Student Question

What is the most important element of style in "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Expert Answers

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Hawthorne’s story is a kind of fable, which means that it is short tale that is meant to impart a moral message. Fables in general share many of the formal qualities you mention. I can’t say which one would be the best one to choose for an answer, and to me many of these elements are closely related. “Economy” has to do with the efficiency with which the story is told. I would say that the story is “efficient” in that it does not dwell excessively on the back stories of the characters or needless complications of plot. We know only a little about Aylmer and Georgiana – he is a famous scientist, she a beautiful woman with a disfiguring birthmark – but what we know is enough to move the story on to its conclusion.

The idea of “simplicity” is connected, but not exactly the same. Few modern readers would call Hawthorne’s style “simple,” and it’s easy to see how his language could be simplified (“The Birthmark” is a story that often is “translated” into simpler language for young readers). On the other hand, there is a kind of “simplicity” to the plot that connects to other themes in your question -- the “sequential development of plot” and the “inevitability of climax.” That is, the reader knows, from the beginning, that things will turn out badly for Georgiana. The fable structure implies as much, of course, but then there is also the matter of Aylmer’s foreshadowing dream, in which his irrational desire to remove the birthmark causes him to slice open Georgiana’s heart (“It is in her heart now! We must have it out!”). There is a kind of formula that the story follows (scientist marries wife – becomes obssessed with “imperfection” – performs experiment to “perfect” her – wife dies) that guides us to the conclusion but also guides us to the “moral” of the story, which is that “beauty” and “perfection” are not the same thing.

As for “variety,” I am not sure how this term is being used. One thing that comes to mind is thinking about the ways Hawthorne’s story might deviate from the traditional fable format: to what extent, for example, does the story embrace moral or thematic ambiguity? This approach might also allow for an examination of Hawthorne’s use of symbolism, or permit a more nuanced interpretation of gender roles.

This is a great question. Good luck!

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