The Birth-Mark

The Birth-Mark Study Guide

"The Birth-Mark" is one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most revered and gripping short stories. Published in the March 1843 edition of The Pioneer, the story examines human sin, evokes the perils of overweening ambition, and theorizes about gender inequality.

"The Birth-Mark" centers on the marriage between a brilliant yet misguided scientist, Aylmer, and the beautiful Georgiana. Aylmer begins to resent the tiny, hand-shaped birthmark on Georgiana’s cheek, as he views it as a symbol of universal human imperfection. As Aylmer's repulsion and obsession with the birthmark grows, Georgiana begins to devolve into a mere subject of one of Aylmer's dangerous experiments. The simple premise progresses into a bleak, moralistic reflection on the dangers of relying on science to change human nature.

Best-known as the author of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne spent his career employing the themes and concerns associated with dark romanticism, which explores human fallibility, sin, melancholia, and irrational egos. While Hawthorne never explicitly commented on the inspiration for “The Birth-Mark,” the short story was likely influenced by the ideological concerns of Hawthorne’s time. In the early to mid-19th century, religious doctrine and practices become less omnipresent in everyday life, and science was increasing in popularity. The scientific revolution coincided with a glorification of rationality and the scientific method—a point of view exemplified by Aylmer, who believes he can use his researches to “fix” human flaws. Hawthorne uses Aylmer’s obsessions and failed experiments as a vehicle to illustrate science’s inability to explain and solve the mysteries of Nature’s creations.

Upon its release, “The Birth-Mark” did not receive the same amount of critical attention as, say, The Scarlet Letter. However, over time, it has become one of Hawthorne’s most well-known and respected short stories. Also, from Judith Fetterley’s feminist analysis of the text to Robert B. Heilman’s theory that Aylmer apotheosizes science, the story also has garnered the attention of many academics.