WRT 120 Syllabus
Lit 165 Syllabus
About the Instructor
Notes for Introduction to Literature
Fundamental Questions About Literature
Critical Approaches to Literature
Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
Notes on Four Short Stories
Defining the Short Story
The Genesis of the Short Story
The Art of the Short Story
Responding to 'The Birthmark'
Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
A Guided Reading of 'Bartleby'
'Bartleby--Questions for Analysis
A Cultural Context for 'Bartleby'
A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
Notes on Innovative Fiction
Young Man on Sixth Avenue
A Study Guide for the Fiction Exam
The Craft of Poetry: Imagery
The Craft of Poetry: Sound
The Craft of Poetry: Structure
Lines of Continuity
Study Guide for the Poetry Exam
The Birth of Greek Tragedy
Stepping Through OEDIUPS THE KING
Aristotle's 'Tragic Hero'
Questions for Studying OEDIUPS
The Relevance of OEDIPUS Today
Study Guide for the Drama Exam
Notes for Effective Writing I
Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
Announcements and Assignments
WRT 120 Announcements
WRT 120 Assignments
LIT 165 Announcements
Lit 165 Assignments
Weblog for WRT 120
Weblog for LIT 165
Writing Assistance on the Web
Join an Online Forum
WRT 120 Composition Forum
LIT 165 Introduction to Literature Forum
Responses to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Birthmark" ~~
My experience with
assigning "The Birthmark" is that Hawthorne's elevated 19th century
diction and syntax can sometimes turn students away. It doesn't sound natural;
it's "difficult." Some students seem to completely give up on reading
the story, and they wait for class, or they just tune the story out completely.
If you're thinking I must be pretty stubborn (or stupid) to continue to assign
this story knowing that many students have had that kind of reaction, I wouldn't
argue with you. The reason I'm stubborn (but hopefully not stupid) is that I
strongly believe in this story's relevance, its timelessness. I think it raises
some really interesting, throught-provoking questions about marriage, relationships,
beauty, perfectionism, the relationship between self-image and happiness, submissiveness
and the suspension of intelligence, how it can be fatal to let others do your
thinking for you, how shallow some people can be and why that's wrong. Hawthorne
saw something timeless in the sensational, true story he dug up as the source
for his fiction. We're still questioning whether science "plays God,"
and whether its possible to "improve nature." We still harbor, in
our contemporary collective psyche, an image of the scientist as the mad wizard
mixing magic potions in his tube-lined laboratory, feverishly reaching for something,
whether good or ill. The goals of science have been wrapped in controversy for
a long time now. Although our technology has advanced beyond anything the 19th
century might have dreamed, the ethical questions remain the same. Why, exactly,
are we trying to engineer our genes and our food? Why are we cloning plants
and animals and perhaps people? Where is drive to improve nature leading us?
What's motivating it? What harm might come of these practices?
Here are some questions
you've raised, along with students from previous semesters who've read and studied
this story. Which ones do you find most interesting? How might you begin to
answer some of these?
- Why did Aylmer
marry Georgiana if he hated the birthmark so much? Why does he want to remove
- What were Aylmer's
real motives? Was there more to it than is obvious?
- If Aylmer really
loved Georgiana, why couldn't he look past her birthmark?
- Shouldn't people
love their partners for who they are and what they look like without needing
them to change?
- Is Aylmer, inventing
this elixir, trying to play God?
- Is the way a
person looks connected to who she/he is?
- How far should
a person be willing to go to improve an imperfection?
- Why is Aminadab
laughing when Georgiana dies? Why isn't he sad?
- Why couldn't
Aylmer accept his wife the way she was, and why did she give in to him?
- What is love?
What is a reasonable risk to take for someone you love?
- What does it
mean to be "imperfect"?
- Why do we allow
others to have such an impact on our self-image?
- Did Aylmer learn
anything by the end of the story?
- What is more
important, perfection or life?
- How far will
a person go to achieve success?
- Why was Aylmer
so disturbed by the birthmark, when others considered it a "charm"?
What does he find so unacceptable about it?
- Why did Aylmer
notice the birthmark only after he married Georgiana? Why didn't he address
it before marriage, or earlier in their marriage?
- What is beauty?
Who gets to define what beauty is?
- Should people
mess with nature?
- When does science
go a step too far?
- Why was Georgiana
so weak and vulnerable to her husband's need to change her? Why did she give
- How did Georgiana
- Did Aylmer love
Georgiana as much as he loved science?
- Did Aylmer's
obsession with the birthmark reflect his obsession with science or his obsession
with his wife?
- If Aylmer knew
the potion would kill his wife, but still remove the birthmark, would he give
it to her anyway?