Study Guide

The Birthmark

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birthmark Characters

Character List

Aminadab—the bulky, coarse laboratory assistant to Aylmer. He has great mechanical ability, the brawn, so to speak, to the brains of his master, Aylmer.

Aylmer—a superb scholar and scientist. He marries Georgiana, whom he loves, but his devotion to ideal beauty and scientific studies rivals his devotion to his wife. As a result, he seeks to perfect her loveliness by removing from her face a birthmark that he thinks is a “defect.”

Georgiana—the beautiful, newly wedded wife of Aylmer. Born with a birthmark that looks like a small hand on her left cheek, Georgiana wants her husband to love her and admires his pursuit of beauty. She painfully regrets that he finds her beauty marred by the birthmark; as a result, she submits to his experiments to remove the “imperfection.”

Narrator—the distinctive voice, most likely male, that recounts “The Birthmark.” He assumes the formal role of a storyteller, giving the reader warnings and implying correct moral choices.

The Birthmark Character Analysis

Critics variously view Aylmer as a “failed humanitarian,” a “callous scientist,” or a misogynist who fears the sexuality of Georgiana. No doubt he is all of these, which contributes to his power over his wife and his arrogant confidence in himself, in spite of repeated failures in his experiments. Indeed, there is something compulsive about the man in that although he considers his wife “otherwise so perfect, he [finds] her [birthmark] grow more and more intolerable every moment of their united lives.” Although some men might have found it charming, for him the birthmark is “the fatal flaw of humanity,” reminding him of the mortality that “clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes”; in short, for Aylmer the birthmark is “a symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.” This perception of the birthmark indicates Aylmer’s fears of his own humanity as well as that of his wife, the fact that he is liable to decay just as she. This he cannot tolerate, and throughout the story he insists upon his own difference from common humanity, which is why he calls his assistant a “brute” and “man of clay.” For him, the birthmark makes his wife a “brute” like his assistant. However, some readers might consider Aylmer the brute, despite his pretensions to intellect and perfection and even though he, like a gentleman, cleanses himself of “furnace smoke” when he persuades Georgiana to become his wife. His belief that her birthmark is a “frightful object” bullies Georgiana into agreeing to his experiments on her. Indeed, he is so persuasive that she ultimately believes what he says, and his need to eliminate what makes her human causes her to “worship [him] more than ever.” Although her death indicates her mortality, her soul ascends to heaven at the end of the story, while he, along with his assistant, remains attached to the earth, lacking the wisdom that would have enabled him to love his wife rather than focus on her “imperfection.”

Aminadab, representing the earthly side of human nature, functions as the foil for the intellectual and scientific Aylmer. However, as W. R. Thompson points out, the name “Aminadab” alludes to Amminadab of the Old Testament, who was a high priest entrusted with administering rites to Yahweh. Therefore, he can also be understood as a symbol of earthly religious authority, here...

(The entire section is 1020 words.)