Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 608 words.)