Aylmer, a distinguished scientist, marries Georgiana, a beautiful woman with a small birthmark on her cheek. Since the mark bears a red tint, it disappears almost entirely when she blushed but stands out starkly when her face was pale. The mark is shaped like a tiny human hand, as if a fairy had touched her cheek upon birth. Many of Georgiana’s lovers had admired the mark, but others called it a bloody sign that destroyed her beauty and rendered her hideous.
Alas, her husband, Aylmer, finds himself in the latter group after they are married. As Georgiana was otherwise so perfect, Aylmer found the mark to be more and more intolerable with every day. For him, the birthmark became a symbol of the imperfection of man. The mark began to cause him horror, which Georgiana recognized in his gaze.
One day, Georgiana reminds Aylmer of a dream he had the previous night. In the dream, he had said, “It is in her heart now; we must have it out!” Aylmer remembers that in the dream, he had been with his assistant, Aminadab. They were attempting to remove the birthmark, but the deeper the knife went, the deeper the mark sank, until it appeared to have grasped Georgiana’s heart. However, Aylmer had been “inexorably resolved” to cut it away - therefore killing his wife.
Aylmer feels guilty about the dream, but his wife tells him that if there is the “remotest possibility” that the mark might be removed, she would be willing to take the chance. The danger, to her, was a risk worth taking if it meant she would no longer have to bear the burden of his disgust. Aylmer assures his wife that he can remove it.
The next day, the two move into apartments that Aylmer uses as a laboratory. There, Aylmer tries to calm his wife by showing her certain phenomena. Each show, however, turns into a small failure. His wife inquires about a gold-colored liquid in a small crystal globe. Aylmer tells her that it is the elixir of immortality; a poison that could kill, but whose “virtuous potency is yet greater than its harmful one”. After he explains its cosmetic benefits, she asks whether he intends to use it on her. He quickly replies that the elixir is merely superficial, and they need a remedy that will go deeper.
To entertain herself while he tinkers in his laboratory, Georgina turns to reading Aylmer’s journal of experiments. She cannot help but observe that her husband’s successes are but failures compared to his original aims. The journal seemed to demonstrate the frustrations and shortcomings of an earthly being aiming for an unattainable higher nature. Georgiana grows less dependent on her husband’s judgment, and Aylmer finds her in tears over the journal.
After reassuring her, Aylmer departs to his laboratory, but Georgiana follows him to tell him that her birthmark has been giving off a sensation that made her restless. Entering the laboratory, she witnesses her husband working, pale and anxious, far from the man who had joyously encouraged her earlier. Upon seeing her, Aylmer pulls her away, asking if she has no trust in her husband. Georgiana retorts that Aylmer has been the one who has concealed the truth, and bids him to tell her the true risk of the experiment. She tells him that she would drink whatever he gives her, even if it is poison, if offered by his hand. He is deeply moved by this statement, and tells her that the mark is powerful, and only one option remains – but it is dangerous. Georgiana departs with mixed emotions: while she exulted at his honorable love, she knows that the experiment would fail.
Her husband returns with a goblet of fluid, and assures her that “unless all my science has deceived me, it cannot fail”. He tests the fluid on a plant, and the two watch as the blotches on its petals disappear. Georgiana quietly states that she doesn’t need proof; she joyfully trusts in her husband’s word. She drinks the potion, and almost immediately falls asleep.
As time passes, the mark on her cheek seems to fade. Aylmer hears his assistant chuckle; Aylmer himself rejoices, as he believes he has succeeded – but he awakens Georgiana, who murmurs that she is dying. Aminadab laughs again – a symbol of how “the gross fatality of earth exults in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence”.
Most common analyses of “The Birthmark” regard Georgiana’s mark as an external sign of her human condition. To be human, the story suggests, is to be imperfect. Science, which attempts to control and manipulate nature, aspires to too idealistic a notion for reality. When Aylmer attempts to remove the mark of nature, he is also opposing the original act of creation. Authors have described the tale as one concerning “the striving for perfection beyond the human and the recognition that such striving can be fatal.” (Zanger, 365)
An analysis of the relationship through which this message was portrayed, however, reveals Hawthorne’s introduction of cultural elements from the time. For example, Aylmer’s dominance over Georgiana exemplifies prevalent gender roles in the nineteenth century. Georgiana’s commits totally to her husband, even though she knows full well that his experiment will likely fail, just as his prior experiments have failed. She becomes the prototype of the good wife, who is his willing subject, even in the face of death. Aylmer, on the other hand, can be regarded both as a heartless scientist, vainly seeking the impossible, but also as a loving husband who believes his wife deserves nothing less than perfection. Hawthorne, through the narrator, is critical of Aylmer's actions at the close of the tale. The narrator suggests if Aylmer possessed "a profounder wisdom", he would not have "flung away" happiness in the empty pursuit of perfection. This can be interpreted as criticism of man's attempts to control nature and also women.
Some have observed a similarity between Aylmer and a vampire, one of the most well-known characters in nineteenth-century romanticism. Like in vampire myths, the victim, Georgiana, participates in her own destruction. Other readings have shown a connection between Aylmer’s laboratory and images of industrialism. Instead of a clean, crisp study, we are instead presented with a furnace, soot, an electric machine, gaseous orders, and naked walls and a brick pavement. Hawthorne imbues his story with contemporary literary and social influences.
The symbolism of the birthmark itself is open to a variety of interpretations. Aylmer views the mark as "the symbol of his wife's liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death". Authors have drawn the connection between the “bloody” hand and menstruation, which, at the time, was considered a mysterious and secret subject. Menstruation was considered unclean, requiring seclusion, toxic to others, and hindering of certain labors. Aylmer's disdain for the birthmark arises only after the couple are wed, which gives a sexual undertone to the birthmark as well; Aylmer detests its "glimmering to and fro with every pulse of emotion that throbbed within her heart". Lastly, mortality itself - humanity's ultimate imperfection - is represented by the birthmark. Its redness mars the otherwise angelic beauty of Georgiana and reminds Aylmer of her - and his - inevitable death.
Aylmer's assistant Aminadab is contrasted sharply with his master. While Aylmer is slender, pale and "spiritual", Aminadab is earthly, brutish and "physical". Though he is physically equipped to assist Aylmer, he cannot understand the experiments. At the end of the tale, Aminadab laughs once in delight at the success of the experiment, and then once again when Georgiana dies. The narrator explains: "Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence". Nature cannot be thwarted by man. Aminadab's name is also considered a variant of Amminadab, a high priest and a Levite in the Bible. If Hawthrone indeed meant to link the two characters, the story’s crude assistant could be viewed as representative of a religion that, though in its decline, retains greater respect for human life than does “amoral science.”