The narrator tells us that his tale takes place "in the latter part of the last century," which means the late 1700s (1). The story is about a man of science, named Aylmer, who recently got married to a beautiful woman named Georgiana.
We learn that Georgiana has a birthmark on her cheek, a small red mark in the shape of a tiny hand. When she blushes, you can no longer see the red mark, but when she is pale, it stands out all the more.
Men who admired Georgiana liked the birthmark, and thought it made her all the more attractive. Others, especially women, claimed that it ruined a face that would otherwise be perfection.
Shortly after their marriage, Aylmer asks his wife if she's ever considered removing the birthmark from her cheek.
No, says Georgiana – so many people have complimented it, she always thought of it as a charming feature.
But Aylmer disagrees. To him, it is "the visible mark of earthly imperfection," and it shocks him (5).
This hurts Georgiana terrible. She wants her husband to love her, and feels as though you cannot love what shocks you.
As time passes, Aylmer is more and more bothered by his wife's birthmark. He grows to find it utterly intolerable, this "fatal flaw of humanity" which Nature has stamped upon her face (8). He feels that it marks Georgiana as mortal and earthly, and even selects it "as the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death" (8).
Georgiana begins to recoil from her husband's gaze, because she knows he's staring at her birthmark.
Finally, one night, Georgiana raises the subject. She asks if Aylmer has had a dream about the birth mark on her face.
Aylmer tries to deny it for about two seconds, but Georgiana explains that she heard him cry out in his sleep: "It is in her heart now; we must have it out!" (13).
So Aylmer recounts his dream for his wife. He dreamed that he and his servant, Aminadab, tried to operate on Georgiana to remove the birthmark. But, the deeper he cut, the deeper the red hand sank into her face, until at last the red hand seemed to have grasped Georgiana's very heart. And yet still, Aylmer was determined to cut it out.
Georgiana asks her husband if there's any way of removing the birth mark. He responds that he's been thinking about this for ages, and believes that, yes, he can remove it.
Go for it, says Georgiana, even if it's dangerous – she doesn't care. She just wants to be rid of the birthmark.
Aylmer is stoked; he muses on what a triumph it will be when he corrects Nature's flaw.
The next day Aylmer discusses his plan with his wife. They will seclude themselves in the extensive apartments that Aylmer uses as a laboratory. This is the place where, in his youth, he made discovery after discovery as to how Nature works.
We learn that Aylmer used to study the human form, and tried to figure out how Nature creates it. But he long ago abandoned this endeavor, believing that Nature guards her secrets carefully.
Now, however, he resumes such investigations, because of the relevance to his operation with Georgiana.
As he brings her into the laboratory, Georgiana is pale with fright. Her pallor emphasizes the birthmark, causing Aylmer to shudder when he looks at her. Seeing her husband shudder at her appearance causes Georgiana to faint.
Aylmer shouts for his assistant, Aminadab, who comes out to help. Aminadab is a short, stocky man, who has worked for Aylmer his whole career. He doesn't comprehend the scientific complexity of Aylmer's experiments, but he can carry out all the material details perfectly. With his strength and "earthiness," the narrator tells us, he represents man's physical nature, while Aylmer represents man's spiritual element (26).
While he helps Aylmer bring Georgiana into the boudoir (a private room inside the laboratory that Aylmer has prepared as a resting place for his wife), Aminadab mutters to himself that, if Georgiana were his wife, he'd never part with her birthmark.
Georgiana wakes up some time later in the boudoir. Aylmer has converted the usually smoky, dingy rooms into a lovely, comforting resting spot for her.
She's a little freaked out, still, by the fact that he shuddered at looking at her before, so he tries to calm her down by showing her some of the delightful scientific doodads he has lying around the lab.
He even tries to take her picture with a special scientific method he designed (Kodak wasn't exactly around back then), but the resulting image shows too clearly her birthmark, so he trashes it.
He then gives her a sort of history of "philosophers" or scientists who have tried to, among other things, make gold from any material. But he explains that any philosopher who achieved such a feat would in the process "attain too lofty a wisdom" to actually make use of it (39).
He also refers to the elixir vitae, or elixir of life, which makes its drinker immortal. He intimates that he could create such a liquid, but that "it would produce a discord in Nature which all the world […] would curse" (39).
Aylmer's point seems to be that removing Georgiana's birthmark is trifling and easy compared to the grander endeavors that have occupied his scientific career.
Aylmer disappears from the boudoir into the laboratory for a bit. He comes back some time later to show his wife his collection of vials and liquids. Among his treasures is the elixir of immortality. He claims that, if he were to use it on someone, he could determine how long that person gets to live.
Meanwhile, Georgiana begins to feel restless. She now hates the birthmark even more than Aylmer does.
While she passes the time waiting for her husband to prepare, Georgiana reads the old dusty books he has lying around. She comes across his lab notebook, in which he has recorded every detail of every experiment he has ever performed. She does note that even his greatest successes are failures based on what he hoped to accomplish in the experiment.
Reflecting on this, Georgiana bursts into tears. Her husband finds her and consoles her; then he asks her to sing for him, which she does. She raises his spirits, and he returns to his lab to continue working.
After he leaves, Georgiana realizes she forgot to tell him about the sensation she's been feeling in her birthmark. She leaves the boudoir to follow after him, and for the first time enters into the actual lab area.
Georgiana is unsettled by the appearance of the laboratory. It could not be more different than the relaxing boudoir which Aylmer set up for her. Instead, it features a large, hot furnace covered in soot, a complicated distilling apparatus, and the smell of gaseous odors against naked walls and brick pavement.
But she is nevertheless more shocked by the appearance of her husband. He always pretended to be calm and collected in front of her, but now he is pale and worried as he stands over the furnace distilling the liquid that she will have to drink.
Aminadab points out to his master that Georgiana has entered the lab; Aylmer rushes at her, angry that she has followed him. Doesn't she trust him without having to inspect his work herself?
But she fires right back at him that he is the one who mistrusted her; he should have been comfortable talking to her about his anxiety and not pretended that everything was hunky-dory. She is fine with drinking whatever elixir he gives to her, regardless of his anxiety.
Aylmer is impressed and praises his wife. He admits that there is some danger to what he is attempting, but then ushers her back to her boudoir.
Back in the boudoir, Georgiana thinks lovingly of her husband. She finds it noble that he refuses to accept anything less than perfection from his love. She feels this kind of love is more precious, more honorable than if he accepted her as she was. (We're not so sure about her logic here...)
Finally, her husband approaches, carrying with him a liquid for her to drink. On the windowsill sits a plant with leaves covered in yellow blotches. To demonstrate, Aylmer puts a few drops of his liquid into the soil. The yellow blotches are soon cleared away.
Georgiana claims that she needed no demonstration, and willingly drinks the goblet Aylmer hands her.
After drinking, she feels tired, and asks that Aylmer let her sleep.
Aylmer does so, but sits by her and records every detail of her breath and pallor in his notebook. He still shudders to look at her birthmark, but "by a strange and unaccountable impulse" he at one point leans down and kisses it (83).
Sure enough, as time passes, the birthmark begins slowly to fade. But it is not pleasant for Aylmer to watch it disappear. "Watch the stain of a rainbow fading out of the sky," says the narrator, "and you will know how that mysterious symbol passed away" (83).
When the birthmark is finally gone, though, Aylmer is joyous. He does note, however, that his wife looks extremely pale. He opens the curtains to let light in, and at the same time Aminadab begins to laugh a hoarse chuckle.
Aylmer encourages his servant's laugher; they should indeed be laughing and rejoicing at their victory.
All this hoopla rouses Georgiana from her sleep. She looks in the mirror and smiles at seeing that the birthmark is now barely perceptible. But then she turns to her husband and says, "My poor Aylmer!" with "more than human tenderness" (90). She tells him that he has aimed loftily, done nobly, and rejected the best the earth had to offer. She is dying, she says.
And she is right. The birthmark was the bond by which her angelic spirit was tied to her mortal body. Now that it is gone, she, a perfect woman, heads toward heaven. Aylmer again hears that hoarse, chucking laugh.
Thus does the earth triumph over the immortal spirit, says the narrator. Had Aylmer been wiser, he would not have thrown away his chance at happiness. But he failed to look beyond the moment at hand, and "to find the perfect future in the present" (91).