31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 31: “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

May 31, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Hawthorne’s Short Stories

We started this month with one of the American progenitors of the short story form; it seems appropriate that we should end with one, also. Of Hawthorne’s influence on the development of the short fiction genre, National Book Award–winning critic Newton Arvin writes:

In any other period they might well have taken quite a different literary form – fabulous, visionary, legendary, poetic (in the limited sense), and even dramatic – and if they took the form of “short stories,” it was because, at the moment Hawthorne began to write, that mold was a natural and almost handy one. This does not meant that it was long-established; on the contrary, it was in its primitive or experimental stage, especially in English, and if it was handy, it was only in the sense in which the history play was so for the young Shakespeare. The Italian novella, the French conte, the realistic-moral English tale – these were ancient types, but they were nothing to the purpose of Hawthorne and his contemporaries: they were not “inward,” they were not meditative or musing, they were not a matter of tone and lighting and harmony. It was only latterly that short pieces of prose fiction had begun to take on qualities such as these, and Hawthorne was as much the creator as the inheritor of the form.

Hawthorne’s stories, like Poe’s, were inward and musing, and were very much a matter of tone and lighting and harmony. Unlike Poe, Hawthorne was a symbolic writer with a resolutely spiritual, not to say religious, fervour underpinning his fictions. In its suspicion of science as a replacement for the divine, in its excoriation of human hubris, in its critique of an attempt by a human to usurp the place of God, “The Birthmark” occupies the same corner of the literary landscape as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Hawthorne’s story centres on the character of Aylmer, a man who “had devoted himself … too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion.” Nevertheless, he has “made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one”: he has fallen in love with Georgiana, whom he subsequently marries. Having sealed the matrimonial bond, however, Aylmer becomes increasingly obsessed by his wife’s one physical imperfection: a small crimson birthmark on her left cheek, which appears to take on the shape of a tiny human hand. Aylmer succumbs to a state of high agitation with regard to this blemish on his wife’s otherwise spotless face:

With the morning twilight Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife’s face and recognized the symbol of imperfection; and when they sat together at the evening hearth his eyes wandered stealthily to her cheek, and beheld, flickering with the blaze of the wood fire, the spectral hand that wrote mortality where he would fain have worshipped. Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze. It needed but a glance with the peculiar expression that his face often wore to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bas-relief of ruby on the whitest marble.

Despite her reservations, Georgiana agrees to allow her husband to perform experimental treatments on her to remove the birthmark. As Aylmer’s obsession deepens, Georgiana herself begins to find the blemish repulsive and encourages her husband in his quest to discover a solution that will eradicate it forever.

From the outset, Hawthorne insists on a dichotomy between divine creation and human ingenuity; the quest for human perfection, we come to understand, is not only hubristic but a refutation of the divine laws of nature. Aylmer’s drive to recreate his wife in a way that will conform to his own idea of perfect beauty has an unavoidably modern resonance: it is at once a condemnation of a particularly patriarchal impulse demanding that woman adhere to a masculine standard of attractiveness and a prescient critique of our Botox and silicone addicted pursuit of physical perfection at all costs.

If there was any question as to where Hawthorne’s sympathies lie, it should be put to rest by the scene in which Georgiana makes an incursion into Aylmer’s laboratory:

The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were resorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science.

The “oppressively close” atmosphere “tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science” is bad enough, but the image of the furnace, “with the intense glow of its fire,” bears with it an unmistakably hellish connotation. It is no accident that the next thing that Georgiana’s eye alights on is her husband, “pale as death” and perched over the furnace “as if it depended upon his utmost watchfulness whether the liquid which it was distilling should be the draught of immortal happiness or misery.” The explicit connection between the scientist and the furnace, burning with its devilish fires, advances Hawthorne’s implication that the unchecked progress of science at the expense of a recognition of divine creation can only lead to catastrophe.

In Hawthorne’s story, catastrophe does indeed ensue. Aylmer achieves his goal and discovers a serum that eradicates Georgiana’s birthmark, but in the process it takes her life:

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. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark – that sole token of human imperfection – faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.

By attempting to improve over nature, Hawthorne suggests, Aylmer destroyed the one thing he truly loved. There is an explicitly religious aspect to this allegory, but absent the religious undertones it nevertheless remains a potent parable about humanity’s vain pursuit of an elusive perfection, and the terrible toll that such pursuit can end up taking.

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