The Birth-Mark

The Birth-Mark Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Georgiana's Birthmark (Symbol)

In addition to being a critical plot device, Georgiana’s hand-shaped, pink birthmark is the story’s most thematically rich symbol. Because the birthmark is Georgiana’s singular physical blemish, Aylmer considers it a “sole token of human imperfection” (Hawthorne 165). In other words, even though Georgiana comes close to perfection, she still has her birthmark, and thereby retains her status as a flawed, mortal human. Once the birthmark fades, Georgiana dies, because she is too perfect to occupy a world of humans. Through Georgiana’s death, Hawthorne urges us to do what Aylmer was unable to do—accept humanity’s intrinsic shortcomings, whether physical or spiritual.

Because the birthmark symbolizes “the fatal flaw of humanity,” it also symbolizes mortality by extension (153). The birthmark is an implicit reminder of every human’s limited lifespan, which is imposed by the incomprehensible forces of Nature. The birthmark, therefore, functions as a source of anxiety for Aylmer (who fears death and its equal degradation of all humans) because almost-perfect humans like Georgiana will endure the same fate as everyone else.

Perfume and Fragrances (Motif)

As one of the most prevalent motifs in “The Birth-Mark,” perfume constantly evokes the stimulated perfection pervading Aylmer’s laboratory and experiments. By its nature, perfume uses artifice to make an environment more appealing to our senses. Throughout the story, Aylmer uses fragrance and perfumes to pleasure and relax Georgiana, as well as to disguise the sinister undertones of his experiments. Aylmer supplies Georgiana’s room with a potent fragrance and perfumed lamps. When presenting his creations to Georgiana, he shows her a powerful fragrance “capable of impregnating all the breezes that blow across a kingdom” (159). As Georgiana drinks the liquid at the climax of the story, Aylmer notes its perfection, and Georgiana praises its fragrance. All of Aylmer’s perfumed creations act as masks of perfection that hide his mistakes and sins. Through this motif, then, Hawthorne critiques the immoral use of science to suppress truths and alter the natural conditions of the world.

Aylmer's Journal (Symbol)

Aylmer’s journals, which contain the details of all his experiments, represent natural human inadequacy. Aylmer presents himself to Georgiana as a brilliant scientist obsessed with perfection; he veils his humanity and faults from her. After reading Aylmer’s journals and learning about the many failures of his experiments, Georgiana begins to realize that Aylmer, indeed, is a person who makes mistakes—which only makes her love him even more profoundly. As a celebration and documentation of human humility, the journal allows Aylmer to emerge as a more sympathetic, modest character.

Aylmer's Dream (Allegoery)

Hawthorne’s plot not only guides us through the physical happenings of the story, but also into Aylmer’s subconscious. Before he begins the experiment, he dreams of removing Georgiana's birthmark. In the dream, as he cuts deeper into Georgiana's skin, the birthmark clings ever-closer to her heart. The dream is an allegory for Aylmer's increasing repulsion toward the birthmark and, in turn, human imperfection. From the dream, we know that his conscious feelings toward the birthmark have penetrated his subconscious mind, suggesting a new level of his obsession.

Because Aylmer cannot remove the birthmark without also cutting out Georgiana's heart, the dream also signifies how Georgiana's imperfections—specifically, her birthmark—are inextricable from her very being. In other words, flaws are natural and intrinsic to humans, and it is thus unwise for Aylmer to chase perfection so rigorously.

Plants (Symbol and Motif)

Aylmer often uses plants to show off his scientific creations to Georgiana. He presents her with dirt that rapidly grows into a flower, and when he tells her to pick one of its petals, the plant dies instantly. Later, when Aylmer wants to prove the perfection of his cure for Georgiana's birthmark, he pours the liquid over a discolored geranium, and the spots fade.

In these instances, plants become a symbolic product of Nature controlled by science. Aylmer tampers with the natural conditions of plants, which mirrors his own treatment of Georgiana. Like the plants, Georgiana is one of Nature’s creations who becomes one of Aylmer’s subjects. In fact, Aylmer’s experiments foreshadow Georgiana’s fate. The flower dies due to Aylmer’s control, just as Georgiana does; the diseased geranium's blotches disappear, just as Georgiana’s birthmark does. Through the similarities between Georgiana and the flowers' ill-fated narrative arcs, Hawthorne critiques science’s overambitious attempts to interfere with the natural world.