These notes were contributed by members of the GradeSaver community.
We are thankful of their contributions and encourage you to make your own.
Written by Victoria Joss
The impossibility of perfection
Hawthorne’s protagonist, Aylmer, is motivated by a pursuit towards perfection. The narrator explains that if his wife, Georgiana, were flawed in any other way than the birthmark, then Aylmer would not be so fixated. Instead, the birthmark is the only mark that stands in the way to true beauty. As Aylmer strives to reach the ultimate perfection, Hawthorne obviously suggests the impossibility of the task that should be left to Gods, not humans. Aylmer does reach aesthetic perfection and the birthmark disappears; yet he only achieves this through Georgiana’s death. This suggests that perfection that is taken from nature and manipulated by science comes with an unthinkable cost. Furthermore, the perfection that Aylmer sought was wholly aesthetic. Through focusing on this alone, Hawthorne perhaps suggests that Aylmer’s science was so fixated on appearance that it bypassed Georgiana’s possibly perfect interior. This theme is reiterated through the minimal word count attributed to Georgiana’s character, whereas the birthmark is referred to so often it almost becomes a character of it’s own, its dominant presence suggesting it will never be eradicated and Georgiana cannot ever exist as a living embodiment of perfection.
Power as dangerous
Many of Hawthorne’s science fiction novellas center on power, and the danger of one man wielding too much of it. The danger in ‘The Birthmark’ is Aylmer’s intelligence; his knowledge of science in a science fiction automatically places him as the figure of authority, over the female and over the animal-like assistant. This is enhanced by the closed environment of his laboratory, in a story that has minimal contact with the outside world. Therefore, there is no figure with a higher authority to tell Aylmer to stop. This is also enhanced by the pursuit of science as a relatively new one, meaning that there are thus far no scientific laws, or methods to an experiment. This means that Aylmer’s belief in his scientific discoveries is potentially limitless, and the lengths he will go to make him extremely powerful. Within Hawthorne’s story, Aylmer’s confidence in his ability extends to believing he can create an elixir that will extend a person’s life. A person who has control over life and death possesses a power that is infinitely dangerous. He is confident he can prevent Georgiana’s death to the point where he shows no caution in the experiment, even as she dies. Power is therefore dangerous in Hawthorne’s fiction as it means the scientist forgets he and his subjects are mortal, and the limitations this places on his science.
An ambiguous morality
A great theme throughout Hawthorne’s works is moral ambiguity. There is always a standard code of practise that is seen as ‘right’ and a character’s actions that are ‘wrong’, such as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. However, Hawthorne suggests there is more to simple accusations of what is right, and what is wrong. Aylmer’s actions are morally wrong, but his motive is arguably innocent. He is a dutiful husband, as he wants his wife to be as physically perfect as she can be. Therefore, despite committing murder, it can be argued that Aylmer’s motives were genuinely focused on Georgiana’s wellbeing. A further point of ambiguity in Aylmer’s morality is his lack of moral example. He is a scientist so engulfed in a world where an experiment can only succeed or fail, that he has almost lost complete touch with a morality based on emotion and consequence. Aylmer sees only that the birthmark is gone, and not what he is doing to the subject that bears it, is wrong. Therefore, is Aylmer completely accountable for his actions? In modern terms, would Georgiana’s death be described as murder or manslaughter? Hawthorne certainly suggests that Aylmer is too fixated on the birthmark to firstly realize the consequences, but that he is still wholly guilty.
As a man of science, Aylmer is interested in how Nature created the world, and how he can emulate the process himself to also create or destroy life. He questions why Nature made Georgiana so perfect, with only the smallest of defects. The narrator also mentions that Aylmer, in his studies as a scientist, examined ‘the secret of the creative force’, yet did not know if he fully possessed this power. However, the importance of this theme is in Aylmer’s ambition to discover Nature’s method of creation so he can also become a creator of life. This presents the scientist, and man, as against the very forces that created them. Hawthorne’s short story also presents the consequences of attempting to emulate creation. Aylmer creates a flower that scorches upon touch, suggesting that he can create a specimen that looks like it’s natural counterpart, but can never truly exist as it. Hawthorne also highlights the temporal nature of human life against Nature. Nature created Georgiana as a delightful person, and it is only when man attempts to manipulate how she is created that human kind are punished with death.
Despite the story’s genre of science fiction, Hawthorne includes a brief romance to complicate the morality of using Georgiana, his wife, as a subject. Yet, the focus on their marriage completely bypasses their courtship, and features Georgiana only as the dutiful wife. This union now means that Georgiana not only has an emotional, but a legal obligation to accept that she is Aylmer’s property. It also prompts the debate as to whether Aylmer cannot love Georgiana in particular because of her imperfection, or if he is incapable of love at all. Hawthorne suggests the latter in his short story. Georgiana is the most beautiful of women, with inner grace that many others have praised. In Hawthorne portraying Aylmer’s wife as the best of her kind, it suggests that Aylmer is incapable of loving, as no man with a heart could resist the angel-like woman. The kind of love that Aylmer can offer is therefore only a flawed love. He already harbors too deep a love for science, and therefore cannot separate his feelings for Georgiana from this. His actions within the story force the reader to condemn Aylmer to a life where Georgiana should not have been involved at all.
Update this section!
You can help us out by revising, improving and updating
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.