Study Guide

The Birthmark Science

By Nathaniel Hawthorne


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).

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