Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” published in 1843, brings the reader on a journey in which the main character, Georgiana, grapples with the relationship she has with her physical body. Georgiana has a stark birthmark on her cheek, which she has always seen as a charming part of her body. However, when her physician husband, Aylmer, questions her about the birthmark, and even suggests that is it her only flaw, her perception of the birthmark completely changes. Georgiana and Aylmer become so deeply concerned and even obsessed with this flaw that Aylmer, a physician himself, performs experiments on his wife in hopes of making it disappear. In this short story, Hawthorne plays with the notion of bodily experimentation and mortality in order to critique the relationship that society has with the human body.
Throughout the short story, Aylmer experiments on Georgiana’s body which illuminates the relationship that society had with medicine and with the human body during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the story, Aylmer refers to the chemical products in his cabinet as “natural treasures” (Hawthorne 1027). This mystic diction reflects how people from this time period often viewed medicine and physical bodies as preternatural and inexplicable. Scientists from this time were far more likely to turn to natural herbs and mysterious remedies to manipulate the body. Aylmer went on to refer to the products he was using as “poisons,” which underscores how mystic medicine was during this era (Hawthorne 1030). In this short story, Hawthorne also depicts society’s perception of experimentation with the human body by illustrating Aylmer’s experimenting process as magical. Aylmer did not simply release a chemical but rather states that he “threw some of the perfume into the air” (Hawthorne 1027). This phrasing suggests that Aylmer is putting on a show; it illustrates how experimenting with new medicines in the 1700s and 1800s was daring and even performative (Andrews 9). People from this era had desires to rid themselves of their flaws and change their bodies to fit the ideal body image, just like people do today. Once Georgiana becomes aware of how apparently flawed she is, she succumbs to her husband’s obsession with her birthmark and takes all measures to abolish her imperfection; she exclaims, “remove it, remove it, whatever be the cost…’’ (Hawthorne 1030). Georgiana yearns for the removal of her birthmark as she wants to obtain the ideal body image and please society’s standards. For most of history, society has placed such an enormous emphasis on how aesthetically pleasing one’s body is to the point in which people, particularly women, feel pressured into changing their bodies just to feel worthy. In the story, Georgiana only has one imperfection: her birthmark. Yet this one birthmark is what starts to control her and her husband’s entire lives, and leads her down a path from which she cannot recover.
The actual process of bodily experimentation, along with the reasons as to why people decide to change their bodies, are complicated; people undergo physical changes for a variety of reasons. This complexity is illustrated in the intricate syntax that appears once Aylmer begins conducting experiments on Georgiana. At one point, Aylmer releases a fragrance into the air that overwhelms Georgiana, and Hawthorne writes that there was “a stirring up of her system – a strange, indefinite sensation creeping through her veins, and tingling, half painfully, half pleasurably, at her heart” (Hawthorne 1028). This sentence structure is a compelling contrast to the simple sentence structure that is used in other parts of the text. For instance, earlier on in the story, when Georgiana and Aylmer discuss the basic removal of the birthmark, the overall structure is relatively straightforward. This idea is illustrated when Hawthorne says, “You have deep science. All the world bears witness of it. You have achieved great wonders” (Hawthorne 1024). The stark contrast between the simplistic style in the initial pages and the unpredictable syntax in the latter part of the story reflects the growing complexity of the experimentation process.
Hawthorne utilizes bodily manipulation and body image to address mortality in “The Birthmark.” Throughout most of history, people have been and continue to constantly seek new ways to physically change their bodies as a result of the ideal body standard that society glorifies. In the case of Georgiana, changing her body leads to her death. Hawthorne’s goal in linking body image with mortality is to confront how harmful the concept of the ideal body image is. Furthermore, his mission is to convey the fact that having different bodies is not only acceptable but actually vital for life. Human beings are able to love, feel, and simply exist because everyone is different; everyone has flaws, insecurities, and even defects. However, many, including Georgiana and Aylmer, fail to recognize that their differences are vital for existence. Hawthorne showcases this idea by having Georgiana face death upon the successful removal of her only flaw. In fact, the author even uses foreshadowing to warn the reader of her death. Early on, Hawthorne explains how Aylmer’s facial expressions caused Georgiana’s appearance to change by stating that the “the roses of her cheek” shift to “a deathlike paleness” (Hawthorne 1023). Hawthorne hints at the idea of death. He could have chosen to describe Georgiana’s paleness in a plethora of ways; however, illustrating it as deathly insinuates what Georgiana could face in the near future. Later on, Hawthorne writes that “Georgiana had no sooner touched the flower than the whole plant suffered a blight, its leaves turning coal-black as if by the agency of fire” (Hawthorne 1026). This instance of foreshadowing is particularly noteworthy as this one sentence stands alone in its own paragraph in the text. This highlights how significant it is for the reader to recognize the connection that is made between Georgiana and death. In the text, Georgiana refers to her deformity as a “fatal birthmark” before Aylmer even suggests that he knows how exactly he is going to remove it, which depicts another instance of forewarning (Hawthorne 1023). Throughout the story, Georgiana and Aylmer’s obsession with removing Georgiana’s birthmark continues to grow until their relentless efforts lead to her death. Once the last potion that Aylmer gives Georgiana enters her system, Hawthorne states that the birthmark turns into “the faintest rose color. The lightest flush of blood across her cheek would overcome it.” (Hawthorne 1032). This detailed imagery illustrates that Georgiana’s flaw has successfully vanished; however, the following sentences portray her sudden health decline. Georgiana almost immediately faces death because she is left without flaws, and human beings are imperfect species who cannot survive without their faults. Ultimately, the experimentation that Georgiana endures to try to meet the ideal body image results in her death.
In “The Birthmark,” Nathanial Hawthorne analyzes how society perceives bodily experimentation as well as mortality by criticizing how society defines which bodies are rendered as worthy. Before Aylmer proposes that his wife’s beauty mark is not as charming as she might believe, Georgiana accepts her body the way it is. Nevertheless, once Aylmer insinuates that Georgiana’s birthmark is, in fact, an imperfection, Georgiana and Aylmer strive to discover a way to remove this defect which eventually leads to her death. In today’s world, many people, especially women, aspire to look perfect and these aspirations often spark unbearable and detrimental health journeys. Both men and women in all corners of the world must recognize that beauty and worth comes from within the soul. Unfortunately, until everyone understands this, millions of people will waste their time, energy, and, lives trying to change their appearances. Society must adjust their values in order to understand that every human being’s unique personalities, ideas, and attributes are what make the human species absolutely remarkable.
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