In the opening passage of "The Birth-Mark," the narrator introduces Aylmer, an overweening scientist "proficient in every branch of natural philosophy" living in the late 1700s (Hawthorne 152). We learn that Aylmer has just experienced a "spiritual affinity" and left his laboratory to his assistant (152). Up til now, Aylmer has devoted his life to uncovering the mysteries of Nature. Wanting to acquire another passion, he decides to abandon his studies to pursue and marry a beautiful woman. The narrator notes that his love for his young wife, Georgiana, could potentially rival his love for science—if the "strengths" of these two passions were to unite in some form (152).
Soon after the couple marries, Aylmer gazes at Georgiana and asks her if she has thought about removing the birthmark on her cheek. Georgiana blushes and replies, "No, indeed...To tell you the truth it has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so" (152). Aylmer, though, does not share the beliefs of others. He admits that the birthmark may appear charming on another person’s face, but since Georgiana’s face comes "so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature," the birthmark is her only physical mark of imperfection (152). As a result, Aylmer finds its appearance jarring and shocking. Aylmer's brutal honesty makes Georgiana burst into tears and exclaim, "You cannot love what shocks you!" (153).
The narrator then describes Georgiana’s birthmark in great depth. The mark is on her left cheek and is "deeply interwoven...with the texture and substance of her face" (153). Because of its crimson color, the mark fades when Georgiana blushes. (Conversely, it is strikingly visible when she pales.) The mark is also small and shaped like a human hand, and its presence has prompted a variety of reactions from Georgiana’s past lovers. Some men have yearned to kiss it, while others have viewed it as a "magical endowment" that was the source of Georgiana’s charms and allure (153). Others, like Aylmer, wished the mark didn’t exist so "that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw" (153).
The narrator further expounds on Aylmer's abiding resentment toward Georgiana’s birthmark: if she wasn’t so beautiful, then he would tolerate the physical flaw more. He instead views the birthmark as the "fatal flaw of humanity" created by the forces of Nature, which "stamps ineffaceably on all her [Nature’s] productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain" (153-4). In other words, the birthmark serves as a constant reminder of the indifference of mortality: all humans are destined for death, regardless of their beauty or perfection. To Aylmer, the birthmark also more personally represents Georgiana’s sin, sorrow, suffering, and mortality.
Because Aylmer constantly brings up the "disastrous topic" of his wife’s birthmark, their marriage begins to suffer (154). Aylmer continues to resent the birthmark, and Georgiana begins to re-evaluate her once-positive feelings about the mark herself. Aylmer looks at Georgiana’s face with disdain, and Georgiana begins to "shudder at his gaze" (154).
One night, Georgiana initiates a conversation about the birthmark. She asks Aylmer if he remembers dreaming about her "odious hand"—her birthmark—the previous night (154). Aylmer denies having such a dream, but Georgiana recalls him sleep-talking about removing the birthmark from her heart: "Is it possible to forget this one expression?—'It is in her heart now; we must have it out!'" (154). Georgiana’s comment prompts Aylmer to remember the dream. In the dream, he was attempting to surgically remove Georgiana’s birthmark with a knife. This proved to be a grand undertaking: as Aylmer cut deeper and deeper, the birthmark followed and became more inseparable from Georgiana’s body until it was connected to her own heart.
Aylmer feels guilty about his dream, though it nonetheless enables him to access hidden truths and repressed obsessions surrounding the birthmark. Georgiana becomes solemn. She asks if it’s possible for "the fatal birthmark" to be removed, noting that such a procedure could result in a deformity or even death (153). Aylmer admits that he has indeed considered the subject and is "convinced of the perfect practicability of its [the birthmark’s] removal" (155). Georgiana urges her husband to attempt to erase the birthmark—"the object of your horror and disgust"—no matter the risks (155). Her husband’s hatred of the mark has ruined her life to the extant that asks him to "either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!" (155).
Aylmer enthusiastically agrees to eliminate the mark, adding that he is qualified to correct "what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!" (156) He proceeds to bolster his own talent and scientific abilities. He even declares that his joy is akin to that of the mythological figure Pygmalion, who saw one of his own sculptures—with whom he was in love—come to life. Georgiana agrees to place her faith into her husband, who kisses her right cheek (the one without the birthmark) in response.
"The Birth-Mark" remains one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s most thought-provoking works, one that considers the perils of human pride, the conflict between religion and science, and gender politics during the late 1700s. In these expository scenes, we are introduced to one of the short story’s central conflicts: science vs nature. "The Birth-Mark" fundamentally centers on Aylmer’s refusal to accept Georgiana as Nature made her. As their very name suggests, birthmarks are organic happenings formed in the womb; the story’s narrator even notes that the birthmark designates Georgiana’s "birth-hour" (153). In his declaration of his intent to remove her birthmark, Aylmer thus denotes his reliance on scientific knowledge to erase Nature’s imperfections.
As the story’s central symbol, Georgiana’s birthmark warrants a number of interpretations, many of which overlap and thematically work with each other. The story’s omniscient, often-subjective narrator offer a strong perspective on the mark’s symbolism. Rather than allowing readers to form their own interpretations of the text, the passionate narrator didactically and briefly explains how the birthmark represents Georgiana’s sins, humanity’s imperfections, and the inevitability of mortality.
Aylmer has married Georgiana, one of the most beautiful women in the world, though he expresses a profound dissatisfaction with her birthmark—her singular physical flaw. Situational irony pervades Aylmer’s attitudes toward his wife’s beauty. Rather than appreciate her near-flawlessness, Aylmer actively resents it, as her extreme attractiveness only intensifies his obsessiveness over her birthmark. As readers, we expect Aylmer to feel content in his marriage to a beautiful and kind woman. Instead, he feels rage and bitterness precisely because of her near-perfection, thus subverting our expectations. Aylmer seeks a divine being, rather than a person, as his wife. To Aylmer, Georgiana’s mere skin blemish becomes a symbol of her "liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death"—in other words, her own humanity and faults (154).
Likewise, Aylmer also conceives the birthmark as representative of humankind's fundamental imperfections. In the essay "Hawthorne’s ‘The Birth-Mark’: Science as Religion," scholar Robert B. Heilman claims, "Hawthorne could hardly have found a better symbol than the birthmark, which speaks of the imperfection born with man, with man as a race" (477). Georgiana's birthmark, therefore, represents "original sin in fine imaginative form" (477). No matter how close a human comes to perfection, they are still destined to make mistakes, act immorally and selflessly, and die. As such, Georgiana’s birthmark is not only an emblem of Georgiana’s personal failure to reach divinity and perfection, but of humanity’s faults at large. Aylmer refuses to acknowledge and accept the intrinsic flaws among human beings, which serves as his primary motive for removing Georgiana’s birthmark.
For Aylmer, the birthmark also symbolizes mortality. As the narrator notes, the birthmark serves as "the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions...to imply that they are temporary and finite" (153). In other words, according to the narrator, human beings’ flaws are Nature’s reminders of our eventual, inevitable deaths—our "temporary and finite" lifespans (153). No matter how near-perfect Georgiana is, she still has her birthmark—a physical flaw that cements her as not only imperfect, but mortal.
Aylmer’s revulsion for the birthmark evokes his own anxieties surrounding the prospects of mortality. Aylmer loathes death because it degrades all humans equally, and people like Georgiana don't receive special treatment. In spite of her almost-perfection, Georgiana will eventually endure the same fate as every one of Nature’s other creations. In addition to being a pursuit for perfection, Aylmer’s desire to erase her birthmark denies human mortality and the incomprehensible forces of Nature.
Because of his refusal to accept Nature's bearings of flaws onto humans, his condemnation of humanity’s sins, and his desire to control his wife, Aylmer emerges as a complicated, flawed protagonist. His arrogance and self-perception as a brilliant creator hinder our ability to empathize with him, especially when he compares himself to Pygmalion. His allusion to the mythological figures suggests that he believes Georgiana will become his own perfected creation after he removes her birthmark—just as Pygmalion successfully made one of his beloved sculptures assume life. Critically, Aylmer hasn’t even begun preliminary stages of his experiment, yet he is already convinced of its success. He even asserts that he will feel great “ecstasy” once he successfully erases the birthmark, which illustrates how his desire for personal fulfillment also serves as a motivation for his immoral experiment (155).
However, there are notable differences between Aylmer and Pygmalion, which render Aylmer's allusion to the ancient myth as all the more oblivious and self-aggrandizing. Unlike Pygmalion, Aylmer isn’t creating a woman from scratch; rather, he is interfering with the appearance of a gorgeous woman already created by Nature. Also, Pygmalion did not bring his statue to life by himself; he required the additional assistance of the goddess Aphrodite. Conversely, Aylmer insists that his intellect—and his intellect alone—is capable of "fixing" Georgiana’s appearance, as evidenced by his claim, "I feel myself fully competent to render this dear cheek as faultless as its fellow; and then, most beloved, what will be my triumph when I shall have corrected what Nature left imperfect in her fairest work!" (155). Aylmer’s allusion to Pygmalion, therefore, illustrates his unbridled pride and confidence, as well as his obliviousness of the immoral, narcissistic nature of his impending experiment.