful and perfect. Almost perfect. What kind of challenge do you think this tiny “almost” will turn into for a man who has been exerting all his efforts to make everything in his life perfect? “Georgiana,” said he, “has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?” That kind of challenge.
It would be right to suggest that the birthmark itself symbolizes humanity. It is, in itself, flawed, imperfect. So is our Nature. Neither is compatible with perfection. As for young Georgiana, the woman was described as being beautiful to the point of angelic. In other words, she was almost perfect. Some people even implied that her appearance was a symbol of something more heavenly, “that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts.”(pg. 345)
In order for Nature to keep the imbalance (nothing being perfect), it would have to leave its mark for all to see. As Hawthorne put it, “It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.” (pg. 346) In this passage lies the true conflict, the struggle between Man and Nature. Constantly struggling to correct itself, Nature allows the birthmark to be removed but removes the breath of life as well. Despite the man’s efforts and attempts, Nature cannot be changed or altered without consequence.
Other conflicts we witness is that between Georgiana and Aylmer. Failing to understand the true meaning and nature of her birthmark, Aylmer insists on Georgiana allowing him to remove it all at once. Aylmer always sees the birthmark. Seeing this imperfection is his nature, he can’t help himself! It’s stronger than him, “When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness.”
Feeling that it will be the only possible way to save her marriage, the young woman gives in. She claims that “If there be the remotest possibility of it,” continued Georgiana, “let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust, – life is a burden, which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand or take my wretched life! You have deep science. All the world bears witness of it. You have achieved great wonders. Cannot you remove this little, little mark, which I cover with the tips of two small fingers? Is this beyond your power, for the sake of your own peace, and to save your poor wife from madness?”(pg. 347)
At the time, when Georgiana is professing her love for Aylmer, he, instead of reciprocating, proceeds to profess his love for science. Rejoicing at her permission, he claims, “Georgiana, you have led me deeper than ever into the heart of science. I feel myself fully competent to render this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and then, most beloved, what will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work! Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be.” (pg. 347) As you keep on reading the story, it seems like the man doesn’t care what can happen to his wife. Instead, the only thing that he cares about is the excitement that he feels knowing about the opportunity to perform another science experiment! We observe this obsession with science interfering with their marriage earlier, when Hawthorne expresses, “He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. 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.” (pg. 345)
The Allegory of the story coincides with the theory of Man versus Nature. Some people put too much faith in science, and in what can be accomplished by scientific methods. Some things, however, shouldn’t be messed with. The pursuit of scientific experiments is to learn more about the world and the ways to improve it rather than using the knowledge to “play God.” It’s like Hawthorne said, “She (Mother Nature) permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make.” (pg. 348) Hawthorne explains that “had Alymer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness, which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial.” (pg. 355) Had he not tempered with science, nature, and his “power,” he could have enjoyed a wonderful, heavenly life with the woman he loved.
What is the moral of this story? I think it is best said in the words of Hawthorne, “Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state…living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.”(pg. 355)
The fate of the world, no matter how dark it is, is in the hands of God and Nature, not man. Instead of trying to pursue the ultimate power and to change the laws of Nature through science, one should pursue happiness in love for that is where our real future.
At first glance, this story seems to have a simple and primitive plot and an easy-to-understand moral. However, when the readers look closely at it, they see that “The Birthmark” is more than that. Just like the majority of Hawthorne’s narrators, the one of “The Birthmark” leaves us with a range of questions, “Why does Georgiana decide to drink the potion when she doubts her husband’s skills?” or “How can the main character be professional in all fields of science if his journal is nothing but a real record of failures?” Probably, we will never know.