What aspects of Romanticism are explored in "The Birthmark"?

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I think it’s interesting to discuss your question in light of two important aspects of romanticism: the Gothic and romantic feminism. Let's examine them one by one.

The Gothic in literature and art is generally considered an offshoot of the romantic movement. Gothic art, poems, and stories deal with themes...

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I think it’s interesting to discuss your question in light of two important aspects of romanticism: the Gothic and romantic feminism. Let's examine them one by one.

The Gothic in literature and art is generally considered an offshoot of the romantic movement. Gothic art, poems, and stories deal with themes like the supernatural, suspense, horror, and mystery. Although some critics consider the Gothic a more sensational and lurid form of romanticism, I think the Gothic actually highlights the darker side of romantic principles. We can see this at work in Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" (1843). One of the key principles of romanticism is "idealism." However, when taken to an extreme, idealism can become unhinged narcissism, as we see in the case of the genius scientist Aylmer. Striving for the ideal of perfection, Aylmer is ready to sacrifice human life itself. Ironically, in his love for nature, Aylmer sets out to perfect and thus destroy it. Thus, the Gothic acts as a warning for the romantic tendency of excess.

Looking further into the "The Birthmark," we can spot many other elements of the Gothic in play. For instance, the story is not set in the present-day but in "the latter part of the last century," or in a romanticized past—as is typical of works in Gothic literature. The setting too is dark and mysterious in the form of Aylmer's laboratory, the innermost reaches of which are forbidden to his young wife:

The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were retorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science.

The names Aylmer and Aminadab (his servant) with their strange and "exotic" tones are very much in the Gothic tradition, as is the otherworldly description of Aminadab: "With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that incrusted him, he seemed to represent man's physical nature."

The supernatural is provided in the form of Aylmer's labors, which lie somewhere between science and alchemy, and in the form of the mysterious birthmark on Georgiana's cheek, which grows to be so much more than a tiny patch of hyper-pigmented skin. The fact that it is mysteriously shaped like a hand is also important, symbolizing the hand of destiny or doom, whichever way you prefer to look at it.

By placing the story in a recent past, Hawthorne could distance it from some of the scientific achievements of his time and deliberately allow room for the elements of the supernatural and alchemy to creep in. Aylmer's figure is closer to someone like Faustus in Christopher Marlow's Dr Faustus (1592), who was also a man of science but given to means which may be extra-scientific. However, one critical difference between Faustus and Aylmer is that Faustus puts his own soul at stake whereas Aylmer is ready to gamble away his wife. This brings us to our second point, which is examining Romantic feminism in "The Birthmark."

Whereas "feminism" in its contemporary sense as a political and philosophical movement may not exist in Romanticism, one of the key aspects of Romantic literature was closer attention to individual liberties. Women's liberties as individuals were also gaining importance within the Romantic tradition. With more emphasis on the individual and her feelings, women's subjectivity started taking center-stage in many Romantic works. Since Romanticism is iconoclastic, power dynamics (including gender dynamics) were examined more closely in Romantic literature and art.

Significantly, one of the early works of romanticism was A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), written by the activist Mary Wollstonecraft. Her daughter Mary Shelley would go on to write the wildly successful novel Frankenstein (1818)—another important work of Romantic literature, and one which greatly influenced "The Birthmark." In the "Birthmark," the husband is trying to "improve" his young wife's appearance to suit his idea of perfect beauty by erasing the birthmark on her cheek. As a representative of the institution of patriarchy, he cannot bear the distinguishing mark, which is a sign of her individual female self. Disturbed by her individuality, he tries to subdue it to fit a cookie-cutter mold of his liking.

Aylmer's male narcissism makes him feel he deserves perfection because he is great. Furthermore, like a true patriarch, he acts as the gatekeeper to knowledge: he flies off into a rage when Georgiana breaches his all-male bastion of the innermost laboratory. He is also displeased when she reads some of his writings—the conjunction of a woman accessing knowledge and peeking into his vulnerability disturb him:

"It is dangerous to read in a sorcerer's books," said he with a smile, though his countenance was uneasy and displeased. "Georgiana, there are pages in that volume which I can scarcely glance over and keep my senses. Take heed lest it prove as detrimental to you."

Aylmer also gradually subsumes Georgiana's identity. In the beginning she is angry at his distaste of her birthmark, crying out:

Shocks you, my husband!...Then why did you take me from my mother's side? You cannot love what shocks you!

However, as the story progresses, he wears her down, and she acquiesces to his experimentation, filled with foreboding that things will not end well for her. At this point, Georgiana is less of a human being and more of a project to her husband Aylmer, who is a symbol of male dominance and of institutionalized science.

Although some critics rightly point out that Georgiana is treated as a passive victim in the story, "The Birthmark" is both a stunning indictment of patriarchy as well as a romantic assertion of the individual: crush the individual and all you reap is disaster, it seems to say.

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"The Birthmark" features two big themes of the Romantic movement as a whole: a reverence for the natural world and a reverence for the individual.

Georgiana is the biggest symbol of the Romantic outlook. She is sweet and good at heart, as well as physically gorgeous; her only "flaw" in the eyes of her husband, Aylmer, is the birthmark on her face. By ridding Georgiana of her birthmark, Aylmer is infringing upon what makes her special, her individuality. By removing this symbol of individuality, he is killing what makes her her, essentially. By trying to make her perfect, Aylmer has killed the very person he loves. After all, perfection does not exist in the natural world. This provides us with a segue into the other Romantic theme of the story.

Man seeks to control nature, just as Aylmer wants to make Georgiana's natural birthmark vanish. However, Romantics believe that this is futile, as nature always wins in the end. And in this case, nature does win, since Georgiana's birthmark is nature's work, and she cannot continue to live once Aylmer gives her the potion to rid herself of it.

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This is an interesting question because it gets to the heart of one of the main themes in "The Birthmark."

One of the most important and pervasive elements of Romanticism is a preference for and respect of the natural world over the world of science.  Other goals of Romanticism include the celebration of natural beauty, innocence, and emotion.

In "The Birthmark," there are three characters--Aylmer, the scientist; Georgiana, his wife; and Aminadab, Aylmer's assistant.  Aylmer, because his entire world is encompassed by science and experimentation, represents the anti-Romantic, primarily because he believes that he has control over Nature; his wife, Georgiana, represents the natural person--beautiful, loving, with a trusting heart, and innocent; Aminadab, who is described almost as an elemental creature who looks like he just popped out of the ground, represents natural man, but at a base level.

Aylmer, who believes only in the power of science to control the natural world, conceives a completely irrational hatred of a minor blemish on Georgiana's cheek, which is shaped like a tiny hand (perhaps the hand of Nature).  What's worse is that Aylmer convinces Georgiana, who trusts Aylmer impicitly, that the hand, the "blemish," is so horrible that it has to be removed.  Aylmer, the supremely confident scientist, believes he can "correct" Nature's mistake.

The natural world asserts itself even in the character of Aminadab who, when he realizes that Aylmer intends to remove the birthmark, instinctively knows that trying to alter Nature's work is not going to succeed, and he concludes by saying that he would be happy to have such a beautiful woman as his wife.

Of course, Aylmer's attempts end in disaster for Georgiana but not before we learn that Aylmer has created a poison that allows him to determine when someone is going to die, Hawthorne's explicit criticism of man as God.  In a conflict between science and Nature, especially in works based on the precepts of Romanticism, science is not going to conquer Nature.

 

 

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