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Nathaniel Hawthorne was a 19th-century New England writer best known for writing The Scarlet Letter. Many of his works reflect his somewhat Puritan background and are highly moralistic. Hawthorne often holds certain moral values up as exemplary and, at the same time, points out that man is failing miserably in attaining them. In fact, he's often cited as a key player in the "Dark Romanticism" genre, in which man's failures and flaws are examined and criticized. See "Genre" for more on this topic.
"The Birthmark," published in March of 1843 in a literary journal called The Pioneer, is one of Hawthorne's more famous short stories. It tells the story of a scientist who is obsessed with the removal of his wife's birthmark, believing it a sign of her human imperfection. The story raises some interesting questions about what it means to be human, the body vs. the soul, how much science can tell us about the world, how much of nature we can change through science, and perhaps more importantly, whether we should even try to "play God" in this way.
It's probable that "The Birthmark" was significantly influenced by Hawthorne's times. In the mid-1800s, science's star was rising and, most interestingly, seeping into the field of philosophy. A school of thought called Positivism sprang up, which pretty much glorified the scientific method and said the only way we could learn things was through scientific experimentation and careful observation. Out with lofty meta-physics; in with physical observation. Hawthorne's main character Aylmer, in one reading of "The Birthmark," epitomizes this point of view. Whether or not Hawthorne totally rejects Positivism is subject to debate, but he is certainly questioning the validity of such a limited approach to gaining knowledge about our world.
Okay, so check out this unrelated but totally relevant historical fact: Native American women used to spend hundreds of hours making super-ornate beaded garments with wildly complex geometric patterns on them, and in every single one, in a reasonably obvious place, they would include at least one wrong color bead, called a "spirit bead".
Why? Pretty much for the same reason that Georgiana's face is only almost perfect. Human beings are flawed, and it's the flaws that make them human. Not only that, but striving for absolute perfection is basically a slap in the face (see what we did there? Cause she has a birthmark? On her face? Sigh.) to the messy universe.
So, where does this leave you, you ask? Well, Shmoop's going to pull two pretty useful lessons out of this unsettling story.
First, it's a really handy reminder of that wonderful phrase: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Sometimes, it's enough to just do a chore, finish a homework assignment, or have a difficult conversation—even if it went awkwardly, even if it's not the best that you could possibly do, even if on another day you could have done it way faster or way better. Sometimes finishing a task is just fine, because struggling to make it perfect could end up screwing up a whole bunch of other stuff in the process. You know, like killing your otherwise perfect wife, or whatever—you pick an example.
And second, next time you've spent more than five minutes staring at yourself in the mirror and zeroing in on that one zit on your forehead, or replaying some bonehead maneuver over and over again in your head, or doing that thing where you blow a small mistake way up out of proportion and come down way harshly on yourself for "always" being an idiot… well, you know, stop doing that.
If there's anything this story is about, it's about the idea that we are made of all of our parts, and all of our facets are intrinsic to ourselves. Take away the mistake, and you end up destroying the whole person. Usually metaphorically, but Aylmer totally does it for real. Okay, bring it in, guys. Group hug. There's a box of tissues on that shelf in the corner.
A classic New Englander if ever there was one.
Full Text of "The Birthmark"
Available from the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library
Hawthorne Short Stories
The mother lode!
Complete with links, photos, and bio
Perspectives in American Literature
A chapter on Hawthorne