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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark,” the small birthmark on the cheek of Georgiana, the wife of a scientist named Aylmer, eventually becomes the focus of Aylmer’s obsessive attention. In an attempt to remove the birthmark, Aylmer ironically kills his wife. To Aylmer, the birthmark seems to have a variety of meanings, including the following:
* When Aylmer first discusses the birthmark with his wife, he tells her that he sees it as a “visible mark of earthly imperfection.” This is a highly ironic comment, since Aylmer’s obsession with Georgiana’s alleged physical imperfection symbolizes his own moral and spiritual imperfection. Instead of finding fault with the way his wife looks, he should instead scrutinize his own mind and heart for the possible flaws they contain.
* Also, by seeing the birthmark as a symbol of “earthly imperfection,” Aylmer implies his dissatisfaction with God’s creation. His attitude symbolizes his own pride and is highly presumptuous. Earthly existence may indeed reveal imperfections, but it is hardly Aylmer’s job to rectify those imperfections, least of all in others and especially not before he has made a thorough examination of himself to discover and root out his own possible flaws.
* Aylmer also sees the birthmark as a symbol of the morality of Georgiana and indeed of all human beings, including himself:
The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust.
In other words, Aylmer interprets the hand as a sign of the death that inevitably awaits all human beings. His unwillingness to accept death is yet another indication of his pride and presumption. He tries to set himself as a kind of demi-god, able to eliminate imperfection and defeat death. Only the true God (Hawthorne would have believed) has such power and such rights. Ironically, the more Aylmer tries to eliminate Georgiana’s imperfection, the more he reveals his own.
* Aylmer also sees the birthmark as an opportunity for him to demonstrate his scientific skills. He turns his wife into a kind of human guinea pig on whom he can experiment. So confident is he of his scientific abilities that it never seems to occur to him that his experiment might fail, with disastrous consequences for his wife. He is confident of his abilities despite many reasons to be humble, but humility does not seem to be a major part of Aylmer’s make-up.
The true defect in this story, then, resides not on Georgiana’s cheek but in Aylmer’s mind, heart, and soul. Those are the places where the real imperfection lies.
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