Character List

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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.

Character Analysis

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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 subordinated to (and humiliated by) the scientific authority of Aylmer. A priest without rites and “grimed with the vapors of the furnace,” he answers to Aylmer, the modern man disregarding religion. In...

(This entire section contains 1020 words.)

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his capacity as a religious authority, Aminadab understands Aylmer’s error in wanting to remove Georgiana’s birthmark, telling his master he should not. His “hoarse chuckling laugh” at the end of the story contains the irony that he, the brutish “man of clay,” treated as only a machine, understands more than the intellectual Aylmer that Georgiana’s beauty is perfect in its imperfect condition. His laugh mocks Aylmer’s arrogance even while it shows his callous lack of sympathy for Georgiana.

Georgiana carries the chief symbol in the story, her birthmark, which resembles a tiny human hand. Up until Aylmer shows his disgust for it, Georgiana considered it “a charm” and was not self-conscious about it at all. Because people other than her husband considered it the mark of a fairy, many critics have understood it as resembling a kiss from God; however, because it is on her left cheek, others understand it as a mark of evil in general and sexuality in particular. Its redness lends it this connotation, but whether a mark of God or the devil, when Aylmer, only after their marriage, defines her by it, she cannot escape the identity he constructs for her—imperfect, marred, flawed. Although the narrator says Georgiana possesses “firmness,” she nevertheless is unable to tell her husband that she refuses to submit to his scientific experiments—and this in spite of the fact that, when reading his folios, she observed “that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures.” Thus, we can only infer that the narrator characterizes her as such ironically, for having internalized her husband’s disgust for the birthmark, she is willing to put aside her rightful fears: he has convinced her that if his experiment to remove the mark does not succeed they “are ruined.” That she is “firm” in character becomes even more doubtful when she tells Aylmer, “I am of all mortals the most fit to die” because she lacks “moral advancement,” which by now she, like her husband, equates with the perfect beauty that he demands. In short, most critics see her submitting to her husband to the point of dying for him, suggesting that Georgiana’s subservience to her husband and his distaste for that mark on her face indicates the author’s personal misogyny and fear of female sexuality.

The Narrator is a distinct character in the story, one who ironically comments on Aylmer’s arrogant ambition and Georgiana’s acquiescence to it and also didactically pronounces moralisms, such as in the final sentence, when he says Aylmer “failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of find the perfect future in the present.” Georgiana thinks her husband’s desire to perfect her signifies the honor and depth of his love for her, but the narrator’s voice is ironic when he comments on her view that her husband would be “guilty of treason to holy love” if he did not want to perfect her. As a storyteller, the narrator at times indicates the limits of his knowledge, as when he tells the reader at the beginning, “We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over nature.” His succeeding statement, however, then makes clear that he knows Aylmer will ultimately be unable to compromise his love of science over that for his wife: “He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion.”