The Birthmark Setting
Aylmer's Laboratory in the late 1700s
Hawthorne begins his narrative by placing Aylmer "in the latter part of the last century" (1). Because he was writing in the 1840s, we know that he's referring to the late 1700s. (And they say writers can't do math!) In "In a Nutshell," we talk about how Hawthorne's own times might have influenced his writing. "The Birthmark" may be a response to, or at least a questioning of, the movement of Positivism, or the idea that everything we can learn about the world must be learned through formal, physical, scientific inquiry. It's interesting, then, that Hawthorne sets his narrative back about 50 years or so. What was going on in the 18th century as far as science is concerned?
Believe it or not, the scientific world was actually still dominated by Newtonian thinking at this time, even though Newton published his earth-changing works back in the mid-1600s. What Newton did by explaining the fields of physics and mathematics was tell the world that we could figure nature out by using the proper scientific techniques. This so-called Newtonian Revolution was a pre-cursor to the Age of Enlightenment, in which God was out and science was in. This is the environment in which Hawthorne sets his story: in a time when man's faith in science – and the ability of scientists to figure out pretty much everything – was strong.
The irony, of course, is that Aylmer has failed so many times in attempting his more lofty experiments. "[Nature] is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets […] She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make," Hawthorne writes, which is a pretty explicit way of saying that science has its limits (23). Man, Hawthorne implies, can't play God.
The physical setting of Aylmer's laboratory is super-interesting. Hawthorne devotes quite a bit of text to describing the boudoir for Georgiana and the contrasting lab in which Aylmer works. It's so interesting, in fact, that's it's pretty much a symbol in itself, which means we discuss it in detail in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." We'll meet you there.