Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote "The Birthmark" at a time when the scientific method was being glorified and people were starting to think science really could take us anywhere we wanted to go. He set his story about 60 years earlier, in the 100-year-long wake of the Newtonian Revolution, in the Age of Enlightenment, when science was gaining its momentum. His story argues that, despite the general optimism, science really does have its limitations. There are certain things that humans are not privileged to know, not capable of doing. It is not only ignorant, the story seems to say, but downright dangerous to try and play God.
Hawthorne assails Positivism in his story.
Hawthorne does not oppose science in his story; he merely posits that science has its limits.
"The Birthmark" has lots to say on human nature, but its most important assertion is that to be human is necessarily to be flawed. To strive for perfection is to deny one's own mortality, to deny what makes us human, and to achieve such perfection is essentially impossible. The story also examines the division between man's physical, earthly half and his lofty, spiritual half. "The Birthmark" seems to argue that part of us is necessarily earthbound, yet part of us will always seek to be immortal and spiritual.
Aylmer loves the idea of Georgiana, not Georgiana herself.
Aylmer genuinely loves Georgiana.
"The Birthmark" is interested in Nature as the personified creator of all things. It tells the story of a man who challenges Nature in trying to become a creator of sorts himself, in trying to "repair" a "flaw" that Nature has left on another human being. One of the many morals of the story is that Nature, like a "jealous patentee," carefully guards her secrets and can't be beaten or even matched by man. Part of the problem with the unbounded scientific urge, Hawthorne argues, is that it ignores the natural boundaries Nature sets for man's accomplishments.
Aylmer only wants to remove the birthmark from Georgiana's cheek for the scientific thrill. It's about his own ego, not about her.
Through his physical descriptions of setting, Hawthorne suggests that much of science is deceptive to its spectators.
"The Birthmark" fits into Hawthorne's body of work in the Dark Romanticism genre, which means it holds up to scrutiny the flaws of mankind. In this case, the main character Aylmer suffers from over-ambition and blind obsession. He seeks to remove his wife's birthmark – the symbol of necessarily flawed humanity – and make her perfect. In his single-minded pursuit of this ideal, Aylmer ignores all the warning signs urging him to stop. Through his story, Hawthorne illustrates the flaws of mankind and the consequences that come with foolish obsession.
Aylmer subconsciously knows his wife will die if he tries to remove the birthmark; but he chooses not to face this reality.
"The Birthmark" uses the example of a newly-married couple to ask questions about the nature of love and the dynamic of marriage. Scientist Aylmer seems to love his wife in so far as he can perfect her into something entirely outside the realm of human imperfection. His wife Georgiana is so committed to her husband that she defines herself utterly through his vision of her. We find ourselves wondering what it means to love, to trust, and to commit to another person, and what consequences the extreme of any one of these might bring.
"The Birthmark" is as much about the institution of marriage as it is about science.
In "The Birthmark," Aylmer and Georgiana's marriage is merely allegorical.