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Written by Victoria Joss
The irony of seeking perfection
Hawthorne’s short story follows Aylmer, a scientist who marries a beautiful woman then seeks to rid her of the birthmark on her cheek. The biggest, and most obvious irony lies in Aylmer’s quest to make perfect an already extremely lovely specimen. As her husband, Aylmer should love Georgiana unconditionally, and it is stated that many other men would have loved her beauty deeply. This sense of irony, and his obsession with perfection, is brought to a morose, if not satisfying conclusion. Aylmer only succeeds in eliminating the red birthmark on her cheek at the cost of her own life. This irony therefore conceptually develops. In seeking perfection, Aylmer kills his spouse. He would have had a patient and lovely wife if he’d only been able to curb his obsession; instead, he can only reach perfection in death.
The irony of Aylmer searching for love outside of science
At the beginning of the short story, Hawthorne’s narrative states that Aylmer washes his fingers of acid to seek, and marry a woman. Whilst it is not clearly stated, it is suggested that Aylmer does this to attempt to live a normal life that is not completely dedicated to scientific pursuit. It is therefore ironic that Aylmer moves outside the realm of science to find a wife, only to drag her right back in to it with him. Very quickly after the marriage, Aylmer’s marital love is entwined with his passion for science, and cannot be separated. Georgiana therefore only exists as a wife for a short part of the story; for the majority, she is classed as Aylmer’s subject, and subsequently, victim. Even as she warns Aylmer that she is dying, the scientist only sees his experiment, and not the person beneath it. Ironically, Aylmer marries to experience emotion outside of the scientific spectrum, only to never leave it.
The irony of Aylmer as extremely intelligent, but ignorant
In the opening chapters to Hawthorne’s science fiction, a brief history of Aylmer’s scientific achievements is presented. It describes him as extremely accomplished in all he has previously done, to the extent that he has even possibly discovered an elixir that could extend one’s life. A deep irony lies in how intelligent Aylmer is, and yet how many scientific results he ignores. When he uses the elixir of life upon the flower, it grows beautifully but also self-combusts. He then tells Georgiana he will need to use a much stronger substance on her, in order to fix her birthmark. The flower very obviously foreshadows Georgiana’s death, and the result proves that Aylmer’s science can produce extremely unpredictable results. Yet, Aylmer fails to recognise that he must proceed with caution, such an irony considering his large bank of knowledge.
The irony of Aminadab as lower class, but intelligently observant
Aylmer’s lab assistant, Aminadab, is very quickly asserted as inferior to the scientist. He is described as beast-like, with a guttural-toned voice and with semblances of a nineteenth century factory worker. He has few words in the story, and for the most part only laughs at Aylmer’s work. Yet, he is the only character that seems to know the truth from the beginning. Aminadab states exactly what the reader expects Aylmer to, that Georgiana is perfect the way she is, and needs no changing. This sense of irony reflects the previous suggestion of Aylmer’s intelligence yet ignorance; Aminadab is the least intelligent character, yet has the most foresight and makes the most intelligent observation. Perhaps Hawthorne suggests the complications with the class system here: the lower classes are often assumed as inadequate and the higher as superior, when in this short story, the truth can only be seen by one of a simpler mind.
The irony of fulfilling Georgiana's role as a wife
It is clear from the beginning that Georgiana seeks to act as the good and dutiful wife to Aylmer. When Aylmer is first openly dissatisfied about the birthmark, Georgiana is concerned that her beauty is not to his approval. From this point every action that she completes is dedicated towards finding a way to please Aylmer. It is therefore horribly ironic that her actions aid her towards her own death. Whilst she is submissive after Aylmer gives her the elixir, before this the reader witnesses her in a more active role, pushing his obsession to get rid of the hand-shaped mark. Whilst not the most obvious, this sense of irony is still present that Georgiana’s own actions lead to her death.
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The story was set in the late 1700's. Superstition and clinical science were still a part of each other. Science, as it were understood at the time, was slowly taking hold of the world: even above God. The story reflects this theme.