Study Guide

The Birthmark

by Nathaniel Hawthorne

The Birthmark Themes

Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Allegories seldom produce well-rounded characters because their purpose is primarily philosophical and didactic. Aylmer is undoubtedly the Faustian man who is never satisfied with his own limitations. Ordinary nature is never good enough to fulfill his idealistic aspirations, and like both Christopher Marlowe’s and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, he is entranced with the Greek ideal of perfect beauty. In terms of visible beauty, Georgiana cannot compete with Helen of Troy, the supernatural succubus provided by Mephistopheles for Faustus. On the other hand, she can appeal to Aylmer’s attraction to spiritual beauty and thus perhaps save his soul, like Gertrude, instead of assuring his damnation as the spurious Helen did for Faustus in Marlowe’s version. Aylmer’s ultimate fate is not resolved in the story. Presumably, he, like Ethan Brand, another of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonists, has found the one unforgivable sin in himself: intellectual pride.

Aylmer is never covetous of evil pleasures. He aspires upward, always, toward the ideal. In this sense, he is less believable as a human specimen than the Renaissance Faustus, who craved sensual experience as well as knowledge and power. Aylmer seems to have been corrupted by the idealist’s tendency toward abstraction and discontent with reality. In fact, he hardly seems sufficiently empirical in orientation to make a good scientist. However, the reader is assured that “he handled physical...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

The Birthmark Themes

Romanticism and the Ideal
“The Birthmark” argues that the artistry of nature, even when imperfect, surpasses any art created by humankind. As a result, idealistic endeavors that aspire to an art more beautiful than what nature offers are morally flawed. Because Georgiana “comes so nearly perfect from the hand of nature,” Aylmer’s idealism as well as his arrogant confidence in his skills motivates his desire to remove the mark “so that the world might possess one specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw.” At moments, the narrator as well as Georgiana admires this pursuit of perfect beauty, yet Aylmer’s final failure communicates to the danger of this position. To worship with humility divine beauty is one thing, but to believe one can create pure beauty is another. In this way, Hawthorne questions whether the major inspiration for creativity is pure vision or whether artistic creativity in pursuit of the ideal is unavoidably lessened by selfish, proud motives.

Science Versus Nature
In the nineteenth century, many understood science as the ultimate cure for the problems of the world. The positivism of the day suggested that science offered the cure to the difficulties of nature, including sickness and death. In this way, science offered the possibility of dominating nature and, for this reason, was associated with masculine thought. Nature, on the other hand, has historically been associated with the feminine, as something beautiful but also something that could be “penetrated” and ultimately dominated—understood—by means of scientific experiments and knowledge. “The Birthmark” embodies this dichotomy between science and nature, masculinity and femininity. Aylmer, representing science, seeks to perfect nature, represented by Georgiana. His dream of cutting into her birthmark, which connects to her heart, provides a metaphor of science penetrating nature...

(The entire section is 570 words.)