Style and Technique

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Hawthorne inherited from his Puritan ancestors a brooding preoccupation with the idea of Original Sin. He created several haunting symbols to suggest that human flaw: the minister’s black veil, the poisonous breath of Rappaccinni’s daughter, the scarlet letter that Hester Prynne wore on her breast. The birthmark is one of these symbols. Although the tiny hand is expressly associated only with the “fatal flaw” of mortality, Aylmer’s peculiarly Calvinistic frame of mind expands its symbolic value to “his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.”

Hawthorne’s symbolic mode sometimes explains too much for modern tastes, yet there are ambiguities lurking even in this most allegorical of tales. The fact that Aylmer connects the physical flaw to moral sin seems to be the reason for this abhorrence of the birthmark and thus his justification for, in essence, murdering his wife. This presents a moral ambiguity akin to the situation in “Young Goodman Brown,” where the author carefully suggests that Brown may indeed have met his neighbors and his wife at the devil’s sabbat but that he may have dreamed the whole episode. If the evil vision was a dream issuing from the tortured sense of his own guilt, then Brown casts a terrible blight on his wife and neighbors with the poisonous vapors of his Calvinistic imagination. Even more obviously does Aylmer blight his wife as though her physical imperfection were equivalent to sin.

However, Aylmer is explicitly aligned with the spiritual side of humanity. The shadow side of humanity, or the entirely physical element that presumably serves the spirit, is represented by the grotesque Aminadab. Lest the reader miss the point, Hawthorne pushes the contrast between the servant and his master. “With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that encrusted him, he seemed to represent man’s physical nature, while Aylmer’s slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element.”

In spite of the didactic instruction in the symbolic significance of such figures, one must remember that the villain of the piece is not the beastly shadow figure but the spiritual, intellectual Aylmer. This is true even though Aminadab chuckles ominously at the death of Georgiana, as though at the victory of earth over spirit. He contributes to the menacing gothic atmosphere of the alchemist’s laboratory but is a relatively innocent collaborator in an intellectual crime. Who needs Mephistopheles when men can destroy in the name of perfection?

The obvious allegorical quality of “The Birthmark” makes it a less satisfactory treatment of the mad scientist theme than the more complex and polished “Rappaccinni’s Daughter.” They are both intermediate forms, however, between the religious allegories of the past and the science fiction of the present.

The traditional Satan or Mephistopheles has waned as literary symbol of evil, to be replaced by the machine or mutant monster that the mad scientist creates in his ambition to take over from God the control of natural forces. In “Rappaccinni’s Daughter,” the mutant form that in turn destroys the innocent maiden is the poisonous vegetation created by her father. In “The Birthmark,” however, the scientist is described in persistently spiritual terms and creates no intermediate form, except of course the fatal potion, but brings death directly to his beloved. Although the menacing Dr. Rappaccinni seems closer to the devil in conception, Aylmer seems closer to God. Perhaps Hawthorne suffered from a dark suspicion that, after all, God must be responsible for humankind’s imperfection and suffering. The tales of Hawthorne speak eloquently of a profoundly ambivalent mythic imagination.

(This entire section contains 608 words.)

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Setting

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The narrator opens by placing the temporal setting in “the latter part of the last century,” which to his contemporary audience was the eighteenth. Various details, however, call attention to the nineteenth century’s fascination with the visual, indicated by the development of photography after 1839. For example, Aylmer creates the illusion of “optical phenomena” to distract Georgiana in her boudoir near his laboratory, and he also creates a daguerreotype of her, although unsuccessfully. In addition, the furnace, cabinet of chemical products, and the “electrical machine” all mark the setting as postindustrial. However, the story is also gothic in mood. References to magic and alchemy, vials of poison, and the flower that dies with Georgiana’s touch are all characteristics of the gothic literature written during the Romantic period in the nineteenth century. While Aylmer works in his laboratory, Georgiana peruses her husband’s scientific library, finding the books of “philosophers of the middle ages, such as Albertus Magnus, Cornelius Agrippa, [and] Paracelsus...antique naturalists [who] stood in advance of their centuries,” as well as books of the “Transactions of the Royal Society,” in which the members, “knowing little of the limits of natural possibility, were continually recording wonders or proposing methods whereby wonders might be wrought.” Just as Dr. Frankenstein seeks to create life, so Aylmer has created an elixir of immortality by which he can increase the lifetime of any “mortal”—or so he says.

In terms of place, the two dominant settings of the story are the laboratory and the boudoir. At first, they seem to signify the separate domains of male and female: the laboratory is the place for science, intellectual activity, and risk; the boudoir is the site of passivity, decoration, and safety. However, even though the boudoir offers an “atmosphere of penetrating fragrance” with “a series of beautiful apartments...hung with gorgeous curtains, which imparted the combination of grandeur and grace,” it is in fact an extension of the laboratory and completely dominated by Aylmer. It is a place, in short, where he attempts to put Georgiana at ease, mollify her, and in the process gain her acquiescence to his experiments, which he in fact does. Thus, this depiction of the setting suggests Georgiana has no real refuge in the marriage at all; her husband controls all aspects of it. Yet the laboratory, though decidedly masculine, is not what Georgiana (or the reader) expects it to be either. Up until Georgiana discovers Aylmer in the laboratory, she, along with the reader, imagines it is a place of intellectual study, for her husband (with the help of the narrator) describes his projects as “strong and eager aspiration toward the infinite.” Yet the laboratory turns out to be a filthy place of labor, more like a factory than anything else. When entering it, Georgiana first sees 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.” According to critic Jules Zanger, the image of the factory, which signifies a worker, under the guise of a “laboratory,” the site of an intellectual, shows the close relationship and dependency of these two classes of people on each other as opposed to the distance between them imagined by Hawthorne’s contemporaries. In this way, setting carries meaning in two ways: first, it shows the domination of the feminine by the masculine; and second, it erases (as Zanger puts it) “the physical and social distance that conventionally separates the genteel lady from the noxious factory and disguises their organic relationship and the dependence of one upon the other.”

Bibliography

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Bell, Millicent, ed. Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hester Prynne. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004.

Bunge, Nancy. Nathaniel Hawthorne: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Davis, Clark. Hawthorne’s Shyness: Ethics, Politics, and the Question of Engagement. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Mellow, James R. Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Times. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

Miller, Edward Havilland. Salem Is My Dwelling Place: A Life of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991.

Millington, Richard H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Moore, Margaret B. The Salem World of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1998.

Muirhead, Kimberly Free. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter”: A Critical Resource Guide and Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography of Literary Criticism, 1950-2000. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2004.

Newman, Lea Bertani Vozar. A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1979.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Scharnhorst, Gary. The Critical Response to Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Stoehr, Taylor. Hawthorne’s Mad Scientists. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1978.

Thompson, G. R. The Art of Authorial Presence: Hawthorne’s Provincial Tales. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

Von Frank, Albert J., ed. Critical Essays on Hawthorne’s Short Stories. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991.

Bibliography

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Millington, Richard H. 2004. The Cambridge Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This collection of essays covers topics that include Hawthorne’s relationship to history, women, politics, and early America.

Pennell, Melissa McFarland. 1999. Student Companion to Nathaniel Hawthorne. New York: Greenwood. Chapters in this collection cover Hawthorne’s biography; his contributions to American literature; and discussions of the plots, themes, characters, settings, and symbols in his major short stories and novels.

Rucker, Mary E. 1987. “Science and Art in Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark.’” Nineteenth-Century Literature 41 (4): 445-61. This essay argues that Aylmer typifies a Romantic artist, through which Hawthorne investigates and criticizes Romantic aesthetics and ethics.

Thompson, W. R. 1955. “Aminadab in ‘The Birthmark.’” Modern Language Notes 70 (6): 413-15. Thompson examines the biblical allusions of the character’s name to provide an argument for his symbolic importance to the story.

Zanger, Jules. 1983. “Speaking of the Unspeakable: Hawthorne’s ‘The Birthmark.’” Modern Philology 80 (4): 364-71. The nineteenth century’s attitude toward women’s bodies influences Hawthorne’s depiction of Georgiana’s birthmark, which Zanger sees as embodying male fears of women’s sexuality in general and menstruation in particular.

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