The Birth-Mark

The Birth-Mark Essay Questions

  1. 1

    In addition to Georgiana and Aylmer, there is one other character in “The Birth-Mark”: Aminadab. Examine Aminadab’s role in the story. What does he represent, and how does he contrast with other characters?

    While he seems to be only a minor and vaguely unnerving character, Aminadab’s role in the story is a critical one, latent with symbolism. Hawthorne imbues Aminadab’s characterization with religious undertones—for example, “Aminadab” is the name of a high priest in the Bible. Aminadab’s religious role becomes all the more evident when we compare him to Aylmer, who represents science. Aminadab condemns Aylmer’s scientific inquiries, specifically his preoccupation with perfection and his endeavors to remove Georgiana’s birthmark. As a representative of “man’s physical nature” and religion, Aminadab upholds more humanity and compassion for mankind than Aylmer. He accepts the natural faults among people, which cements him as a morally superior foil to Aylmer.

  2. 2

    “The Birth-Mark” plays with notions of gender in compelling ways. Examine the dynamics of Aylmer and Georgiana’s relationship. Does Georgiana undermine—or conform to—gender norms?

    As the only woman in the “The Birth-Mark,” Georgiana seemingly adheres to the social norms of the late 18th century, which idealized the dutiful and submissive wife. Her and Aylmer’s marriage is dominated by Aylmer and his obsessions to create a perfect woman, and Georgiana often submits to his desires. Notably, Georgiana’s self-worth almost entirely derives from the opinions of men around her. Because previous male admirers praised her birthmark, she likewise considered the mark to be charming—however, once Aylmer expresses his disdain toward the mark, her self-esteem vanishes, and she claims she would rather die than fail to satisfy him. In this regard, Georgiana’s character accurately reflects the gender politics of the late 18th century: she’s powerless and subordinate to her husband.

    However, in some cases, Georgiana retains some agency: she’s the one who brings up Aylmer’s dream, encourages him to proceed with the experiment, accuses him of concealing the truths of the experiment’s development, and finally expresses pity toward him before she dies. Thus, Georgiana emerges as a multifaceted female protagonist—while she remains submissive to Aylmer, she also acts out of her own volition.

  3. 3

    “The Birth-Mark” reflects both on the state of religion and the limitation of scientific inquiries. How does the science/religion dichotomy manifest in Aylmer and his experiments?

    As Robert B. Heilman notes, Aylmer’s most tragic flaw lies in his apotheosizing of science. He allows his scientific inquiries to engulf his life completely, and he elevates himself to a God-like position as someone who can supposedly prolong life and tamper with natural creations. Also, throughout the story, the text uses religious language to delineate Aylmer's scientific inquiries—his achievements are considered “miracles” and “wonders,” his experiments are noted for their enigmatic and “mysterious” ways, and the narrator notes that he may possess the same “degree of faith in man's ultimate control over Nature” as other famous scientists. In other words, Aylmer has zealously conflated religion with his passion for science, which results in his excess of ambition and confidence in his abilities (which ultimately lead to Georgiana’s ill-fated death).