Study Guide

The Birthmark Mortality

By Nathaniel Hawthorne


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?

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...