Study Guide

The Birthmark Quotes

  • Science

    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)

    Before we even know anything about Aylmer, we are told of his obsession with science. Aylmer's role as a scientist defines his character utterly.

    it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman in its depth and absorbing energy. (1)

    This is indeed a central conflict in "The Birthmark." When we consider the reasons behind Aylmer's obsession with Georgiana's birthmark, we wonder if it doesn't really come down to his desire to triumph scientifically over Nature, rather than simply an obsession with appearances.

    Georgiana's lovers were wont to say that some fairy at her birth hour had laid her tiny hand upon the infant's cheek, and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts. (7)

    Aylmer, the strict man of science, is contrasted with Georgiana's other lovers who believe in such things as fairies. Even the word "fairies" seems out of place in a story so dominated with questions of science, knowledge, and humanity.

    "Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be.'' (19)

    Pygmalion is a figure from Greek mythology who sculpts the perfect woman out of ivory and then falls in love with her. The Gods make her real so that the two of them live happily ever after. The relevance to "The Birthmark" comes in when we think about Aylmer's God-complex and his need to become a creator who can rival nature.

    "Aminadab! Aminadab!'' shouted Aylmer, stamping violently on the floor. (25)

    If Aminadab really does represent religion, as his name suggests, then passages like this one suggest that religion really has been brought under the yoke of science (represented by Aylmer). The scientist orders him around and takes the dominant role.

    With his vast strength, his shaggy hair, his smoky aspect, and the indescribable earthiness that incrusted him, he seemed to represent man's physical nature; while Aylmer's slender figure, and pale, intellectual face, were no less apt a type of the spiritual element. (26)

    If Aminadab is meant to represent religion, as his name suggests, and Aylmer science, then why is Aylmer the spiritual one? Doesn't Hawthorne contradict his own symbolism? Check out "Characters" for more on this.

    But Georgiana had no sooner touched the flower than the whole plant suffered a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire.

    "There was too powerful a stimulus,'' said Aylmer, thoughtfully.

    To make up for this abortive experiment, he proposed to take her portrait by a scientific process of his own invention. […] Georgiana assented; but, on looking at the result, was affrighted to find the features of the portrait blurred and indefinable […]

    Soon, however, he forgot these mortifying failures. (36-9)

    Hawthorne doesn't let us forget that Aylmer isn't exactly a Nobel Prize-winning scientist here. His constant failures mark both his past and his present endeavors as a scientist. Clearly, this doesn't bode well for the task at hand, but neither he nor Georgiana seem to want to face that.

    He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium; "but,'' he added, "a philosopher who should go deep enough to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise of it.'' Not less singular were his opinions in regard to the elixir vitæ. He more than intimated that it was at his option to concoct a liquid that should prolong life for years, perhaps interminably; but that it would produce a discord in Nature which all the world, and chiefly the quaffer of the immortal nostrum, would find cause to curse. (39)

    In many ways, Aylmer's attempts to perfect Georgiana are right on par with the historical search to turn anything into gold or to create the elixir of life. All of these have in common man's desire to compete with nature, to become somehow God-like, to deny man's necessarily mortal nature.

    Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed. His brightest diamonds were the merest pebbles, and felt to be so by himself, in comparison with the inestimable gems which lay hidden beyond his reach. (52)

    Aylmer is not a failure as a scientist because of ineptitude or a lack of understanding; instead, he is a failure because he aims too high. This indeed is at the root of his failure with Georgiana, as well. Scientifically, he is capable of removing the birthmark from her cheek, but the experiment is a failure because his goal is too lofty (she cannot exist as a flawless being).

  • Mortality

    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. (7)

    This line resonates thematically when we consider the mark as a symbol: man's imperfections are deeply woven into his character and cannot be rubbed out.

    Its shape bore not a little similarity to the human hand. (1)

    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 it by specifying that it was the shape of a human hand – it is simultaneously the mark of Georgiana's humanity and mortality.

    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, Aylmer's sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object. (8)

    Perhaps what Aylmer dislikes isn't the birthmark itself, but the fact that his wife is human and subject to the same vices as everyone else. He wants her to be perfect in both body and soul.

    "Aylmer,'' resumed Georgiana, solemnly, "I know not what may be the cost to both of us to rid me of this fatal birthmark." (16)

    "Fatal" is a really interesting word here, because it takes on at least a few meanings. On one level, it is fatal in that it leads to disaster (it's disrupting Georgiana's marriage). It's also fatal in the sense that it is driven by fate – Georgiana was somehow fated to bear this mark upon her face. On another level – one of which Georgiana is probably unaware – it is fatal in that it will cause her death.

    "Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust, — life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!" (18)

    Given this line, is it possible that, at the end of the text, Georgiana knows she will die but drinks the elixir anyway, preferring death to a life where her husband shudders at her image?

    Forthwith there issued from an inner apartment a man of low stature, but bulky frame, with shaggy hair hanging about his visage, which was grimed with the vapors of the furnace. This personage had been Aylmer's underworker during his whole scientific career. (26)

    Creepy! There's something unsettling about Aminadab. Hawthorne heightens this reaction to the character with the specific words he uses to describe him. Consider how "underworker," for example, can't help but make us think of the word "undertaker."

    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. (29)

    This last sentence is particularly important, given the theme in the story of the contrast between the body and the spirit. Aylmer, in removing Georgiana's body, is trying to make her entirely spirit, devoid of the earth-bound humanity which brings is necessarily flawed.

    He handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspiration towards the infinite. (52)

    We can directly apply this idea to what Aylmer is currently doing with Georgiana. His obsession is with physical details, in the sense that the birthmark is a physical blemish on her body. On the other hand, he makes the thing spiritual by associating the birthmark with all the non-physical blemishes of man: sin, sorrow, decay, and death.

    It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part. (52)

    We've already learned that Aminadab represents man's earthly part while Aylmer represents his spirit. In this passage, Hawthorne writes that the earthly part thwarts the spirit. How do we see this in the relationship between Aminadab and his boss?

  • Man and the Natural World

    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 extent of human knowledge.

    It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain. (8)

    This passage suggests that Aylmer's disgust with the birthmark is rooted in his own sense of competition with Nature for the ability to create. Nature seems to be flaunting its own prowess at him through the birthmark.

    It needed but a glance with the peculiar expression that his face often wore to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bass-relief of ruby on the whitest marble. (9)

    Consider this and the other similes, metaphors, or images that Hawthorne uses to describe Georgiana's birthmark. Together, what do these various images provide as to the reader's impression of the mark?

    The mind is in a sad state when Sleep, the all-involving, cannot confine her spectres within the dim region of her sway, but suffers them to break forth, affrighting this actual life with secrets that perchance belong to a deeper one. (14)

    Hawthorne seems to have firm ideas about what belongs to the realm of man and what is beyond the scene of his knowledge or possession. This passage is a mini-version of the larger theme at play here in "The Birthmark."

    "It may be the stain goes as deep as life itself." (16)

    Georgiana's line is well-fitting, with Aylmer's interpretation of the mark as a symbol of man's imperfection. On some level, both of these characters understand the symbolic meaning of Hawthorne's intended parable.

    "Fear not, dearest!'' exclaimed he. "Do not shrink from me! Believe me, Georgiana, I even rejoice in this single imperfection, since it will be such a rapture to remove it.'' (31)

    Perhaps Aylmer is more interested in the removal of the birthmark as a scientific endeavor, rather than as a matter of perfecting his wife. He's certainly enjoying the chance to delve back into his semi-abandoned scientific career, and of course to rival Nature for a chance at being a creator.

    At the mention of the birthmark, Georgiana, as usual, shrank as if a red-hot iron had touched her cheek. (42)

    Even without performing his experiment on Georgiana, Aylmer already has a great deal of control over his wife. Consider also the power he has over Aminadab. He need not compete with Nature to hold sway over others.

    Aylmer reappeared and proposed that she should now examine his cabinet of chemical products and natural treasures of the earth. (47)

    This is an interesting line because it raises the question what is natural and what is a perversion of nature in "The Birthmark." Is Aylmer necessarily working against Nature, or is he just using natural elements for his own purposes?

    Aylmer raised his eyes hastily, and at first reddened, then grew paler than ever, on beholding Georgiana. He rushed towards her and seized her arm with a gripe that left the print of his fingers upon it. (62)

    Ah – just like Nature left a hand-print on Georgiana's cheek, so now Aylmer leaves his mark on her arm.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    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. (7)

    Hawthorne here hints at the ultimate flaw in Aylmer's plan. If the mark on Georgiana's face is deeply interwoven with her countenance, then it will be impossible to remove.

    It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders. (7)

    It's the original Rorschach test.

    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, Aylmer's sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object. (8)

    In seeing the birthmark as a symbol, Aylmer ought to realize that removing it is impossible – because removing sin or sorrow or death from an individual is impossible. But he seems to miss this point.

    It needed but a glance with the peculiar expression that his face often wore to change the roses of her cheek into a deathlike paleness, amid which the crimson hand was brought strongly out, like a bass-relief of ruby on the whitest marble. (9)

    Because Aylmer recoils at the mark, it makes Georgiana pale, which makes the mark stand out even more. Aylmer seems in many ways to be his own worst enemy here.

    Aylmer now remembered his dream. He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark; but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana's heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away. (14)

    We've got some major foreshadowing going on here – and yet Aylmer himself misses it! He is so blinded by his obsession that he fails to see the many, many warning signs he passes along the way.

    When the dream had shaped itself perfectly in his memory, Aylmer sat in his wife's presence with a guilty feeling. Truth often finds its way to the mind close muffled in robes of sleep, and then speaks with uncompromising directness of matters in regard to which we practice an unconscious self-deception during our waking moments. (15)

    The idea of self-deception is certainly an important one here, especially when it comes to Aylmer. We have to think that, on some level, Aylmer knows that attempting to remove his wife's birthmark will cause her death. The only question is whether he knows this consciously or unconsciously. At any rate, he recognizes the severe risk and goes forth with his procedure anyway.

    "Yes, master,'' answered Aminadab, looking intently at the lifeless form of Georgiana; and then he muttered to himself, "If she were my wife, I'd never part with that birthmark.'' (28)

    Hawthorne has just established that Aminadab is a coarse man who doesn't understand the science behind Aylmer's various experiments. Yet, clearly, he grasps concepts that are beyond the scientist's reach. Perhaps there are truths open to the religious among us that the purely scientific among us miss.

    He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium; "but,'' he added, "a philosopher who should go deep enough to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise of it.'' Not less singular were his opinions in regard to the elixir vitæ. He more than intimated that it was at his option to concoct a liquid that should prolong life for years, perhaps interminably; but that it would produce a discord in Nature which all the world, and chiefly the quaffer of the immortal nostrum, would find cause to curse. (39)

    How is it possible that Aylmer is so wise when it comes to these other scientific endeavors, yet totally misses that his own attempts with Georgiana are no different?

    He conducted her back and took leave of her with a solemn tenderness which spoke far more than his words how much was now at stake. After his departure Georgiana became rapt in musings. She considered the character of Aylmer, and did it completer justice than at any previous moment. Her heart exulted, while it trembled, at his honorable love — so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of. (72)

    Georgiana is as obsessed with perfecting Aylmer's love for her as Aylmer is with perfecting Georgiana. In this way, she is guilty of the same mistakes as her husband.

  • Marriage

    He had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. (1)

    What does this tell us, then, about the nature of Aylmer's feelings for his wife?

    His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own. (1)

    Perhaps this is the reason that Aylmer attempts to remove his wife's birthmark; not because of an obsession with perfection, but because in this way he can unite his love for his wife with his love for science into one obsessive project.

    Such a union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly remarkable consequences and a deeply impressive moral. (2)

    This is an interest line because the word "union" takes on multiple meanings. On one level, the word refers to the marriage between Aylmer and Georgiana. But on another level, this is the union of Aylmer's love for science and for his wife, as suggested by the preceding paragraph.

    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. (7)

    This supports the claim that Georgiana's birthmark is related to her sexuality. Getting flushed is a sign of sexual arousal, and we see here that the birthmark's visibility fluctuates with the rush of blood into her cheeks.

    With the morning twilight Aylmer opened his eyes upon his wife's face and recognized the symbol of imperfection; and when they sat together at the evening hearth his eyes wandered stealthily to her cheek, and beheld, flickering with the blaze of the wood fire, the spectral hand that wrote mortality where he would fain have worshipped. (9)

    Why does Aylmer need to worship his wife to love her? It seems as though he misunderstands both marriage and Georgiana's role as a wife and even as a person.

    "Even Pygmalion, when his sculptured woman assumed life, felt not greater ecstasy than mine will be.'' (19)

    Pygmalion is a figure from Greek mythology who sculpted his perfect woman out of ivory and fell in love with her. In one interpretation of "The Birthmark," it is significant in that Aylmer is in love with the idea of his own creation of Georgiana, not with Georgiana herself. He is in love with her in so far as he creates another, perfect image of her. In another, slightly more optimistic interpretation, we are meant to take Aylmer's love for Georgiana as genuine and world-altering – just like Pygmalion's was for his statue/wife.

    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. (29)

    What else is made "feminine" and what is deemed "masculine" in "The Birthmark"? What does Hawthorne have to say on the divide between the sexes?

    In the intervals of study and chemical experiment he came to her flushed and exhausted, but seemed invigorated by her presence, and spoke in glowing language of the resources of his art. (39)

    Look through "The Birthmark" and circle all the lines where Hawthorne describes the pallor or flush of Aylmer or Georgiana. What does Hawthorne mean to emphasize by this sort of repetition?

    He conducted her back and took leave of her with a solemn tenderness which spoke far more than his words how much was now at stake. After his departure Georgiana became rapt in musings. She considered the character of Aylmer, and did it completer justice than at any previous moment. Her heart exulted, while it trembled, at his honorable love — so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of. (72)

    Does Hawthorne revere Georgiana's love for her husband as noble, or does he point out the foolishness of her obsession with pleasing Aylmer?