In "The Birthmark," how would the story change if Georgiana’s mark were a fish, heart, or an oval? What does the birthmark symbolize?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark," first published in 1843, is perhaps Hawthorne's most well-known exploration of the tension between nature and science—the struggle for ascendancy of two competing views about the perfection of human nature. Like Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter ," another story of the perversion of science...

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in order to control nature, "The Birthmark" centers on the scientist, Aylmer's, obsessive attempts to eradicate "imperfection" in the form of a birthmark on his wife, Georgiana's, cheek. As your question suggests, the birthmark becomes a powerful symbol because perceptions of it vary according to the characters' world view.

Hawthorne introduces the theme of nature versus science, as well as the theme of love between man and woman, in his description of the scientist Aylmer:

He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.

Aylmer's ability to love, a distant "second passion," is restricted by his love of science, and the success of love of another human depends upon the "intertwining" of the two, not, as we might expect, upon the ascendancy of love over science—the two are inextricably and, as we learn later, fatally bound, with science taking precedence.

Georgiana, Aylmer's new wife, is described as beautiful, with one distinguishing mark:

Georgiana's lovers were wont to say that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts.

The mark is in the shape of a tiny hand—a small but unmistakable symbol of nature's power to create—which, when Georgiana is in an unemotional state, is clearly discernible. Hawthorne's choice of a tiny hand is not random: nature is responsible for Georgiana's creation, and the appropriate symbol of nature's involvement is a "hand." That the birthmark is bound to Georgiana's innermost self is clear when Hawthorne describes the birthmark's varying color. When she blushes, the mark loses its distinctive tint and begins to become less visible, and as blood continues to redden her face, the birthmark and the surrounding color of her face become one. Hawthorne subtly implies that the birthmark and Georgiana's emotions are, like Aylmer's science and ability to love, mutually dependent.

A second powerful theme is framed by Aylmer's growing obsession with the birthmark, an obsession that ultimately leads to disaster but one that is consistent with the earlier description of a man who loves science to the exclusion of all else. Aylmer sees the birthmark not as one of the "magic endowments" that make his wife desirable but as

this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.

The birthmark becomes, in Aylmer's eyes, a mistake of nature that, while others overlook or view as a beauty mark, Aylmer sees as the emblem of nature's inability to create perfection. Indeed, as time goes by, Aylmer becomes more convinced—to the point at which his dreams are infected by his obsession—that Georgiana's birthmark is not merely a physical defect but is an emblem of inherent human weaknesses

In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer's sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.

In short, this small hand of nature has taken on all the attributes of nature's ultimate frailty—decay and death—two human inevitabilities that cause Aylmer to hate the birthmark more than he loves his wife. Hawthorne leaves to his readers the conclusion that Aylmer's obsession is the outward manifestation of his completely unbalanced inner being.

In sum, then, the birthmark is itself, one on hand, a benign symbol of Georgiana's gentle and loving nature—and nature's involvement in her creation—and, on the other hand, a foil for the fight for supremacy between science and nature, symbolized by Aylmer's obsessive desire to rid the world of nature's "imperfection." In the end, Aylmer succeeds in controlling nature by eradicating the birthmark, but the cost is Georgiana's life that is dependent on that nature.

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From Aylmer's point of view, I don't think it would make much difference what shape Georgiana's birthmark was. To him, a blemish is a blemish, and that's all there is to it. At the same time, a birthmark in the shape of a little hand is kind of unnerving to Aylmer, as it reminds him that, when all's said and done, his supposedly imperfect wife is, like everyone else, one of God's creatures.

When Georgiana blushes—which is often—her birthmark fades away. But when she turns pale, the birthmark becomes even more noticeable, like a drop of blood in the snow. It is at times like these that Aylmer becomes firmly resolved to undo the imperfections of God's handiwork. He simply can't accept the fact that his wife (it's clear that Aylmer is proprietorial toward Georgiana) should have the slightest blemish on her skin. It almost reflects badly on him; Georgiana's imperfections are his imperfections, too.

As a man of science, Aylmer feels he has a duty to humanity to treat his wife as a guinea pig in a potentially groundbreaking new experiment. Georgiana's imperfections are those of humankind as a whole, and Aylmer firmly believes that by harnessing the power of science, he can begin the long, hard process of ridding mankind of its numerous blemishes—both physical and psychological—once and for all.

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The narrator says that the birthmark's "shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pygmy size." For this reason, then, the hand seems to symbolize Georgiana's humanity; it is, after all, shaped like a very tiny human hand. In another sense, it can also signify that Georgiana has come from Nature (i.e., God's creation). Aylmer, Georgiana's scientist-husband, says to her, "you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection." In other words, then, the birthmark is a symbol of Georgiana's human imperfection, her mortality, and her liability to sinfulness and death. Humans are ephemeral and cannot be perfect, and the birthmark, with its specific shape and bloodred color (another symbol of her humanity), symbolizes this. The narrator says, "It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions." Therefore, it would not make nearly as much sense if the mark had a different shape.

When Georgiana blushes, the following occurs:

[The birthmark] gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale, there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow.

When she flushes and the blood rushes to her face, the mark seems to disappear, and when her skin goes pale, the mark becomes that much more visible. This would seem to further connect it with her humanity, as it changes according to her very human emotions. It also blends in with her blood, which is yet another symbol of her humanity and mortal life.

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” Georgiana’s birthmark is in the shape of a tiny red hand on her cheek. The shape of the hand is significant because it represents the hand of God. If it would have been a different shape, like a fish or an oval, the symbolism would not have been the same. One of the themes in the story is that man should not tamper with nature or try to play God. Therefore, the mark of the hand as representative of God emphasizes that by trying to remove the remark, Aylmer is tampering with God’s work. The mark is more faint when Georgiana blushes because the red disappears when a blush comes to her cheek. The symbol is a mark of ‘imperfection’ in Aylmer’s eyes because he has very specific notions of what perfection is. The birthmark is a mark—that’s all. By calling it an imperfection, he gives himself license to remove it

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