Hawthorne really likes to tell us how it is in this story. He has a message to tell us – the story is didactic and moral – so naturally the tone is going to suit these purposes. And nowhere it the author's attitude more clear than in the story's final paragraph, when we drop the narrative altogether and hear straight from the narrator (and very possibly straight from the author – see "Narrator Point of View" for the connection between Hawthorne and his narrator):
Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state. 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. (91)
The narrator is so concerned with moralizing, we don't even see the real fall out to the story's climatic scene! What is Aylmer's reaction to his wife's death? What is the deal with Aminadab's earthy chuckle? Did Aylmer learn from his mistake? We don't know, because Hawthorne's point isn't to satisfy our plot-cravings, it's to teach us a lesson. (Just what is that lesson? It's subject to debate, so see "What's Up with the Ending?" for the full-blown discussion.)
Dark Romanticism is a genre that explores the darker, sinful side of man. Think of it as a hybrid between Romanticism and Gothic fiction; it's just that, while Gothic fiction (think Edgar Allan Poe) wanders into horror territory (blood and guts), Dark Romanticism is more interested in psychology, philosophy, and morality. You can see the meaning of the genre right in its name: "Dark" refers to the bleak view of mankind, while "Romanticism" means that it's a sub-genre of the larger Romanticism genre. (In broad terms, Romanticism stressed emotion and aesthetics, made heavy use of symbolism and images, and was a strong rejection of the Age of Enlightenment-driven obsession with science and logic.)
Hawthorne is one of the key players in this genre, and it's easy to see how "The Birthmark" fits the mold. The narrative clearly has its roots in Romanticism if you pay attention to the anti-science sentiments, which many believe Hawthorne expresses. (See "In a Nutshell" for a bit more on Positivism and the scientific world in the 1800s.) And the "dark" part is right on, too – Hawthorne argues that man is inherently flawed, and to make him perfect is impossible. At the same time, he holds up to scrutiny another of man's sins: the ambitious (and problematic) desire to play God.
Because he has a clear point of view, we can see that Hawthorne has some lessons to teach here. In this way, "The Birthmark" is a parable; it uses a very specific situation with very specific characters to make a much broader moral point. Different readers may take away different morals from "The Birthmark," and so we discuss these various perspectives in "What's Up with the Ending?"
As far as plot is concerned, Georgiana's red mark is pretty much the focus of the story; this is the tale of Aylmer's attempts to remove his wife's birthmark. Of course, symbolically, the birthmark holds enormous weight for the story's themes and ultimate moral, whatever that may be (see "What's Up with the Ending?"). We discuss the symbolic birthmark in all its symbolic glory in the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section. Be sure to head on over there and check it out.
At the end of "The Birthmark," Aylmer both succeeds and fails. He succeeds in that he finally rid his wife of her birthmark. He fails in that…she's dead. What went wrong?
If you've been paying attention to Hawthorne's moralizing throughout the course of the story, you should expect something along these lines. As we discuss in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," Georgiana's birthmark is no ordinary splotch. For one, it represents man's imperfections – the very imperfections that make her human. On top of that, we are told over and over again that the birthmark is deeply imbedded in her face. We can guess that, symbolically, this means that man's imperfections are deeply imbedded in his character. In short, the odds of removing such imperfections aren't looking too good.
Yet that's exactly what Aylmer does. By ridding Georgiana of her imperfection, however, he also rids her of her humanity. Once she is perfect, once she is no longer flawed, Georgiana can no longer live, because she is no longer a person. This brings us to…
Hawthorne's message is that being imperfect is just part of being human. If you're not flawed, you're not human anymore. This is the case with Georgiana, which is why her spirit goes up to heaven and leaves her body.
As we discuss in "In a Nutshell" and "Setting," Hawthorne's story is rooted in his own scientific times and the scientific times of the previous century. He's writing against the notion that, through scientific experiment, we can discover, know, and do just about anything. Instead, Hawthorne seems to be saying, science has its limitations. Aylmer can't discover everything about Nature; he has failed in the past and he will fail again with Georgiana. Nature creates; man can only deform or occasionally, if he's very lucky, mend. We also get the sense that there is a degree of truth simply beyond the realm of scientific inquiry – look to Aminadab's character for these hints of a greater, profounder, unscientific wisdom.
One of Hawthorne's pointier points at the end of "The Birthmark" is that Aylmer didn't recognize how lucky he was to have Georgiana, and that he is at fault for ruining everything. As Hawthorne says:
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. (91)
In other words, "Nice going, Aylmer. You messed up everything."
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.
If you find "The Birthmark" to be slow reading, you're not alone. Hawthorne's prose can be dense, labored, and a veritable minefield of five-dollar words. Some prize-worthy sentences include:
In the latter part of the last century there lived a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy, who not long before our story opens had made experience of a spiritual affinity more attractive than any chemical one. (1)
The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself. (1)
Some fastidious persons — but they were exclusively of her own sex — affirmed that the bloody hand, as they chose to call it, quite destroyed the effect of Georgiana's beauty, and rendered her countenance even hideous. (7)
And, of course, how could we forget:
Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state. (91)
Much of this is due to the fact that Hawthorne is writing in the 19th century, and you're not used to the diction and formal style. Also, because the author is on his high, moralizing horse (see "Tone,") we shouldn't be surprised that he's on a lofty prose horse, too. So to speak.
Hawthorne makes it clear to his readers that the birthmark is a symbol, mostly by telling us that it is a symbol. Check it out:
The crimson hand expressed the ineludible gripe in which mortality clutches the highest and purest of earthly mould, 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. (8)
OK, so the birthmark represents Georgiana's humanity, which Hawthorne indicates is equivalent to representing her flaws. It is man's nature to be mortal and imperfect, he argues in this story – that's just what it means to be a human.
What does it mean, then, that Aylmer wants to remove the birthmark from his wife's face? On a literal level, he wants to take off what he considers to be an unattractive birthmark. But on a symbolic level, he wants to rid Georgiana of her flaws. He wants to make her perfect. Ironically, Aylmer succeeds – we'll talk about how he succeeds and where he fails in "What's Up with the Ending?"
For now, let's get back to this birthmark, and take a closer look at its physical appearance on Georgiana:
To explain this conversation it must be mentioned that in the centre of Georgiana's left cheek there was a singular mark, deeply interwoven, as it were, with the texture and substance of her face. In the usual state of her complexion — a healthy though delicate bloom — the mark wore a tint of deeper crimson, which imperfectly defined its shape amid the surrounding rosiness. When she blushed it gradually became more indistinct, and finally vanished amid the triumphant rush of blood that bathed the whole cheek with its brilliant glow. But if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale there was the mark again, a crimson stain upon the snow, in what Aylmer sometimes deemed an almost fearful distinctness. Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand. (7)
There's a lot going on in this paragraph. First, we note that the birthmark is "deeply interwoven" with Georgiana's countenance, which means symbolically that man's flaws and very much a part of his character and in fact cannot be separated out. It's also foreshadowing as to the story's ending; we know from the start that Aylmer is a fool to think he can rid her of something so deeply engrained in her face (literally) and character (symbolically).
Next, we note that the birthmark's visibility shifts with the changing color of Georgiana's face. Whether she's pale or flushed determines how much the birthmark shows. We also note that the birthmark is red – the color of blood, and the color of passion. One interpretation of this story is that the birthmark represents Georgiana's sexuality. Aylmer, uncomfortable with his wife's sexual power, wants to remove it to keep himself in control. There are lots of interesting articles to read along this vein, some more left field than others. For example, in "Speaking of the Unspeakable: Hawthorne's 'The Birthmark,'" Jules Zanger argues that the birthmark is actually about the menstrual cycle!
Moving on, let's talk about the shape of the birthmark. Hawthorne tells us that resembles a tiny hand. This is such an interesting line in a few different ways. First, the fact of a hand on Georgiana's face immediately makes us think of the hand of God – as though her maker touched her personally while crafting her apparently very beautiful face. But Hawthorne complicates the idea by specifying that it was the shape of a human hand – it is simultaneously the mark of Georgiana's humanity and mortality.
Looks like we've covered the major bases here – be sure to check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for more on the birthmark as a symbol.
Never have two settings been more different than the laboratory and neighboring boudoir in "The Birthmark." Let's take a look at the text:
she found herself breathing an atmosphere of penetrating fragrance […] The scene around her looked like enchantment. Aylmer had converted those smoky, dingy, sombre rooms, where he had spent his brightest years in recondite pursuits, into a series of beautiful apartments not unfit to be the secluded abode of a lovely woman. The walls were hung with gorgeous curtains, which imparted the combination of grandeur and grace that no other species of adornment can achieve; and as they fell from the ceiling to the floor, their rich and ponderous folds, concealing all angles and straight lines, appeared to shut in the scene from infinite space. For aught Georgiana knew, it might be a pavilion among the clouds. And Aylmer, excluding the sunshine, which would have interfered with his chemical processes, had supplied its place with perfumed lamps, emitting flames of various hue, but all uniting in a soft, impurpled radiance. (29)
The first thing that struck her eye was the furnace, that hot and feverish worker, with the intense glow of its fire, which by the quantities of soot clustered above it seemed to have been burning for ages. There was a distilling apparatus in full operation. Around the room were retorts, tubes, cylinders, crucibles, and other apparatus of chemical research. An electrical machine stood ready for immediate use. The atmosphere felt oppressively close, and was tainted with gaseous odors which had been tormented forth by the processes of science. The severe and homely simplicity of the apartment, with its naked walls and brick pavement, looked strange, accustomed as Georgiana had become to the fantastic elegance of her boudoir. (57)
Not only do the physical details of each room scream "contrast," but, more importantly, the mood or atmosphere of the two rooms is completely opposite. The boudoir, we see, is the realm of the spiritual – freed from the earth and from all humanly imperfections. But the lab is just the opposite; it reeks of earthy smells and is literally smudged with soot. The boudoir is the dwelling place of all Aylmer's lofty, spiritual aspirations – everything he wants to accomplish as a scientist. But the lab stinks of his failures, of the reminders that he is mortal and cannot compete with Nature on a scientific scale.
There's also a bit of male/female dichotomy going on here; the boudoir is meant for Georgiana, the woman, while the lab is where the men work. It is significant that Aylmer puts his wife in the boudoir and doesn't want her to leave, imagining that he can "draw a magic circle round her which no evil might intrude" (29). This attempt to shelter Georgiana is both misguided and impossible; just as his attempts to remove the birthmark are really an attempt to remove her humanity, so Aylmer's desire to shelter her from evil is a desire to shelter her from her own humanity.
It is also significant that the lab room and the boudoir are right next to each other, separated only by a wall. In their "Character Analyses," we talk about Aylmer and Aminadab as representative of the two poles of man's nature – one half spiritual, the other half earthly. The two rooms basically represent these two different aspects of man's character. They could not be more different, but yet they are forced to coexist in close proximity.
Aylmer's dream is a classic case of literary foreshadowing. It's also Hawthorne's way of driving home his point about the futility of separating human imperfections from our very humanity (see "What's Up with the Ending?"). Aylmer dreams that he tries to cut away his wife's birthmark. This, of course, anticipates the procedure Aylmer will attempt at the end of the narrative. In the dream he fanatically continues his attempts at removal, even at the danger of losing his wife's life. This, too, is the case at the end of the story. The heavy symbolism comes in when Aylmer sees in his dream that the birthmark goes deep, eventually settling in Georgiana's heart. Remember that the birthmark symbolizes human flaws. This is to say that Georgiana's imperfections are a very much part of her being – it would be foolish for Aylmer to imagine that he could cut them away without destroying her. As we learned in the initial description of the birthmark, it is "deeply interwoven" with Georgiana's face.
That Aylmer's dream essentially tells him what's going to happen, and that he goes forward with it anyway, raises interesting questions about Aylmer's level of self-deception in the tale. On some level, he must know that his wife is going to die; the only question is whether he recognizes this consciously and/or subconsciously when he goes forward with his experiment anyway.
The narrator of "The Birthmark" is allowed access to both Aylmer and Georgiana's thoughts. When learn, for example, that Aylmer perceives of the birthmark as "the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death," and also get the details of Georgiana's emotional reaction to her husband's opinion (she dreaded lest a gush of tears should interrupt what she had to say") (8, 13). There is, however, the odd moment or two where the narrator throws his omniscience out:
We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man's ultimate control over Nature. (1)
This is such an interesting line, because the narrator confesses that he is in fact ignorant of all the facts. It's odd, because for most of the narrative he maintains omniscience, with access to both Aylmer and Georgiana's thoughts. It's possible that Hawthorne is making a point about the limitations of human knowledge. For more on this, you'll want to check out "In a Nutshell."
The other big thing to talk about when it comes to this narrator is that he sure seems to have all the big moralistic opinions. That is, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think of the narrator as being Hawthorne's own voice. And he certainly doesn't hold back from the moralizing. For examples and more, see our discussion of "Tone."
OK, so "The Birthmark" is tricky in that Aylmer thinks he knows what the monster is from the start and then gets a rude awakening at the end. From Aylmer's perspective, the monster is Georgiana's birthmark and all that it symbolizes: human imperfection.
It seems as though removing Georgiana's birthmark will be easy as a Botox shot. Aylmer is eager to perform the procedure on Georgiana, and she agrees to it.
All was good until Georgiana – and the reader – discover that Aylmer was faking the cool exterior. The procedure won't be all that simple. She's frustrated that he lied to her, and he's frustrated that she left the "magic circle" in which he tried to trap her (i.e., the boudoir).
Mmm… that's about as bad as it gets.
This is where we break from the standard "Overcoming the Monster" plot. The monster, as it turns out, is not Georgiana's birthmark, nor human imperfection. Instead, it's Aylmer's obsession with making a necessarily flawed mortal into something perfect. Ah, the old Monster-Switcheroo plot twist (not actually a typical plot twist).
Before the birthmark even comes into play, we get the classic set-up: a little background information on our characters, and a subtle introduction of the story's themes (like science, Nature, discovery, knowledge, ambition).
Given the title, we can be fairly sure when this topic arises that it is the focus, and indeed central conflict, of our story. It's well-suited to the job since, like most conflicts, it brings with it discontent and possible strife on the part of the characters.
Hawthorne warns us that the birthmark is deeply interwoven into Georgiana's countenance, and of course Aylmer's own dream anticipates that the birthmark goes deeper than the surface. There's also quite a bit of talk about Nature guarding her secrets, and of Aylmer's many failures as a scientist.
OK, so Hawthorne is a little fuzzy about what exactly Aylmer cooked up, but the dead give-away that this is your climax is that the entire story has been leading up to this point. We've heard everything there is to hear about the birthmark, the possibility of getting rid of it, the danger of getting rid of it, etc., etc., and now we finally get to see the big moment. Ta-dah!
Two things tip us off that there is something wrong. First is Aminadab's laughter, which we have a sneaking suspicion is not in the good spirit Aylmer believes it is intended. Second is Georgia's first words to her husband. Something is up, and we're on the edge of our seats to find out what. Also, there's only about a paragraph left for us to get to the conclusion.
Aylmer's dream sequence early in the story sets us up for this not-so-happy ending. There is a sense of falling action as we arrive at what, on some level, was an inevitable conclusion.
Hawthorne's judgment, not ours, though he puts it in slightly kinder terms ("Had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away [his] happiness"). There are big-time lessons to be learned on the nature of mortality, human nature, human imperfection, and the division of body and soul. Be sure to check out "What's Up with the Ending?" for a full plate of discussion.
Act I is usually marked by the "hero's" commitment to his "journey." Whether you focus on Georgiana or on Aylmer as the story's "hero," we can be pretty sure Act I takes us through the couple's decision to remove the birthmark.
Drama in the lab. Aylmer shows Georgiana his scientific stuff; she thinks it's cute until she finds him pale-faced and sweaty in front of his furnace.
The couple reconcile and decide to move forward with the procedure. Georgiana drinks the elixir, but quite unfortunately dies right after.