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Course Information
  Lit 165 Syllabus
  About the Instructor

Notes for Introduction to Literature
  Approaching Literature
  Ambiguity
  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
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~~ Notes on "The Birthmark" by Nathaniel Hawthorne ~~

"I have sometimes produced a singular and not unpleasing effect, so far as my own mind was concerned, by imagining a train of incidents in which the spirit and mechanism of the fairyland should be combined with the characters and manners of familiar life." -Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"What I have been saying is that the mode of most of Hawthorne's short stories is that of the daydreams which edge toward nightmare-toward our desire to be pursued, cast out, demolished, damned-daydreams undertaken, I should suppose, so that we may escape the reality of such things and protect ourselves from life. Such daydreams are certainly among the great uses of fiction; for in fiction they become fetishes or amulets, little patron images, more often of devils than saints worn to keep the wind away, which nevertheless blows as it wills and in its own severity. We use them, these fictions, like sympathetic magic or homeopathic medicine, to control our experience of what they represent. It is like sticking wax pins into the wax model of our disaster; and when we put the model away, we put off, having enjoyed it, the disaster." -R.P. Blackmur ("Afterward," The Celestial Railroad and Other Stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Is 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 our assumptions.

Hawthorne's world view is dominated by a position that sets him between America's Puritan past and what (for him) had become its transcendentalist present. We can understand his fiction, especially major works like The Scarlet Letter as his unique attempt to forge some middle ground between the two. We shouldn't overlook, either, the influence of his addiction to popular "penny papers" and crime pamphlets. These cheap, sensational tabloids fascinated Poe and Melville, too. Whatever else we decide about Hawthorne, it's clear that he's an original, which is why he's enjoyed such a lofty place in the literary "canon" for so long.

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?

  • In theme and attitude -- because his vision is filled with irony, ambiguity, and paradox -- his works are still resonant and relevant.
  • He gives us that vivid, unforgettable glimpse into the Puritan psyche, its obsession with sin, its belief in the reality of evil (the devil), and its relentless sense of determinism (the concept of predestination).
  • Pre-Freudian, but post-Shakespearean, the psychology of his characters is complex and still intriguing.
  • For the student of literature, his style and his themes look ahead to major writers like Henry James and William Faulkner (to name just two).

MAJOR 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:

  • Where did Hawthorne's stories first appear (they were unsigned and low-paid) and which did he choose to collect in Twice-told Tales? How was each book advertised, how well did they sell, how much money did Hawthorne earn from them, and how were they reviewed?
  • What were Hawthorne's career options during and after college, why did he undertake literary hackwork and the writing of children's books?
  • What was the significance of his interludes at Brook Farm, his appointments to the Boston Custom House, the Salem Custom House, and the Liverpool consulate, and of his efforts to win reinstatement at the Salem Custom House?
  • Other historical pursuits: where did Hawthorne stand between Puritan and Whig ideas about the self and the historical past; how did Hawthorne's work refract the political practices and social climate of Jacksonian democracy; and how did Hawthorne's work either reflect or challenge the genteel assumptions of his day concerning the role of women?

If you were taking a biographical approach to Hawthorne, you might ask things like:

  • How did Hawthorne's family history and specific events in his life inform his writings?
  • Does the concern with female "purity" or "perfection" that he explores in "The Birthmark" reflect personal anxieties following his own marriage? How does the scientist's search for perfection relate to the artist's search for beauty?
  • Other biographical issues have to do with the role of his father's death, his experience as a nonconformist college student, and the frustration of his lifelong desire to support himself by writing.

Formalist critics will pursue questions like:

  • How do Hawthorne's "short stories" go beyond previously familiar forms like the sketch or the tale? To what extent is this true of "The Birthmark"?
  • What are the recurrent character types in his works and how do these appear in "The Birthmark"? (Who tend to be his villains or his heroes; who does he seem to criticize, admire, or resign himself to?)
  • What images recur in his work and do these appear in "The Birthmark"? (some critics have noted his use of light vs. dark; natural vs. unnatural; sunshine vs. firelight; labyrinths, etc.
  • What is unique about Hawthorne's open-ended endings and how do you understand the ending of "The Birthmark"?
  • How does he rework his notebooks into polished fiction?

Questions for further studying "The Birthmark"

  1. "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"?
  2. In much of his fiction, Hawthorne treats pride as an "evil." Is there an evil type of pride evident in "The Birthmark"?
  3. 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"?
  4. 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"?
  5. Consider Hawthorne's presentation of Georgiana in "The Birthmark." What attitudes about women seem to inform his portrait of her?
  6. Given that certain themes tend to recur in Hawthorne's fiction, among them the limits of self-reliance and the evils of manipulation, can you analyze how these themes are expressed in "The Birthmark"?

Some Answers....

"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"?

IRONY

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.
Another telling 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.

AMBIGUITY

Ambiguity refers to a text's ability to communicate more than one meaning. More than one plausible interpretation of character, or conflict, or theme is possible. When a text suggests multiple meanings, it's said to be "ambiguous." William Empson, a noted literary critic, has distinguished seven types of literary ambiguity which "add some nuance to the direct statement of prose": (1) language simultaneously effective in several ways; (2) differing meanings an author finally resolves into one; (3) one word with two apparently unrelated meanings; (4) alternative meanings that illuminate an author's complex feelings; (5) an ambiguous simile, a "fortune confusion," that shows the author discovering an idea; (6) contradictions or irrelevancies that force readers to interpretation; (7) a contradiction revealing an author's ambivalence.
Ambiguity arises 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.

PARADOX

A paradox is a statement which seems on its face to be self-contradictory or absurd yet turns out to make good sense.
Perhaps it is a paradox when Georgiana refers to her "fatal birthmark." On the surface, the birthmark is by no means fatal. It has been merely a curiosity, a minor flaw on an otherwise "unblemished" face. To call a simple cosmetic peculiarity "fatal" seems contradictory. Paradoxically, however, because of what it comes to represent to both she and her husband, the birthmark does become fatal. The birthmark in an of itself is not fatal, but because of the way it is interpreted, it becomes fatal. Its removal causes her death. This reminds me somewhat of anorexia. The misinterpreted body image-the distortion of the physical image-has fatal consequences. Whose distortion is responsible? Like Aylmer and Georgiana, it takes the two of them to produce the result; there's a little bit of murder and a little bit of suicide all ambiguously mixed together.

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 wife.

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!

SYMBOL

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. Symbols evoke complex ideas without explicitly explaining them; they work well in fiction because (unlike the essay) it is a mode more experiential than reflective. Conventional symbols (or "public" symbols, as they are sometimes called) have universal meanings easily recognized, especially within the culture the writer shares. As your textbook explains, "spring" functions symbolically, for instance, in "The Story of An Hour," evoking the fresh start Mrs. Mallard experiences when confronted with the death of her husband. Contextual (or "private" symbols) are meaningful only within the context of the work they appear in (Sammy's "I quit" as a heroic gesture).
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"?

Perhaps Hawthorne 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, evil.
Aylmer's whole reaction to his wife's birthmark proves his egotism, which leads to the "surprising consequences" promised in the beginning of the story, and the deeply impressive moral (egotism can be evil). He believes that his way of seeing it-his own egotistical interpretation-is the only possible one and never strives, for his wife's sake, to see the birthmark as anything but as a symbol of imperfection-of sin, decay, death. He doesn't stop to consider whether this is fair to his wife, or hurtful to her. When it is hurtful (she becomes suicidal on his account), he merely praises her for her "noble, lofty soul." His incapacity to see outside his own selfish concerns, because of the consequences it engenders, might very well be considered "evil" or at the very least "morally outrageous"! Psychologically stunted, egotistical, conceited, immoral-all of these tags seem to apply to the Aylmer who would kill his wife rather than face her birthmark.

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.
I believe the story is morally ambiguous because we aren't quite sure where to place the blame for Georgiana's death. Is it science itself, Aylmer's egotism, or Georgiana's vanity? If we put the blame on science itself, then it is human nature itself that is responsible for this death-the human pursuit of knowledge, perfection-it sounds like original sin. The grasping after scientific knowledge, the attempt to master the "secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds" represents Adam's biting into the forbidden fruit, and the "surprising consequences" follow. Aylmer is just the latest representative in a long chain of original sinners trying to partake of this forbidden meal. If we fault Aylmer himself, then it isn't human nature in general to blame, but Aylmer's own individual egotism which blinds him to the evil he's perpetrating. However, if we ascribe some of the blame to Georgiana herself, the problem becomes even more complex. Now, Aylmer is partly to blame, but Georgiana has her part as well. Why can't she shrug off the vision of her husband's convulsive shudder? Is her vanity so strong that she becomes unable to withstand his disapproval? Why is she so dependent on his approval in the first place? Her weakness is not only psychological, but moral when you consider that suicide is morally sinful. So who is morally responsible for this death? The answer is ambiguous.

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.


Further web study

Nathaniel Hawthorne Page at bartleby.com

Hawthorne and the Craft of the Short Story

Hawthorne's Women

 

 

 

     

 


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