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Notes for Introduction to Literature
~~ Notes on "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~~
too dark, too dense, too complex? How many readers today fully appreciate
the complex way he probes America's Puritan heritage, its obsession with
self and sin? He's a writer who riddles us with more questions than he answers,
a kind of blithe court jester standing to the side, challenging our all
Here's what Edgar Allen Poe had to say about Hawthorne, in his famous review of Hawthorne's first story collection, Twice-told Tales: "Mr. Hawthorne's distinctive trait is invention, creation, imagination, originality -- a trait which, in the literature of fiction, is positively worth all the rest. But the nature of originality, so far as regards its manifestation in letters, is but imperfectly understood. The inventive or original mind as frequently displays itself in novelty of tone as in novelty of matter. Mr. Hawthorne is original at all points .It would be a matter of some difficulty to designate the best of these tales; we repeat that, without exception, they are beautiful."
What makes Hawthorne popular with readers today?
THEMES IN HAWTHORNE'S WORK
Some of these themes may seem more evident in works other than "The Birthmark," particularly in his masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, but many of them appear in the "The Birthmark" as well.
ALIENATION: Characters may put themselves in a state of isolation, or they may be forced there by society, or by a combination of both.
INITIATION: Alienated characters may attempt to break out of their isolated condition.
PROBLEM OF GUILT: Characters may feel guilt as a result of their puritanical heritage or as a result of societal pressure. Innocence and guilt may equally plead their case in a Hawthorne story.
PRIDE: In Hawthorne's vision, pride is treated as evil. And pride can be expressed in a variety of forms -- physical, spiritual, or intellectual.
ALLEGORY: Taken in its entirety, Hawthorne's work is thought of as allegorical, even didactic and moralistic, though I would argue that his didacticism and moralizing are complex, not dogmatic, and that his major works, and even "The Birthmark" are morally ambiguous.
OTHERS: Broadly, the themes that concern Hawthorne seem to be the individual vs. society; self-fulfillment vs. accommodation or frustration; hypocrisy vs. integrity, love vs. hate, exploitation vs. hurting; and fate vs. free will.
CRITICAL APPROACHES TO HAWTHORNE
A major American writer, maybe America's first professional literary artist, Hawthorne's work can be approached from a variety of critical perspectives.
If you were taking
a broader historical approach to Hawthorne, you might ask things like:
If you were taking
a biographical approach to Hawthorne, you might ask things like:
will pursue questions like:
Questions for further studying "The Birthmark"
"The Birthmark" is such a rich story that when we begin to explore its deeper meanings we find ironies, ambiguities, paradoxes, and rich symbols, all of which invite a reader's individual interpretation. What irony, ambiguity, symbol, and paradox do you find most interesting in "The Birthmark"?
According to The Harper Handbook to Literature, "irony is the perception of a clash between appearance and reality, between seems and is, or between ought and is."
Verbal irony involves
saying the opposite of what one means. The appearance is what the words say;
the reality, their contrary meaning. Both speaker and listener are aware of
the contrast, mutually understanding the situation and each other. This silent
ironic understanding may flow between author and reader, or between characters
within a story, as someone stands by in ignorance, all of which the reader enjoys
by listening in.
One minor instance of verbal irony occurs when, having caught her reading in his library, particularly her reading his own folio, Aylmer says to Georgiana "It is dangerous to read in a sorcerer's books." As he says this with a smile, we understand that he is being ironic, and that he considers himself anything but a "sorcerer." It isn't magic or alchemy or wizardry Aylmer is at, but SCIENCE, with its rational propositions and orderly attempts at arriving at truth by minutiae and infinitesimal progressions. Georgiana recognizes the minuscule nature of Aylmer's achievements and feels pity for him, sees in him the same human failure and pathetic imperfection that he sees in her! ("Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.") The irony doubles when we as readers may believe that they are both wrong in their respective interpretations. Georgiana underestimates Aylmer's accomplishments and considers him a failure-but he isn't considered one; Aylmer thinks Georgiana's birthmark somehow makes her less than human-but she is all too human, vulnerable as any of us to the need for approval. It's possible, however, that we share Georgiana's view by the end of the story-that Aylmer "aims too high"; or we may feel the opposite: that he aims too low-seeking to satisfy his own egotistical desires and not considering his wife's well-being.
instance of verbal irony in "The Birthmark" is evident when Georgiana
dies. Just before she dies, murmuring "Poor Aylmer," Aylmer exclaims,
"Poor? Nay, richest, happiest, most favored!
.My peerless bride, it
is successful! You are perfect!" But she repeats ("with more than
human tenderness"), "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." Georgiana insists that her husband
has "aimed loftily," has "acted nobly," that his feelings
have been "high" and "pure," but the irony (which the astute
reader is aware of, though Georgiana, in her innocent trust of appearances is
not) is that his aim is anything but lofty. It's his obsessive pride (one of
the seven deadly sins), intellectual pride, that has driven him to murder his
wife, and for no other reason than that he believed the birthmark to be a mark
of evil. He insisted upon his own interpretation of the birthmark as the only
valid one; this is intellectual pride.
What was Aylmer's need to create something perfect, to improve upon "the best that nature had to offer"? Did he believe that, as a scientist, that was his role? His pride, however, is what leads him to believe that he, a mere human having made a few minor discoveries (and by his own admission lacking knowledge of the larger mysteries), might be powerful enough to improve upon the Nature's universe as it is. According to Georgiana, Aylmer "spiritualized everything, the merest physical details; the veriest cold of earth assumed a soul." What was Aylmer thinking, then, fiddling with the souls of others? It's hubris-the ancient Greek term for overbearing, excessive pride, the pride that leads to tragedy. Aylmer is arrogant.
in "The Birthmark" when the reader isn't quite sure where to place
the blame for Georgiana's death. Is it Aylmer's obsessive striving for perfection
that leads him to all but force the deadly draught upon his innocent wife, or
is it Georgiana's own imperfect, ironic misunderstanding of her husband's motives
that leads her to, for all intents and purposes, commit suicide? Is it her own
vanity, her inability to deal with her husband's involuntary "compulsive
shudder" that leads her to hate herself so thoroughly that she believes
her life isn't worth living? Ultimately, the question of whether her death is
murder or suicide is a matter of interpretation. The story is ambiguous; our
interpretation depends upon our character analysis of Aylmer and Georgiana,
and a thorough investigation of each one's conscious and unconscious motives.
Another instance of ambiguity arises from the symbol of the crimson hand itself. For each character in the story, the hand seems to represent something different. For Aylmer, it represents human imperfection, sin, the "fatal flaw of humanity which nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthy mold, degrading them into kindred with the lowest, and even with the very brutes, like whom their visible frames return to dust. In this manner, selecting it as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death, Aylmer's somber imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana's beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight." For Georgiana, it has been a badge of individuality. When Aylmer asks if she had ever considered having it removed, she responds, "To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so." Unlike Aylmer or Georgiana, or her former lovers, the servant Aminadab finds it funny that his master should wish to remove the birthmark, and he goes so far as to laugh when Georgiana expires as a result of the "operation." Clearly, it represents something different to him than to either of the other characters. To the reader, the "hand" may represent a different kind of "imperfection"-a purely physical one; unlike Aylmer, the reader may not feel the need to connect it to "spiritual" imperfection. For some readers, Georgiana's birthmark might symbolize the very the very thing that makes her, not only unique, but human.
A paradox is a
statement which seems on its face to be self-contradictory or absurd yet turns
out to make good sense.
A phrase of Georgiana's
also seems paradoxical: "Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched
life! You have deep science
" [my italics] This must have been
a striking phrase to nineteenth century ears. Even to us today, it may seem
contradictory; what is actually "deep" about science, which concerns
itself with the physical nature--the surface--of things; science doesn't attempt
to answer the kind of "deep" psychological, philosophical, or spiritual
questions that continually puzzle us. (Michael Behe may observe "irreducible
complexity" but as a scientist, he doesn't attempt to pinpoint the exact
philosophical ramifications of such a discovery. He leaves that to the theologians,
the philosophers.) Science can't cure human fallibility or eradicate sin, original
or otherwise. So, on the surface, Georgiana seems to introduce a contradiction
by using this strange phrase. But if we delve deeper, perhaps it makes sense.
In Aylmer's view, science is a means to tap into that "secret of creative
force and perhaps make [a] new [world] for himself." Aylmer's faith in
science does reach the depths: he sees it as the pathway to our "ultimate
control over Nature." If science can cure imperfection (physical or otherwise),
removing the hideous mark of sin from our earthly flesh, then perhaps his is
a "deep science." Or perhaps this is an unforgivable delusion, a delusion
which leads him to inflict undue suffering and an untimely death upon his innocent
The last sentences of the story, if you can crack them, seem to suggest paradoxical insights: "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 future in the present." The phrase "perfect future in the present" seems paradoxical, contradictory. His horror of imperfection (the imperfect present) overpowered his reason-he sacrificed all earthly happiness chasing after perfection where it cannot be found. He failed to take the long view; perfection only exists in eternity, which belongs to God, not humans. Our only perfect future is our present. This is almost like a zen koan, defying rational explanation! It's certainly not the neat, tidy "moral" our narrator promised at the beginning of the story....
The textbook defines
a symbol as any person, object, image, word, or event that evokes a range of
additional meaning beyond and usually more abstract than its literal significance.
In "The Birthmark,"
the most prominent, obvious symbol is the birthmark itself. For Aylmer, the
birthmark symbolizes mortality, decay, sin, and imperfection. This view of his
wife's cheek causes him obsessive unease, which finally leads him to kill her.
A feminist might view the birthmark as a symbol of the male's inability to accept
the "real" female on equal terms, preferring instead the inhuman ideal-he
would prefer her to be the object of perfection, an idol he can worship. This
nullifies her actual humanity.
In much of his fiction, Hawthorne treats pride as an "evil." Is there an evil type of pride evident in "The Birthmark"?
had a specific kind of Christian "evil" in mind, but I think it's
possible to define "evil" apart from any specific theological definitions,
and consider it as an ethical or existential problem. If that which is evil
is that which distinctly and defiantly operates against the good, then Aylmer's
insistence on removing his wife's harmless birthmark at the cost of her life
and for his own selfish pleasure seems decidedly evil. If you believe that human
life is a sacred, self-evident, and inalienable good, not to be disposed of
needlessly, then it seems that Aylmer's intellectual pride, which leads him
to believe he can "correct what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work,"
a belief which causes him to poison his wife and cause her death, is, indeed,
In what ways is "The Birthmark" for all its promise of an "impressive moral" actually morally ambiguous? Why might some readers find it difficult to view Alymer, for instance, as purely and unambiguously "evil"?
Ambiguity, as has
already been discussed, involves the possibility of alternate interpretations.
If we agree that the story is a moral tale, even an allegory demonstrating this
impressive moral (demonstrating, for instance, that "egotism is evil")
then we might be inclined to say that the story is not ambiguous in this sense.
It demonstrates a moral and the truth of that moral is the only interpretation
possible. The question, then, is whether the story is more than straight allegory,
whether more than one interpretation is possible.
Hawthorne didn't feel himself confined to an aesthetic that privileges "verisimilitude," like many 20th century authors (notable exceptions being Kafka, Borges, and Marquez). He felt comfortable allowing his fiction to include "the spirit and mechanism of the fairyland" (his words). What "fantastic" or "magical" elements appear in "The Birthmark"?
The fantastic element in "The Birthmark" is perhaps not as evident as in some of Hawthorne's other stories. We might be tempted to see Aylmer, in his laboratory, as the sorcerer he ironically names himself to be, but his wizardry is vastly understated. First, we have the weird flower, which magically blooms before their eyes. It withers to black at Georgiana's touch. Aylmer looks on thoughtfully. "Too powerful a stimulus," he decides. Is there such a flower in real life? If so, I've never heard of it! But this powerful "sorcerer" seems to possess secrets beyond our ken. Next he attempts to take a picture of Georgiana (why, I'm not sure) but it comes out blurry--only the birthmark is distinct. This has a touch of the ghostly to it, but maybe he just shook his camera a bit, being so nervous, causing the image to blur, and because he's so fixated on the birthmark, he still sees it there, despite the blurriness. Next, he brags of an elixir capable of extending life, then of a potion composed of an essence capable of impregnating all the air--he sprinkles some in the lab as a demonstration. He shows her another potion that removes freckles; but insists that it is merely superficial and that her case will require something far "deeper." Our scientist never seems more the quack than during these episodes. It would be interesting to know how Hawthorne's audience received these descriptions, whether they deemed Aylmer mad or not. Perhaps they recognized Alymer's fantastic powers as just that, and willfuly suspended their disbelief.
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