The Birth-Mark

Alchemy and Morality in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’? College

In the seventeenth century, genuine scientific breakthroughs were ideals of the future. The reality was alchemy, an extremely basic science in which procedures were practically guesswork. It is this sense of the unknown that induces both fear and questions of morality in Hawthorne’s science fiction. The short stories ‘The Birthmark’ and ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ both include alchemists, bringing a Frankenstein-esque horror as to the possibilities and lengths the scientists will go to in order to achieve progress. The two scientists, Rappaccini and Aylmer, are bound together in an almost religious, Promethean quest to reach a higher knowledge, a higher spiritual being than that of mere mortals. Through reaching for this spiritual ideal, concepts of morality are complicated further. It is here necessary to consider whether if one is dedicated to reaching a higher knowledge, he is therefore above mankind and exempt from mortal laws of morality.

The practice of alchemy not only had no written definition, but its process and methodology were also unknown. The danger of exploring the unexplored is heightened by the use of people as subjects. Both endings for the heroines in ‘Rappaccini’s Daughter’ and ‘The Birthmark’ culminate in...

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