by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Birthmark Theme of Science
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "The Birthmark" at a time when the scientific method was being glorified and people were starting to think science really could take us anywhere we wanted to go. He set his story about 60 years earlier, in the 100-year-long wake of the Newtonian Revolution, in the Age of Enlightenment, when science was gaining its momentum. His story argues that, despite the general optimism, science really does have its limitations. There are certain things that humans are not privileged to know, not capable of doing. It is not only ignorant, the story seems to say, but downright dangerous to try and play God.
Questions About Science
- Why does Georgiana weep at reading Aylmer's lab notebook? Is her reaction reasonable? Understandable?
- Why does Aylmer work so hard to fake his confidence regarding the procedure?
- When Georgiana is first hanging out in the boudoir, Aylmer tells her of a healing solution he has that will make freckles disappear. This won't work on her, however, he says, because it is merely superficial. Yet later he demonstrates the power of his elixir by eliminating blotches on a plant. Is this not superficial as well?
- Aylmer's solution works, but we learn that the birthmark is still "barely perceptible" at the end of the text (87). What does it say a) that Aylmer's elixir was successful, and b) that it didn't completely remove the birthmark?
Chew on This
Hawthorne assails Positivism in his story.
Hawthorne does not oppose science in his story; he merely posits that science has its limits.