Science in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark”

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“The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a short story about a scientist named Aylmer and his wife Georgiana. Georgiana was born with a small handprint-like birthmark on her cheek, but does not think much of the mark and is even slightly fond of it. That is, until she weds Aylmer and soon his stares and his hatred of the mark make her beg him to use his experience with science to rid her of it. Aylmer sees Georgiana’s birthmark not just as a mark on the skin, but as an incredible and cruel flaw that ruins the perfect woman that nature created and becomes determined to make her flawless. Science versus nature then begins to play a central role in the story. “The Birthmark,” published in 1846, reflects the knowledge of the era, discusses science as mysterious and intertwined with the supernatural, and demonstrates how Aylmer is determined to gain knowledge and power through scientific pursuits. Aylmer is also plagued with incredible pride, this is seen especially when comparing him to his research assistant, Aminadab. Aylmer’s pride is what causes him to abuse science and ultimately leads to the death of Georgiana. 

The 1800s were a time that gave birth to key developments in science. Not long after Hawthorne published “The Birthmark,” Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. By the late 1800s and early 20th century, Albert Einstein was making discoveries and publishing theories that would change the modern world. However, during Hawthorne’s era, science, for many was still hard to distinguish from the supernatural. With the lack of understanding of genetics, it was common at the time for people to believe that birthmarks came from something terrible or evil that happened to a fetus during pregnancy. In fact, “both the lay public and the medical community of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries routinely deemed children whose form was somehow marked, disfigured, or deformed as ‘monsters’ ” (Wilson 4). Aylmer’s feels this way about his wife. The mark haunts him and he sees it as a monstrous affliction. He even has nightmares about the mark and what he thinks of as a disfigurement. One night in a dream he attempts to remove the mark, “but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart” (Hawthorne 420). Aylmer repeatedly says that mark is more than skin deep as if it is something supernatural that stains Georgiana’s soul. The birthmark, therefore, becomes representative of evil, while science, with Aylmer’s scientific tools, becomes something noble. 

Aylmer believes in science so deeply that he does not want to master it simply to understand nature, instead, he wants to use science to conquer nature and to have power over it. 

As the story progresses it becomes clear that Aylmer thinks that he can control nature. When Georgiana finally decides to let him remove the mark, Aylmer says, “doubt not my power…I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!” (Hawthorne 421). Aylmer cannot accept nature that comes naturally, because he sees nature as flawed. Aylmer instead is an idealist and a perfectionist. Alfred S. Reid, who was a Professor of English at Furman University argues that “This trait of idealism manifests itself first in Aylmer's division of loyalties- ‘love of science’ and ‘love of woman’-a rivalry that is reconcilable only in the ‘intertwining’ of these two loves in such a way as to strengthen the lover” (Reid 342). Caught between his love for science and his love for Georgiana, Aylmer becomes upset that he cannot equally divide his passions between the two, he, therefore, begins to obsess about Georgiana’s birthmark. This leads him to then be able to merge both his wife and his scientific endeavors and to unite his passions. However, it is also clear that Aylmer has an unhealthy relationship with the power that science and discovery give to him. 

Georgiana is ultimately intimidated into letting her husband remove the mark and sees no other solution to the pain that he is causing her. Aylmer often makes Georgiana uncomfortable by staring at the birthmark. She knows that he has dreams about it because Aylmer talks in his sleep. This is why the birthmark, which was previously very trivial to her, becomes incredibly important to remove. Literary and Feminist Scholar, Judith Fetterley argues that “Since what surrounds Georgiana is an obsessional attraction expressed as a total revulsion, the result is not surprising: continual self-consciousness that leads to a pervasive sense of shame and self-hatred that terminates in an utter readiness to be killed” (Fetterley 168). Georgiana ultimately becomes a prisoner in Aylmer’s scientific laboratory. It is then that she explores Aylmer’s work and begins to understand how truly obsessed and idealistic he is. 

Aylmer speaks gloatingly of his scientific powers. He talks to Georgiana “in glowing language of the resources of his art” (Hawthorne 425). Aylmer also tells Georgiana about a magic elixir that can cause immortality. Georgiana is astonished at the fixation she sees in her husband and recognizes that he is obsessed with the power he finds in science. She tells him that it would be a terrible thing to possess all of that power. He justifies his actions by assuring her that removing a little mark from her cheek is nothing compared to the other abilities that science can and has given him. Interacting with nature often times gives humans a sense of both wonder and respect for the natural world; humanity sometimes seems so small compared to nature on the earth. However, this is not true for Aylmer. What is also important to note is that humans are also part of nature and subject to its laws, and the relationship with the past. In the mid-1800s people did not know about the many laws of nature and so as they developed the ability to scientifically investigate things, nature seemed conquerable given enough time and energy. In Aylmer’s case, this causes him to lose respect and reverence for the natural. It becomes inconceivable to Aylmer that that mark on Georgiana’s face is not a flaw, but a natural occurrence. 

Aylmer becomes incredibly prideful in his scientific abilities and this eventually overshadows what is in Georgiana’s best interest. The birthmark is not a risk to her health, it does not cause her shame until her husband begins obsessing over it. When Aylmer first comments to her about it she remarks, “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 419). The two are in love and incredibly happy when they are first married that all would have played out blissfully if Aylmer had simply ignored the mark like her previous suitors. However, Aylmer’s obsession with the ideal, and the pride that he has in his scientific abilities end up causing a tragic end to Georgiana’s life. When discussing Hawthorne’s characters, scholar James E. Miller Jr. states that in men like Aylmer, “The sinner first elevates his intellect to a triumphant position over his heart… the sin then manifests itself in pride, or egotism, which deprives the sinner of the common human sympathies” (Miller 95). This becomes evident in “The Birthmark” as the story progresses. At first, the birthmark is noticeable to Aylmer, but he does nothing about it. Then, as he becomes more obsessed he is prideful in his ability to “fix” and “create” that he begins to assert himself with a god-like level of authority. Aylmer believes that with science he can be more powerful than nature and it is this power that causes him to lose sympathy for his wife and risk her life in order to remove a small make on her cheek.    

Aylmer’s pride is also notable when he is compared to his servant, Aminadab. When Aminadab first appears he is described as “a man of low stature,” with a “bulky frame” and with “shaggy hair” (Hawthorne 422). The narrator also reports that Aminadab is incredibly inferior to Aylmer and that he is fitted to be his office assistant by his eagerness to please Aylmer, but he is “incapable of comprehending a single principle” (Hawthorne 422). Aminadab also calls Aylmer, “master.” Without directly describing him as such, Hawthorne seems to be portraying Aminadab as caveman-like or a lesser, more primitive human than Aylmer. “Aminadab is a symbol of an early authority which is now discredited; the priestcraft for which he stands is no longer significant. Men are no longer a primitive priest-ridden people, and indeed the priest himself has been relegated to a subordinate and contemptuously regarded role” (Thompson 414). With Aminadab, Hawthorne notes that men of his time have begun to see science as more powerful than religion. Aylmer too believes that religion is outdated. Many religions, especially Christianity, commands its followers to respect nature because it is one of God’s creations. However, with the power to explain many natural phenomena, Aylmer has no use for God and no need to have compassion or respect for nature. With this lack of compassion, Aylmer’s appreciation for the sanctity of human life also disappears. He can no longer appreciate the perception of his wife for the beautiful woman that she is and instead can only see the small imperfection that looks like a tiny handprint on her face. He is then punished for his hubris when Georgiana dies just as the mark disappears. 

Overall, science and nature collide in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Nature is inherently imperfect and flawed and humans, as part of nature, are also flawed. Through Aylmer’s pride and the tragic death of Georgiana, Hawthorne communicates that a balance between science and nature is important. Because Aylmer loses respect for the life that nature has provided, and becomes obsessed with the power that science enables him with, he is punished. Even more tragic is that Georgiana is also punished for her husband’s actions and in the end, nature takes her life as a consequence for Aylmer’s attempts to play God.

Works Cited

Fetterley, Judith. “Women Beware Science: 'The Birthmark.'” Short Story Criticism 89 (2006): 164-72. Literature Resource Center. Web. 31 May 2015.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birthmark.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. Vol. B. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 418-29. Print.

Miller, James E. “Hawthorne and Melville: The Unpardonable Sin.” PMLA 70.1 (1955): 91-114. JSTOR. Web. 31 May 2015.

Reid, Alfred S. “Hawthorne's Humanism: “The Birthmark” and Sir Kenelm Digby.” American Literature 38.3 (1966): 337-51. JSTOR. Web. 31 May 2015.

Thompson, W. R. “Aminadab in Hawthorne's "The Birthmark"” Modern Language Notes 70.6 (1955): 413-15. Web. 31 May 2015.

Wilson, Phillip K. “Eighteenth-Century ‘Monsters’ and Nineteenth-Century ‘Freaks’: Reading the Maternally Marked Child.” Literature and Science 21.1 (2002): 1-25. 2002. Web. 31 May 2015.