The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1846
by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1846
Humankind's relation to nature is at once harmonious and adversarial. While nature creates and nourishes, it also blasts and destroys. The riddles of nature have fueled literary ruminations through the ages, but it is characteristic of Nathaniel Hawthorne that almost all of his stories and novels should be cast in the mold of romantic allegory and that they are pushed into metaphysical realms for resolution. His great novel The Scarlet Letter has less to do with the New England past or with illicit love than with sin and redemption. And his story "Ethan Brand" traces to its absolute extreme the course of a stylized character who in his pride repudiates the world.
In many of Hawthorne's works nature seems utterly indifferent to human ideas of perfection. "The Birthmark" (published in Mosses from an Old Manse)—readily comparable to another of the author's more ambitious stories, "Rapaccini's Daughter"—tells of a scientist's passion to overcome what he deems to be the imperfection of nature. In both stories it is a lovely woman whose physical body bears the intolerable flaw, and in each case the woman dies as a result of relentless attempts at purgation. This repeated allegorical design strongly suggests Hawthorne's conviction that a woman may be considered an ideal incarnation of nature because of her nominal imperfections. The whole scientific agenda for correcting nature, then, may be wrong-headed and impious if not downright evil.
The three main characters of "The Birthmark" are designed specifically to serve symbolic functions in the allegorical action. Aylmer is the greatest scientist of his age, skilled not only in the physical sciences but in medicine and organic chemistry. His wife, Georgiana, is the most beautiful of women, except for a small birthmark on her cheek. (That the birthmark has the shape of a handprint suggests it has been laid on by nature to signify its hold on the woman's life.) Aminadab the laboratory assistant is ugly, hairy, and primitive in appearance, signifying that he belongs entirely to the material world, not to the spiritual one for which Aylmer longs. It is Aminadab who, at one point, admonishes his master: "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark."
Aylmer sets out to find a means for correcting what he can only see as nature's mistake. It seems he can only love Georgiana as she might be without the birthmark. In the beginning Georgiana does not consider the mark to be a defect at all, claiming plaintively that former suitors have considered it an alluring addition to her other charms. It is less for her own sake than from noble and finally sacrificial loyalty that she submits to be the subject of her husband's experiments.
In the fashion of his time Hawthorne intrudes repeatedly to warn that Aylmer's aspirations are misguided and likely to cause irredeemable mischief. "The crimson hand expressed the ineludible grip in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould," warns the author. "Our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with working in the broadest sunshine is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, show us nothing but results." When timorous Georgiana summons the courage to peer into her husband's library, she finds in the older works of alchemists and scientists only a compilation of quaint errors. In her husband's own voluminous record of his experiments, however, she finds that "his most splendid successes were invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed."
Georgiana tries her best to warn of impending failure. In his pride and frustration Aylmer brushes aside her admonitions, intent on making greater efforts until at last he bends to warn her that there may be danger in continuing. Her response is unexpected. She drives him to press on to a conclusion of what has been begun.
That conclusion, of course, is her death. Aylmer's supreme concoction works, though not just as intended. The birthmark begins to fade as Georgiana slips into unconsciousness. By "a strange impulse" the husband kisses the fading blemish, though essentially he is exultant with the appearance of success. He crows about it to Aminadab, as if the earthly servant, too, had been conquered.
At this moment of frightful joy the dying Georgiana wakes to console him from the plane of her superior compassion. "My poor Aylmer … you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling you have rejected the best the earth could offer…." And now, beholding her death, Aminadab finds his turn to laugh—surely in contempt of Aylmer's lofty aims as well as their grim result. It is the laughter of the everlasting night in which humankind persists with no hope of certainty.
But the story does not end with such pessimistic simplicity. Hawthorne admonishes us to believe that with a "profounder wisdom" Aylmer would have left well enough alone. That, however, is really no better than Aminadab's advice earlier in the story, and it fails to justify Georgiana's compassionate and high-minded instruction, "Do not repent." She has chosen, with her life, to side against complacency and in favor of aspiration. Perhaps nature intends for humans to defy her. This stunning paradox has blazed through some of the greatest literature of our civilization from the Prometheus legend to the Faust myth.