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Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark”

In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Birthmark,” there are many views on the need for science and its advances. Hawthorne’s protagonist, Aylmer, illustrates his own personal assessment of science. The story is based on the idea that science can solve all of humanities ills and problems. Hawthorne believes that science is overrunning life. Aylmer is consumed by his passion of overtake Mother Nature. The story shows how Aylmer’s passion leads to not only his downfall but that of his wife Georgiana as well.

The belief that science can solve and do anything is one of ignorance because it totally disregards the human element of spirituality. The idea of hubris, which is a Greek word meaning excessive pride of a mortal who believes they are on the level of the gods, is very apparent in the story. In Ancient Greek myths, the gods usually punished those who acted with hubris. Aylmer, himself, believes that he is on the level of the gods. This is shown in the passage “Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature” (44).

Aylmer’s arrogant belief that he can triumph over Nature can be found when he and Georgiana, are talking about the removal of the birthmark: “ ‘what will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work’ ” (47). Near the end Aylmer is so sure that he has beaten Nature that he mocks it: “ ‘Ah clod! ah, earthly mass’ ” (55). This shows Aylmer’s arrogance because it shows that he believes that he is The Creator. Aylmer’s delusions of grandeur are crushed at the end when Georgiana dies.

He is, so to speak, struck down by the gods. In the pursuit of scientific discovery, Hawthorne raises the question of when is enough, enough? Where should the proverbial line be drawn? Aylmer is always striving for absolute control over the Natural World. Hawthorne develops the character of Aminadab to serve this purpose. Aminadab is the perfect contrast to Aylmer. Aminadab “seemed to represent man’s physical nature; while Aylmer’s slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a spiritual element” (48).

Aminadab realizes that Georgiana is indeed perfect the way she is, and should not be tampered with. This is shown in a quote from Aminadab, “ ‘if she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark’ ” (48). He realizes science cannot overtake Mother Nature. Aylmer’s view towards it is one of disgust. He thinks “it will be such a rapture to remove it” (48). This shows the contrast of the men, Aminadab and Aylmer. When Aminadab chuckles the ”hoarse, chuckling laugh,” (55) at the end of the story, it really drives Hawthorne’s point home.

That is, it is laughable to believe that science can solve all of life’s mysteries. Aylmer’s book of experiments and their results is a metaphor for how scientific discovery only leads us to find more questions not answers. In Aylmer’s book, it shows that all his great achievements and discoveries were merely accidents and by-products of his original goals that failed to achieve conclusive answers: “his most splendid successes were most invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed” (51).

It becomes apparent to the reader that all of Aylmer’s attempts were merely futile and in vain. “ ‘The concoction of the draught has been perfect,’ said he, in answer to Georgiana’s look. ‘Unless all my science have deceived me, it cannot fail’ ” (54). Alas, the draught is far from perfect, all of Aylmer’s science has deceived him and his ultimate failure comes to fruition as Georgiana dies. Aylmer is but a mere man. The hand-like birthmark on Georgiana’s face symbolizes her mortal imperfection that kept the union between spirituality and mortality.

Hawthorne’s critique of science relates with this because it shows the distinctiveness between what science deems as life and how life is seen through the eyes of spirituality. Science sees the birthmark as an imperfection that can be removed. This can be seen in the words of Aylmer, “ ‘I am convinced of the perfect practicability of its removal’ ” (46). This is the scientist’s view of Aylmer that believes man is capable of topping anyone or anything. Spirituality on the other hand views the birthmark as an object of necessity: “some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek” (44).

The birthmark is the imperfection that keeps Georgiana on the real world and not in the spiritual one. Aylmer’s inability to understand that science cannot overtake spirituality rather than the fact that science only helps to understand the spiritual aspect of life can be best summed up in the passage: “ ‘My peerless bride. It is successful! You are perfect’ ” (55). This perfectly shows that, although science can fix something, it cannot understand that it is repairing. Will science, and the further development of technology suffice to take the place of Nature?

Will it replace God in the human mind? Hawthorne leaves these questions open for the reader to ponder. Perhaps, it is the pure simplicity of life that Aminadab suggests in the story that will lead humankind to true happiness. Aylmer pursued seemingly impossible tasks that only further complicated his life, and inevitably destroyed his own spirit through the death of his wife Georgiana. “Alas! It was too true! The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame” (55).

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