West Chester University

Fall 2001

Spring 2002

West Chester University

Fall 2002





Course Information
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Your Response and Mine
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Four Short Stories (Considerations)
  Genesis of the Short Story
  Responding to 'The Birthmark'
  Notes on Nathaniel Hawthorne
  Bartleby - A Guided Reading
  Bartleby - Questions for Analysis
  A Few Notes on Herman Melville
  A Vocabulary for Fiction and Beyond
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Five Writers Define the Short Story
  A Study Guide for the Fiction Exam
  Ars Poetica
  Poets Define the Art of Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  Supplemental Poems
  The Craft of Poetry - Imagery
  The Craft of Poetry - Sound
  The Forms of Poetry
  Revisiting Theme, Ambiguity, Irony, Symbol, and Parodox in Poetry
  Study Guide for the Poetry Exam
  The Birth of Drama
  Aristotle's Tragic Hero
  Stepping Through Oedipus the King
  The Relevance of Oedipus Today
  Oedipus the King -- Study Questions
  Ibsen's Theater / A Doll House
  A Study Guide for the Drama Exam
  Study Guide for the Final Exam

General Announcements


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  A Weblog for LIT 165
  Writing Assistance on the Web

Join the Conversation
  LIT 165 Discussion List


~~ 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, through-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 clone plants and animals and people, for example? Where is that leading? What's motivating it? Why are we genetically engineering our food supply? What harm might come of these practices?

The questions from Monday's group work were excellent. Here's a sampling of what you came up with.

  • Why did Aylmer marry Georgiana if he hated the birthmark so much? Why does he want to remove it now?
  • 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 in?
  • How did Georgiana really die?
  • 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?

And here's a one question that seems to criticize the story's length:

  • Do we need so much information?






Questions? Contact me.

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