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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 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.

Setting

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,...

(The entire section is 1,627 words.)