Study Guide

The Birthmark Themes

  • Science

    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.

    Questions About Science

    1. Why does Georgiana weep at reading Aylmer's lab notebook? Is her reaction reasonable? Understandable?
    2. Why does Aylmer work so hard to fake his confidence regarding the procedure?
    3. When Georgiana is first hanging out in the boudoir, Aylmer tells her of a healing solution he has that will make freckles disappear. This won't work on her, however, he says, because it is merely superficial. Yet later he demonstrates the power of his elixir by eliminating blotches on a plant. Is this not superficial as well?
    4. Aylmer's solution works, but we learn that the birthmark is still "barely perceptible" at the end of the text (87). What does it say a) that Aylmer's elixir was successful, and b) that it didn't completely remove the birthmark?

    Chew on This

    Hawthorne assails Positivism in his story.

    Hawthorne does not oppose science in his story; he merely posits that science has its limits.

  • Mortality

    "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.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Georgiana believes that Aylmer's desire to perfect her renders his love all the more lofty and noble. What the heck does she mean? Does her argument make any sense to you?
    2. Hawthorne explains that Aminadab represents man's earthly half, while Aylmer represents his spiritual half. Keeping with this symbolism, why is it that Aminadab, who clearly knows better when it comes to removing Georgiana's birthmark, can't confront his boss about what he knows to be a mistake?
    3. Hawthorne's story illustrates some clear dichotomies, including the spirit vs. the body and scientific understanding vs. the unknowable. Where does the male/female dichotomy fit in to this picture? Are certain qualities considered "male" and others "female" in this tale?
    4. Why isn't Georgiana angry at Aylmer when she realizes she's dying? What is her attitude toward Aylmer, and what explains this reaction?

    Chew on This

    Aylmer loves the idea of Georgiana, not Georgiana herself.

    Aylmer genuinely loves Georgiana.

  • Man and the Natural World

    "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.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. Why is the word "Nature" capitalized throughout "The Birthmark"?
    2. When she's waiting for her husband to prepare the elixir for her to drink, Georgiana feels "a sensation in the fatal birthmark, not painful, but which induce[s] a restlessness throughout her system" (57). What do you think is going on here? What would possible make Georgiana feel this way, and what does it mean in the context of Hawthorne's heavy symbolism?
    3. Why is the birthmark red?
    4. Sure, she dies right afterwards, but the fact remains that Aylmer does indeed succeed in removing the birthmark from Georgiana's cheek. What does this say about man's ability to conquer nature?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    "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.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. Hawthorne's story argues that man is necessarily flawed and can't be expected to be perfect. Does this justify Aylmer's own short-comings, or should we feel fine about condemning him as a fool at the end of the day? Why does Hawthorne feel justified in condemning Aylmer as he does? (Or does he…?)
    2. Does Aylmer learn his lesson at the end of the story? Can we answer this question for sure one way or the other? Why or why not?
    3. Aylmer seems only able to love Georgiana if he can perfect her. What does Hawthorne say about the human capacity to love? Is Aylmer meant to typify the norm, or the unfortunate exception?
    4. What is going on with Aminadab's laughter at the end of the story? How does Aylmer interpret the laughter the first time he hears it? Is he correct? In what spirit is his laugher intended? Does the laughter take on a different meaning for the reader the second time we hear it?

    Chew on This

    Aylmer subconsciously knows his wife will die if he tries to remove the birthmark; but he chooses not to face this reality.

  • Marriage

    "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.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. Is Aylmer and Georgiana's relationship a healthy one? If not, whose fault is it?
    2. Does Aylmer ultimately trust Georgiana? Does Georgiana ultimately trust Aylmer? Is trust warranted in either case?
    3. Does Aylmer really love his wife? How would you characterize his feelings for her?
    4. Check out the second paragraph of the story, where the narrator reveals that "a union accordingly took place, and was attended with truly remarkable consequences and a deeply impressive moral" (2). What kind of "union" is he talking about here? (There's definitely more than one answer to this question.)
    5. Why does Aylmer kiss the birthmark while his wife sleeps at the end of the story?

    Chew on This

    "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.