What is ironic about "The Birthmark"?
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One minor instance of verbal irony occurs when, having caught her reading in his library, particularly her reading his own folio, Aylmer says to Georgiana "It is dangerous to read in a sorcerer's books." As he says this with a smile, we understand that he is being ironic, and that he considers himself anything but a "sorcerer." It isn't magic or alchemy or wizardry Aylmer is at, but SCIENCE, with its rational propositions and orderly attempts at arriving at truth by minutiae and infinitesimal progressions. Georgiana recognizes the minuscule nature of Aylmer's achievements and feels pity for him, sees in him the same human failure and pathetic imperfection that he sees in her! ("Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.") The irony doubles when we as readers may believe that they are both wrong in their respective interpretations. Georgiana underestimates Aylmer's accomplishments and considers him a failure-but he isn't considered one; Aylmer thinks Georgiana's birthmark somehow makes her less than human-but she is all too human, vulnerable as any of us to the need for approval. It's possible, however, that we share Georgiana's view by the end of the story-that Aylmer "aims too high"; or we may feel the opposite: that he aims too low-seeking to satisfy his own egotistical desires and not considering his wife's well-being. Another telling instance of verbal irony in "The Birthmark" is evident when Georgiana dies. Just before she dies, murmuring "Poor Aylmer," Aylmer exclaims, "Poor? Nay, richest, happiest, most favored!….My peerless bride, it is successful! You are perfect!" But she repeats ("with more than human tenderness"), "My poor Aylmer…you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best the earth could offer." Georgiana insists that her husband has "aimed loftily," has "acted nobly," that his feelings have been "high" and "pure," but the irony (which the astute reader is aware of, though Georgiana, in her innocent trust of appearances is not) is that his aim is anything but lofty. It's his obsessive pride (one of the seven deadly sins), intellectual pride, that has driven him to murder his wife, and for no other reason than that he believed the birthmark to be a mark of evil. He insisted upon his own interpretation of the birthmark as the only valid one; this is intellectual pride. What was Aylmer's need to create something perfect, to improve upon "the best that nature had to offer"? Did he believe that, as a scientist, that was his role? His pride, however, is what leads him to believe that he, a mere human having made a few minor discoveries (and by his own admission lacking knowledge of the larger mysteries), might be powerful enough to improve upon the Nature's universe as it is. According to Georgiana, Aylmer "spiritualized everything, the merest physical details; the veriest cold of earth assumed a soul." What was Aylmer thinking, then, fiddling with the souls of others? It's hubris-the ancient Greek term for overbearing, excessive pride, the pride that leads to tragedy. Aylmer is arrogant.
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