Nathaniel Hawthorne is a nineteenth century American Novelist whose works are deeply concerned with the ethical problems of sin, punishment, and atonement (Adams 168). The New England writer also handles the romantic theme very well and is a master of historical fiction. Hawthorne was a descendant of one of the judges at the Salem witch trials, and he set many of his works in Puritan New England and during early crises in American history (Encarta). “The Birthmark,” like many of Hawthorne’s stories deals with the relationship between men and women.
It is a love story where the quest for perfection leads to a tragic end. The protagonist, a scientist named Aylmer, attempts to attain perfection for his new wife Georgiana, by removing a birthmark resembling a small hand from her left cheek. Written in 1843, it was Hawthorne’s first work of fiction right after he married his wife, Sophia (Encarta). This adds depth to the story in a way that Hawthorne can relate to it in a more direct manner. It was written during the Old Manse period in Hawthorne’s life (July 1842 to October 1845) when he was becoming interested in the place in society of the artist.
In “The Birthmark” Hawthorne finishes by giving redit to the flaws and imperfections of human nature. The story shows Hawthorne’s opinion that some things that were created by God cannot be changed. This can be seen from an article in the American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge in 1836 where he stated “the Creator has absolutely debarred mankind from all inventions and discoveries, the results of which would counter act the general laws, that He has established over human affairs,” (Adams 169).
In “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne uses the obsession of the scientist Aylmer who wishes to combine the love he has for science with the love for his wife. Aylmer sees the birthmark on his wife’s cheek of an imperfection and a symbol of man’s mortality. Aylmer is described in terms of high praise, praise for his aspiration toward the infinite, for his pure and honorable love that will accept nothing less than perfection (Jones 193). Aylmer’s effort in removing the birthmark reflects his vain attempt at attaining perfection. In the story, the protagonist, Aylmer is married to Georgiana, a woman of almost perfect beauty.
Her only defect is a birthmark, shaped like a tiny reddish hand, on her cheek. Aylmer is obsessed with this imperfection and longs to get rid of t. He would sooner have Georgiana dead than impure (Jones 194). When he sees the birthmark Aylmer cannot restrain “a strong convulsive shudder. ” He thinks it is “intolerable” and it “shocks” him. It is a “frightful object,” (Hawthorne 204-205). Not long after the wedding day, Aylmer comes to a haunting awareness of “his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay and death” (Hawthorne 205), symbolized by the tiny birthmark on her cheek.
This mark becomes to him “the spectral Hand that wrote mortality, where he would fain have worshiped” (205). Aylmer’s personality resists this: His lifelong search, Hawthorne uggests, has been for “ultimate control over nature” (203). Aylmer is unable to reconcile himself to this imperfection, and Georgiana, made unhappy also by his dissatisfaction, urges him to use his esoteric powers to try removing it (Adams 169). He succeeds in doing this, but when the birthmark fades away, and her beauty is flawless, she dies. She does not blame her husband for his doings.
My poor Aylmer,” she says, “you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best earth could offer. Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying! ‘” (Hawthorne 219). Aylmer’s earthy assistant, Aminadab, gives his habitually “hoarse, chuckling laugh,” and Hawthorne remarks: Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state.
Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect uture in the present. Hawthorne’s reach in this passage appears to exceed his grasp; his terms are obscure and probably confused (Adams 169).
What he seems to be groping for is some theory or formula by means of which to transcend the difficulties arising from the traditional humanistic dualism of body and soul, or matter and spirit, or time and eternity,” (169). He is suggesting that Aylmer should live the earthly life in such a way that it participates in the life of eternity (169). But Aylmer, living solely in the idea world, presumes the place of God in his attempt to perfect nature (Wohlpart 452). Another and simpler way of looking at his error is suggested by Georgiana, whose personality seems to be developmental rather than idealistic (Adams 169).
Life,'” she says, “is but a sad possession to those who have attained precisely the degree of moral advancement at which I stand. Were I weaker and blinder it might be happiness. Were I stronger, it might be endured hopefully. But, being what I find myself, methinks I am of all mortals the most fit to die,'” (Hawthorne 219). Aylmer’s error lies in his failure to understand that perfection is death (Adams 169). A living thing must grow and develop in order to keep on iving, therefore, it is imperfect, just like Georgiana.
If it is ever perfected, it must die, as Georgiana does. In “The Birthmark” Hawthorne presents a love story that brings forth the larger idea of man’s quest for perfection. He concludes that the perfect love and the perfect wife cannot be attained through man’s own actions. Hawthorne used his knowledge of Transcendentalism to put forth the idea that man could use his knowledge and abilities to overcome nature. The story’s tragic ending shows that science cannot change man’s basic nature and that some things should not be messed with. Love and science sometimes do not mix.