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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.

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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...

(This entire section contains 831 words.)

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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 possess such powers, he assures her that he would never use them, and to remove the “little hand” on her face would be but a “trifling” matter. As time goes by in the beautiful room, Georgiana begins to suspect that Aylmer has already begun his experiments on her because she feels peculiar sensations, and this awareness is accompanied by her increased loathing of the mark on her face, which she now feels exceeds even that of her husband’s.

When Aylmer leaves the room, Georgiana peruses the folios containing his notes on his experiments, and although she is shocked by his many failures, her admiration for him increases because of his devotion to his work. “It has made me worship you more than ever,” she tells him. When he leaves her to go into his laboratory, she follows, finding there the furnace and various accoutrements of science including “an electrical machine...ready for immediate use.” Aylmer is working over the machine, as is Aminadab, whom he imperiously calls a “human machine” and “man of clay.” Annoyed that Georgiana has wandered into his work space, Aylmer accuses her of not trusting him, but she in turn protests that he does not sufficiently trust her if he will not share with her all of what he knows. When he cautions her “there is danger” in removing the mark, she protests that the only danger is that “this horrible stigma shall be left upon [her] cheek.” The narrator tells us “her heart exulted, while it trembled at his honorable love—so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection.”

Accordingly, when he gives her a potion in a goblet, she drinks it eagerly. After she falls asleep, Aylmer watches her carefully, marking down in his notebook all of his observations, including the fact that the birthmark begins to lose some of its distinctness. However, Georgiana becomes pale, causing Aminadab to emit “a gross, hoarse chuckle...of delight.” When Georgiana vaguely awakes, she looks into a mirror that Aylmer has provided. She first smiles because the birthmark is now “barely perceptible” but then murmurs, “My poor Aylmer,” for she knows she is dying, and indeed she does. “As the last crimson tint of the birthmark—that sole token of human imperfection—faded from her cheek, the parting breath for the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul...took its heavenward flight.” Aylmer again hears the hoarse chuckling laugh of Aminadab as the narrator tells us that “had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial.” Ironically, from the beginning of the story, the coarse Aminadab understands the goodness and beauty of Georgiana more than the brilliant scientist Aylmer, who was her husband.