Is Aylmer a man completely of science, and Georgiana completely a woman of emotion? Are there any overlaps in Hawthorne’s short story?
Often in Hawthorne’s fiction, he never portrays a character as wholly good or wholly bad; there are many more idiosyncrasies to consider. In ‘The Birthmark’, Aylmer’s sin is being too focused on his science, and killing his wife in an over zealous experiment. If Georgiana is seen as partially to blame, her sin is being too emotional, and loving Aylmer enough to let him do what he will to her as a subject. Yet, Aylmer is not completely heartless, and Georgiana is not completely emotional, and it is evident that Hawthorne’s characters are more than two-dimensional. Whilst the short story begins with Aylmer’s dedication to science, it also begins with his attempts to lead a normal life, and find a wife. The narrator specifies that Aylmer’s obsession is not due to his inability to love, but that his love for science is simply so overwhelming that it almost cancels out the romantic love he feels for Georgiana. Equally, Georgiana is not only the adoring wife. She understands Aylmer’s obsession in the scientific world after being awed by his journal, and also understands that the only way for him to settle is to conduct the possibly fatal experiment. Therefore, both characters are capable of understanding both science and emotion. However, not well enough to completely exist in the same world as their partner.
Is Georgiana submissive, or devoted?
As the only female in the story, it is natural that discussions surrounding gender should arise, especially as Georgiana fits the model of the ‘submissive’ in the relationship. Yet once again, Hawthorne does not let Georgiana be stereotyped as the submissive wife. Instead, her dedication to Aylmer’s scientific pursuits is optional. She does initially agree to the experiment out of her romantic love to her husband, but this develops in to something further after she reads Aylmer’s scientific journal. She reaches a state of understanding as she is engulfed in to Aylmer’s world where perfection is possible, and not only submits, but actively volunteers for the experiment. At this point, it is not only Aylmer’s, but her own will that drives the project forward. Therefore, Georgiana is devoted, but not submissive. She makes her own decisions, yet only after emotional manipulation by her husband.
How can this be read as a story of religion, as well as science?
Hawthorne regularly uses both religion and science in his fiction. A prime example is ‘Young Goodman Brown’, where it is purposefully ambiguous as to whether the protagonist witnesses a chemical illusion, or a summoning of the devil. However, in ‘The Birthmark, Aylmer’s alchemy is his religion. It engulfs his life, and his ultimate love and faith –above even his own wife –is poured in to his scientific pursuits. However, Aylmer does not worship a higher being or a God. Instead, he reaches to elevate himself to a God-like position, of someone who can control with the ‘elixir vitae’ the length of someone’s life. In the seventeenth century, those who could perform magnificent feats with science may have been seen as witches or with special powers, someone aligned with a kind of God. Further on in the short story, as Aylmer is explaining to Georgiana the science he is capable of, she is so in awe that she believes he may have control over the spirits themselves. Therefore, Aylmer’s religious-like zealous attitude to his science and his God-like powers are the main factors that can be read as religious, as well as scientific.
How does the 17th century setting make the story more threatening?
By the nineteenth century, ‘science’ had began to branch out in to psychology, and was a much more measured and controllable art. In the seventeenth century, it is still very much a physical, experimental science. Hawthorne sets ‘The Birthmark’ in the seventeenth century to present this aspect of the unknown, and therefore dangerous in Aylmer’s science. As scientific procedures were all experimental, the seventeenth century was also surrounded by a sense of unlimited progress. This is reflected in ‘The Birthmark’, as Aylmer is confident that he can concoct a ‘elixir vitae’, an elixir of life. As it dawns upon the reader that Aylmer will take this same attitude of carelessness and progression with Georgiana, the story instantly becomes more threatening. Failures do not discourage the scientist, and it becomes clear that he will continue with the experiment until success, or death.
What is the effect of having so little variation in characters and settings?
A)Within Hawthorne’s short story, there are only three characters (Aylmer, Georgiana and Aminadab) and two settings (the laboratory or apartment). He uses the same limitations of setting in his similar science fiction ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, where a majority of the action is set within a walled garden. The effect is one of claustrophobia, for both the characters and the reader. Even the apartments, that are separate from the laboratory, represent Aylmer’s space when it should be Georgiana’s: the curtains are drawn and there is a musky smell, as if a laboratory also. The use of so little characters also creates an incredibly closed off and separate society. Within Aylmer’s walls, Georgiana is swept up in his hysteria in a manner that perhaps would not have occurred where she in public society where so many praised the birthmark. This sense of claustrophobia also proves a point, that science is a lonely pursuit and perhaps should stay that way. Even when Georgiana enters his life, Aylmer does not become a husband yet instead remains a scientist This questions whether the work of science should remain enclosed, whilst the rest of society continues around it.
How does the figure of Aminadab add to the story?
The main plot centres on only two characters: Aylmer and Georgiana. The narrator comments on the action, but does not wholly provide a moral opinion on the plot. Aminadab acts as the spectator to the action, as a chorus would in a Greek tragedy. In this sense, he is aligned with readers of the short story in reacting to Aylmer’s choice and the repercussions it forces upon Georgiana. In the initial stages of the experiment, Aminadab comments that if Georgiana were his wife, the birthmark would be no issue. This presents the view of a non scientific brain, with the common sense that is clouded from Aylmer by his passion for science. Aminadab also contributes to the sense of irony at the end of the story. He lets out an evil laugh that Aylmer has succeeded in making Georgiana perfect, but that he has sacrificed her to the heavens to do so. Whilst the reader may be anticipating tragedy, Aminadab represents a reaction: one of scorn and a sense of ‘I told you so’. Additionally, the character works to make Aylmer, the talented scientist, look truly foolish. Aminadab is compared to a beast-like creature, yet here his prediction was proved right, closing the social gap that Hawthorne originally sets up between scientist and servant.
How does Hawthorne draw upon past sources?
Within the story, Hawthorne makes a reference to Pygmalion, a story originally told in Metamorphoses by Ovid. The story is based upon a story of a sculptor who falls in love with a perfect statue he has made. The sculptor asks Venus (the Goddess of love) to give him a wife just like the statue. Instead, Venus brings it life and they get married. Hawthorne therefore connects further with past legends with ‘The Birthmark’, increasing a sense of the fantastical within his own stories. It also suggests the level of perfection that Aylmer strives to achieve in Georgiana, almost as if he wishes he could have sculpted the perfect woman to marry. Instead, he is trying to remodel her after she has already been created. Hawthorne therefore suggests the impossibility of creating the perfect woman as a scientist, as it is a feat only before made possible by the Greek Gods.
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