Student Question

How does Hawthorne use symbolism in character references in The Birthmark?

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Hawthorne's short story "The Birthmark," which was first published in a magazine called The Pioneer in 1843 and later included in Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse in 1846, was part of American literature during the Romantic Period, the characteristics of which included the debate about the primacy of nature or science. In this story, as your question suggests, we are presented with symbols that the characters perceive and symbols that we perceive.

Hawthorne introduces us to the conflict in his description of Aylmer, the scientist, and his decision to marry:

He had so totally given himself to scientific studies that he could not be weakened by a second love. His love for his young wife could only be the stronger of the two if it could link itself with his love of science.

We are on notice, from the beginning of the story, that science is Aylmer's all-consuming focus even in the choice of a wife and that the person he marries will be secondary to Aylmer's love of science unless she can also love science as he does. This is the foreshadowing of an obsession, and Aylmer will himself become a symbol of obsession.

The small birthmark in the shape of a delicate hand on Georgiana's cheek—which some admirers see as the mark of a "magical fairy" and some others ignore—creates a very different reaction in Aylmer:

... Nature made you so perfectly that this small defect shocks me as being a sign of earthly imperfection.

That the birthmark becomes a symbol for Aylmer of Nature's imperfection is clear when Hawthorne tells us that, for Aylmer, the birthmark is not merely a symbol of Nature's imperfection but represents much more:

Aylmer saw the mark as a sign of his wife's eventual sadness, sickness, and death. Soon, the birthmark caused him more pain than Georgiana's beauty had ever given him pleasure.

The physical reality of this otherwise inconsequential birthmark becomes, for Aylmer the scientist, the symbol of Georgiana's mortality and, perhaps more important, the birthmark grows in his mind as an imperfection that blots out Georgiana's beauty. The birthmark is both a symbol of Georgiana's beautiful nature and Aylmer's obsession with his version of perfection.

Georgiana, finally desperate to please Aylmer, agrees to allow him to remove the birthmark, but as she awaits the results of his various attempts, she reads his notes about all of his experiments and "she could not help see that many of his experiments had ended in failure." Although she is concerned, her trust in Aylmer is complete, and her desire to please her husband, who is so obsessed with the birthmark that he dreams about it, is more powerful than her reservations.

At this point, another character appears—Aminadab, Aylmer's helper, who adds another level of symbolism to the story. He is described as a man who is skilled in constructing Aylmer's laboratory equipment without knowing the principles involved in the experiments, and he has unusual physical characteristics:

With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that incrusted him, he seemed to represent man's physical nature.

Hawthorne, in exploring the difference between science and nature, has given us the picture of natural man, a symbol of un-reconstructed Nature, covered with "indescribable earthiness"—the physical opposite of Aylmer, who is described as having a "slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element." These physical symbols of the tension between nature and science are unmistakable, and this tension is made manifest by the vastly different physical characteristics of each man.

The birthmark, the symbol of Nature's creative force, is pitted against the power of science to control Nature, and Aylmer's failure—a failure that has disastrous consequences for Georgiana—is itself symbolic of a struggle that Aylmer, despite his vast scientific knowledge, cannot win, a deserving victim of both his obsession and the power of Nature.

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