Study Guide

The Birthmark

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birthmark Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The protagonist of this tale, Aylmer, is a scientist “proficient in every branch of natural philosophy.” The plot is set in motion when he marries a beautiful young woman, Georgiana, who bears a curious birthmark on her cheek in the shape of a tiny crimson hand. Envious women sometimes say it spoils her beauty, but most men find it enchanting. Aylmer, however, becomes obsessed with the birthmark as the one flaw in an otherwise perfect beauty. When Aylmer involuntarily shudders at the appearance of the birthmark, which waxes and wanes with the flushing or paling of the lady’s cheek, Georgiana also develops a horror of her supposed blemish. Aylmer has a prophetic dream in which he seeks surgically to remove the mark, but it recedes as he probes till it clutches at her heart. In despair, Georgiana encourages Aylmer to try to remove the mark, even if it endangers her life to do so.

He secludes her in a lovely boudoir and entertains her with enchanting illusions and captivating fragrances. He and his gross, shaggy-haired assistant, Aminadab, labor mightily in Aylmer’s laboratory to produce an elixir that will irradicate the imperfection of his nearly perfect bride. The laboratory’s fiery furnace, its soot-blackened walls, its gaseous odors, and its test tubes and crucibles contrast grimly against the ethereal boudoir where his wife waits.

Meanwhile, Georgiana finds and reads Aylmer’s journal, which records his scientific experiments. Her admiration and understanding for her husband’s aspirations and intellect increase, even as she recognizes that most of his experiments are magnificent failures. Though she no longer expects to outlive the experience, she gladly and lovingly accepts the draft from her husband’s hand. The birthmark does indeed fade, leaving her a vision of perfect beauty, a spirit unblemished in the flesh, but Georgiana is dead. The birthmark is mortality itself.

The Birthmark Overview

Published in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s collection Mosses From an Old Manse, “The Birthmark,” using the third-person-omniscient point of view, tells the story of a beautiful woman, Georgiana, whose face is imprinted with a pale red birthmark in the shape of a small hand, and her husband, Aylmer, a scientist, who possesses a high degree “of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature.” Georgiana had thought her mark to be a sort of “charm,” and men in the past had found it enchanting, suggesting a sexual symbolism. Aylmer, however, considers it an imperfection and, confident in his power over nature, wants to remove it from her face. He persuades her to allow him to remove it, even after he reveals his frightening dream that he must carve down to her heart to do so, because she feels they cannot be happy together unless the birthmark is gone. While they both admire perfection, she understands it in spiritual terms while Aylmer reduces it to the physical, not comprehending the utter goodness of his wife and taking full advantage of his ability to dominate her. Guiding her to his laboratory, which includes beautiful rooms designed to relax and perhaps mesmerize her, Aylmer ultimately succeeds in removing the birthmark, but Georgiana, as the dream foretold, dies. “The Birthmark” ultimately valorizes “natural” beauty, which might contain imperfections, over the “ideal” beauty created by art or science; explores the hubris of art and science in attempting to perfect what nature provides; and also reveals a fascination and discomfort with the power of women’s sexuality, which might cause a man do anything, including jeopardizing a woman’s life, to diminish it.

The Birthmark Extended Summary

Aylmer, a man who has devoted his life to science, leaves “the laboratory [and] wash[es] the stain of acids from his fingers” to marry the beautiful Georgiana. His love of science is so strong, however, he cannot completely wean himself from it: his love for his wife “intertwine[s] itself with his love of science.” Soon after their marriage, Aylmer asks Georgiana whether she has ever considered removing from her cheek a birthmark, very tiny but bearing in shape a likeness to the human hand. Pale red, it would fade when she blushed but become more distinct when she paled. “Seeing her otherwise so perfect, he found this one defect grow more and more intolerable with every moment of their married lives,” until finally Georgiana begins to shudder under his critical gaze. He recounts to her a disturbing dream that when he, with his servant Aminadab, operated on her cheek, the deeper he went with his knife to remove the mark, the deeper the mark sank into her skin so that eventually the tiny hand of the birthmark “caught hold of Georgiana’s heart.” Even then, however, Aylmer was resolved to remove it. In spite of the dream, he is convinced that he can perform the operation successfully, and she admires her husband’s devotion to an ideal that motivates him to perfect her in this way.

Aylmer then takes Georgiana into his laboratory, where his assistant Aminadab, a man of little intellect and “grimed with the vapors of the furnace,” is ready to assist him in removing his wife’s birthmark. After she faints in fear, Aminadab comments, “If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark.” When Georgiana awakes she finds herself in beautiful apartments where Aylmer shows her some of his magic to ease her spirits. She is delighted by the play of light he performs for her but is dismayed when a magical plant dies upon her touch. He tries to make a daguerreotype of her, but this fails. However, he continues to tell his wife of his accomplishments, and when she expresses fear that a mere human should...

(The entire section is 831 words.)