“The Birth-Mark” is a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne that was written in the 1840’s when romanticism was very common in literature. The story centers around a scientist who believes his wife would be completely perfect if she allowed him to remove the hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. The submission of the wife to her husband’s request leads to a competition between nature and science that eventually results in her death. Hawthorne utilizes imagery, foreshadowing, and symbolism to illustrate how one cannot be mortal and perfect by proving that science is inferior to nature.
One way that Hawthorne depicts science and nature is through contrasting imagery. For example, Hawthorne describes the boudoir that Aylmer created for Georgiana as a “combination of grandeur and grace” that can be compared to a “pavilion in the clouds” with the floor-to-ceiling curtains and perfumed lamps emitting a “soft, impurpled radiance.” Nature is employed throughout the apartment with plants, leaves, and flowers to demonstrate how Aylmer plans to manipulate nature in order to mend Georgiana’s birthmark. The boudoir represents a perfect spiritual escape that holds all of Aylmer’s goals and aspirations. In contrast, Hawthorne depicts Aylmer’s laboratory as an imperfect yet realistic space. The room was filled with machines, tools, and odors with an “atmosphere that felt oppressively close” while the walls and brick made a “homely simplicity of the apartment.” The laboratory was where Aylmer made mistakes, tried again, and eventually failed in his scientific knowledge. Hawthorne employed realistic imagery with the ancient laborious machines, burning smells, and the demonstration of an assistant when describing the laboratory to illustrate how science is full of flaws and cannot compete with nature. The heavenly imagery with the scent of flowers and the feeling of a peaceful radiance used in describing the boudoir illustrates how perfection can only be attained through immortality, and since neither Aylmer or Georgiana are immortal, they are both flawed. Georgiana was the only one to experience the glamour of the boudoir because it was her soul that ascended to heaven once she was made perfect and left Aylmer in his laboratory with guilt and shame.
The use of foreshadowing helps the reader anticipate that nature will prevail over science in the end. For example, Hawthorne creates a dream about Aylmer operating on the birthmark stating, “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.” Aylmer chose to ignore the signs in his dream and failed to notice that the birthmark is deeper than the surface and is a part of Georgiana not only physically but emotionally. Aylmer’s dream foreshadows that scientific intervention will either cause death or further imperfection because the birthmark is part of her being. By removing the birthmark, he would have to remove her soul. Another foreshadowing technique was Hawthorne’s use of a flower in Georgiana’s boudoir. Just as Aylmer tempted Georgiana to remove the birthmark, he convinced her to pluck the perfect flower, but as soon as she touched the flower “the whole plant suffered a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire.” The flower died the second it was removed from nature’s soil. Much like the flower, Georgiana dies the second her birthmark was removed from her natural face. The “elixir of life,” or what Aylmer consider the “elixir of immortality,” finally made Georgiana immortal by allowing her soul to live forever in heaven. Hawthorne’s use of a dream, a flower, and the irony of the elixir hints at the reader to expect Georgiana’s death when she is tampered with by Aylmer’s scientific hand.
Lastly, Hawthorne centers his theme on the symbolism of the birthmark upon Georgiana’s face. Hawthorne employs the birthmark to represent the “flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions.” Humanity is imperfect, and nature stamps all humans with an imperfection to prove that. However, people see flaws differently, much like Aylmer and Georgiana originally did. To Aylmer, the birthmark resembled “sin, sorrow, decay, and death” which opposes Georgiana’s view of the birthmark as a charm. Hawthorne also introduces a crucial character that submits to Aylmer’s decision even though he disagrees.
Aminadab is Aylmer’s assistant, but he has a different opinion from Aylmer concerning the birthmark. Aminadab states that he would leave the mark on Georgiana’s face had she been his wife, yet he participates in the experiments that could cause its removal. Aminadab is described to “represent man’s physical nature,” therefore nature played a hand in the production of the concoction that killed Georgiana. For this reason, Aminadab is the connection between Georgiana and Aylmer and nature and science.
Although Aminadab is seen defying nature, he demonstrates how nature prevails because it is assumed that Aminadab was the one caught laughing after Georgiana’s death, almost as if to announce his satisfaction with Aylmer’s loss. Hawthorne utilizes the characters different representations of the birthmark to further his illustration that the birthmark symbolizes the force of nature. Hawthorne emphasized that “when Georgiana blushed the birthmark gradually became more indistinct… but if any shifting motion caused her to turn pale, there was the mark again.” Every time Aylmer spoke of his disgust toward the birthmark, Georgiana would turn pale in shock causing the birthmark to be most noticeable upon her white face. Hawthorne demonstrates the birthmarks change in appearance with Georgiana’s emotion to show how nature’s wrath emerged when Aylmer spoke of removing the mark. When Georgiana was originally content with the birthmark upon her face, the mark was barely noticeable because she was not fighting with science and nature. In the end, the world of science could not compete with the force of nature. If Georgiana was to be unflawed, then she was not to be human, and nature did not fail in the competition with science to prove that perfection is unobtainable by man.