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Written by Victoria Joss
The hand-shaped birthmark that adorns Georgiana’s cheek is the most important symbol in the story, hence Hawthorne’s use of it for the title. Whilst her husband, Aylmer, finds the birthmark repulsive and ruinous of her otherwise perfect beauty, other suitors have found it charming. The hand is seen as the mark of a fairy at birth, suggesting Georgiana to be pure, innocent, and perhaps higher than this mortal world. The mark can also be representative of the children that Georgiana will bear, and the small hands she will hold in the future. This accentuates her position as womanly and maternal, broadening the gap between Aylmer, the cold-blooded scientist that does not even consider children. In Aylmer’s dream, he fantasises about removing the birthmark, but it seems to have a grasp on Georgiana’s heart. This is representative of how strong the hold of this small birthmark is over Aylmer, and now Georgiana; despite both their attempts to consider it as irrelevant, the hand grasps on and does not let them forget. The size and, in reality, minimal impact of the birthmark on the woman’s beauty also demonstrates the absurdity of the scientist in seeking the highest level of beauty and perfection. Wanting a human to exist as a perfect canvas is no way to treat a wife, and this kind of urge lives in a world where scientific perfection is achievable, not the world of human imperfection.
As Aylmer is explaining to Georgiana the method he will execute to eliminate the birthmark, her confidence wavers as he seems to fail at other experiments. In order to restore her belief, he takes the ‘elixir vitae’ and grows a beautiful flower from it. As Georgiana touches it, it turns immediately black as if charred by fire. This suggests the transience of extreme beauty, and the problems that arise with the impatience of progressive science. If Aylmer had done as a gardener would, he would have grown the flower naturally and it would have bloomed for longer than the second that it did. A major theme of Hawthorne’s fiction is drawn out here: if nature is used in conjunction, or against scientific pursuit. In ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’, Rappaccini’s poisonous garden enhances nature to something unnatural. In this short story, Aylmer begins with the wholly unnatural and works completely against nature. Additionally, this flower is representative of the delicate balance of Georgiana’s life. If Aylmer had accepted nature as the purest form in existence, he could have disregarded the birthmark and concentrated on his wife’s other assets of extreme beauty. Instead, he reaches for a progressive future too soon, and kills her, as he does the flower.
The elixir vitae
The ‘elixir vitae’, the elixir that can extend someone’s life indefinitely, is a scientific substance. Yet, its connotations are religious. It is a substance is reminiscent of a miracle, a deed only possible by deity. In Aylmer making and administering it, he holds a God-like power that elevates him above the common mortal. This measure of extreme power is dangerous, as it places in to mortal hands the responsibility of who deserves to live longer, and who does not. Within the story, Georgiana questions Aylmer as to how he can keep a substance that is so powerful. He replies that he does not mean to use it; it is instead a demonstration of what his scientific skills are capable of. Yet, it is not the use of the elixir that is threatening, but the possibility. At any point, Aylmer can decide to destroy or heal a person with the liquid. It is at this point that he begins to play God, and the boundaries between God and Man are broken.
Hawthorne’s plot line not only guides the reader through the physical happenings of the story, but also in to Aylmer’s subconscious. Before he begins the experiment, he has a dream that cements his attitude of repulsion towards the birthmark. He dreams that himself and Aminadab, his assistant, attempt to remove the birthmark. Yet, the deeper they cut in to Georgiana’s skin, the tighter the hand seems to grasp on to her heart. This is obviously ominous in several ways. It suggests to both reader and character that attempting to remove the mark will be fatal, as in the dream it is connected directly to Georgiana’s main organ, the heart. It is also ominous of Aylmer’s increasing obsession, as his conscious thoughts have now penetrated his subconscious mind. Therefore, whilst Aylmer cannot admit to Georgiana that he had the dream, it is a major symbol that demonstrates he will only obsess further from here on. Yet, it is worth noting that Aylmer’s dream exists as a literary symbol, placed by Hawthorne as a foreshadowing that only the reader and Georgiana will notice. Aylmer dismisses the dream, and the connotations it has, disregarding it as an omen.
The colour red
Hawthorne uses the color of red to describe the evil, the innocent, and the ambiguous. The innocence of Georgiana’s blush is described as ‘rosy’ and symbolizes the first flushes of a newly wedded and pure bride. This transitions extremely quickly in to becoming the color of distress, as Georgiana flushes in shock that Aylmer dislikes her birthmark so. It is also the color that Aylmer turns, after white, when he discovers Georgiana in his laboratory and accuses her of mistrusting him. Therefore, red holds all the usual connotations of anger, malice and evil. Perhaps the most confusing colored symbol is the birthmark itself. It is red, suggesting it to be a source of conflict. Yet, it also fades in to Georgiana’s cheek when she blushes. This mark that easily disappeared is simultaneously seemingly, not a permanent and thus harrowing mark. Once again, Hawthorne refuses to commit to the stereotype of either character, or symbol; the connotations of red throughout are undeniably multifaceted.
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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.