Themes and Meanings

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Allegories seldom produce well-rounded characters because their purpose is primarily philosophical and didactic. Aylmer is undoubtedly the Faustian man who is never satisfied with his own limitations. Ordinary nature is never good enough to fulfill his idealistic aspirations, and like both Christopher Marlowe’s and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, he is entranced with the Greek ideal of perfect beauty. In terms of visible beauty, Georgiana cannot compete with Helen of Troy, the supernatural succubus provided by Mephistopheles for Faustus. On the other hand, she can appeal to Aylmer’s attraction to spiritual beauty and thus perhaps save his soul, like Gertrude, instead of assuring his damnation as the spurious Helen did for Faustus in Marlowe’s version. Aylmer’s ultimate fate is not resolved in the story. Presumably, he, like Ethan Brand, another of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s protagonists, has found the one unforgivable sin in himself: intellectual pride.

Aylmer is never covetous of evil pleasures. He aspires upward, always, toward the ideal. In this sense, he is less believable as a human specimen than the Renaissance Faustus, who craved sensual experience as well as knowledge and power. Aylmer seems to have been corrupted by the idealist’s tendency toward abstraction and discontent with reality. In fact, he hardly seems sufficiently empirical in orientation to make a good scientist. However, the reader is assured that “he handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspirations towards the infinite.” Science is obviously closer to alchemy and magic at this time than to modern chemistry and physics. Alchemy always had a spiritual element.

Georgiana is a one-dimensional heroine, as good as she is beautiful. In fact, the story seems to support the Platonic assumption that perfect beauty is equivalent to perfect goodness. Georgiana does gain some intellectual insight in the course of the story, loving her husband more but trusting his judgment less. She has more common sense than he but also more selfless devotion. Modern readers may complain that the perfect goodness she attains, even before she is purified of her physical flaw, is simply the absurd exaggeration of conventional female virtue: absolute self-sacrifice and submission to the will of the beloved. Hawthorne casts all blame for the tragic outcome on the misguided husband, who is not satisfied with the blessings of nature.

The conflict is not really between good and evil; it lies, rather, in a fundamental incompatibility between the physical and the spiritual aspects of human beings. Georgiana recognizes that Aylmer’s journal was “the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay, and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part.”

Themes

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Romanticism and the Ideal
“The Birthmark” argues that the artistry of nature, even when imperfect, surpasses any art created by humankind. As a result, idealistic endeavors that aspire to an art more beautiful than what nature offers are morally flawed. Because Georgiana “comes so nearly perfect from the hand of nature,” Aylmer’s idealism as well as his arrogant confidence in his skills motivates his desire to remove the mark “so that the world might possess one specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw.” At moments, the narrator as well as Georgiana admires this pursuit of perfect beauty, yet Aylmer’s final failure communicates to the danger of this position. To worship with humility divine beauty is one thing, but to believe one can create pure...

(This entire section contains 570 words.)

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beauty is another. In this way, Hawthorne questions whether the major inspiration for creativity is pure vision or whether artistic creativity in pursuit of the ideal is unavoidably lessened by selfish, proud motives.

Science Versus Nature
In the nineteenth century, many understood science as the ultimate cure for the problems of the world. The positivism of the day suggested that science offered the cure to the difficulties of nature, including sickness and death. In this way, science offered the possibility of dominating nature and, for this reason, was associated with masculine thought. Nature, on the other hand, has historically been associated with the feminine, as something beautiful but also something that could be “penetrated” and ultimately dominated—understood—by means of scientific experiments and knowledge. “The Birthmark” embodies this dichotomy between science and nature, masculinity and femininity. Aylmer, representing science, seeks to perfect nature, represented by Georgiana. His dream of cutting into her birthmark, which connects to her heart, provides a metaphor of science penetrating nature to seek and ultimately control its mysteries. That Georgiana dies at the end of the story, her soul flying to heaven, indicates the danger and failure of science, while it also allows its success, in that the woman indeed is dominated and penetrated even though destroyed in the process.

Gender and Sexuality
The theme of gender presents itself not only by way of the conflict between science and nature but also through the symbolism of the birthmark. Before she married, Georgiana considered it a “charm,” connoting something both magical and fortunate, and former suitors thought “some fairy” placed it there, giving Georgiana “sway over all hearts,” indicating its sexual power. Significantly, Aylmer does not notice the birthmark until after he marries Georgiana, when, we infer, they have shared sexual intimacy. Then he suddenly finds it a “mark of earthly imperfection.” In other words, it reminds him that she has a body and is not the “pure spirit” of beauty he would prefer. From Leviticus until at least the twentieth century, myths about women’s menstruation have carried suggestions of uncleanliness and poison to which Hawthorne implicitly alludes through Aylmer’s abhorrence of the birthmark and his means of protecting himself from it. For example, when Georgiana touches the magical flower it dies, and when Aylmer prepares her for his experiment he isolates her in a “magical circle” cut off by curtains until he cures the “imperfection.” Some critics interpret the tiny hand on Georgiana’s check as a mark of God, while others understand it as a mark of the devil. Such ambiguity further indicates the ambivalent attitude toward female sexuality that the birthmark embodies.

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