The Birth-Mark

The Birth-Mark Is "The Birth-Mark" a Feminist Text?

On a surface level, Georgiana seems to adhere to the standard gender norms of the late 18th century. As a submissive and dutiful wife, she is faithfully loyal to Aylmer, whose obsession with physical perfection dominates their marriage and destroys their chances of happiness together. However, in her essay “Women Beware Science: 'The Birthmark,'” literary scholar Judith Fetterley asserts that Georgiana’s insubordinate position in the text criticizes pervasive male entitlement and traditional sexual politics. By featuring a character like Aylmer who desires “to perfect his wife,” Hawthorne illustrates how unchecked male obsession and idealism can only result in the punishment of a female victim (Fetterley 485).

Aylmer places all of his emotional investment concerning his marriage on Georgiana’s birthmark. As Fetterley notes, Aylmer “is absorbed in her physical appearance, and perfection for him is equivalent to physical beauty” (486). Aylmer never expresses any acknowledgment of—much less admiration for—Georgiana’s personality; to him, she exists as a purely physical, beautiful object. Hawthorne makes a point to extend Aylmer’s preoccupation with Georgiana’s body to all of her previous male admirers. Notably, Georgiana’s self-confidence depends on the opinions of men around her. When her admirers praised her birthmark, she viewed it in high regard. However, once Aylmer communicates his disliking toward the mark, her self-image crumbles, and she claims she would rather die than fail to satisfy her husband. As a result of her demeaning experiences with her admirers, Georgiana is completely powerless and submissive to all men—not just Aylmer—because their entitlement to her body informs her notions of identity and provokes self-hatred.

Meanwhile, Aylmer chooses to “redeem” Georgiana and remove her birthmark, rather than accept it as an organic, physical blemish. Because of her feelings of powerlessness, Georgiana readily submits to Aylmer’s experiments and endures her subsequent dehumanization as one of his subjects. Secluded in Aylmer’s laboratory, Georgiana cannot protest her circumstances or submission—the discourse encircling her physical appearance has already prevented her from retaining any form of agency. In other words, she has no choice but to succumb to his desires and outright worship his scientific mind and inquiries, even though they often fail. Aylmer’s gross ambition and entitlement thus remain uncontrolled, which results in Georgiana’s unjust and ill-fated death. Because of this, Fetterley notes, “‘The Birthmark’ demonstrates the consequences to women of being trapped in the laboratory of man’s mind, the object of unrelenting scrutiny, examination, and experimentation” (492). “The Birth-Mark,” thus, does not fall victim to traditional gender dynamics—rather, it pointedly dismisses them.