Published in 1843 in The Pioneer magazine, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” is a story on humanity’s struggles with their self-imposed moral laws and their external natural binds. The story revolves around Aylmer, a scientist obsessed with removing a red, hand-shaped birthmark from the face of Georgiana, his beautiful wife. Through Aylmer, we learn of the mindset of someone obsessed with perfection and the rejection of mortality. Hawthorne provides an insight into the dangers of when humanity takes medicine too far. “The Birthmark” shows us what happens when morality and mortality are disregarded in place of the desire for perfection, which ultimately leads to the downfall of what is dear to us in a tragic and ironic manner.
One section within “The Birthmark” exemplifies the relationship between uninhibited obsession and its results when Georgiana wakes up from Aylmer’s medical procedure in paragraphs 86 through 89:
These exclamations broke Georgiana’s sleep. She slowly unclosed her eyes and gazed into the mirror which her husband had arranged for that purpose. A faint smile flitted over her lips when she recognized how barely perceptible was now that crimson hand which had once blazed forth with such disastrous brilliancy as to scare away all their happiness. But then her eyes sought Aylmer’s face with a trouble and anxiety that he could by no means account for.
“My poor Aylmer!” murmured she.
Poor? Nay, richest, happiest, most favored!” exclaimed he. “My peerless bride, it is successful! You are perfect!”
“My poor Aylmer,” she repeated, with a more than human tenderness, “you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly. Do not repent that with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer. Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying!”
This is the critical moment where both the reader and characters realize the consequences of Aylmer’s actions. To better understand Hawthorne’s intentions, we can look at specific elements used in these paramount paragraphs and relate them to the story as a whole. Hawthorne’s establishment of Aylmer as a motif for obsession with perfection is seen multiple times in this passage. Through his actions and words, Hawthorne shows us his version of a perfectionist who has given himself the tools to achieve that perfection. To start, Aylmer’s name itself contains the “Ayl”, which resembles the word “ail.” “Ail” means to trouble or afflict someone’s mind and/or body. This is what he does in this passage and story. He kills Georgiana both physically and through a constant mental strain that he exerts throughout the story. From the start of their marriage, Aylmer mentally dominates Georgiana’s emotions through his controlling personality: “One day, very soon after their marriage, Aylmer sat gazing at his wife with a trouble in his countenance that grew stronger until he spoke. ‘Georgiana,’ said he, ‘has it never occurred to you that the mark upon your cheek might be removed?’” (Hawthorne para 2). Hawthorne has made Aylmer’s very existence an obsession with control.
Hawthorne’s characterization of Aylmer is also seen through the word choice in Aylmer’s dialogue with Georgiana in this passage. When describing the birthmark that has now vanished, Hawthorne utilizes biased narration. The juxtaposition of “disastrous” with “brilliancy”, in paragraph 86, is jarring and gives some mixed signals as to how the reader is supposed to view the birthmark. That phrase “disastrous brilliancy” ironically applies perfectly to Aylmer himself. The sentence shows Aylmer’s thoughts, but those thoughts also describe himself perfectly at times. The hypocrisy of his own actions is unavoidable, even to Aylmer, whether he knows it or not. The disastrousness of his own actions, which leads to the death of Georgiana, stems from his own brilliancy. With any hypocrisy, there is irony. Aylmer, in his mind, wishes to aid Georgiana, but in this scenario, there is an ironic flip. When Georgiana realizes that she is dying, the characters learn that Aylmer was actually putting himself in a position of pain by hurting Georgiana. Georgiana realizes this before Aylmer, leading to her saying “My poor Aylmer” (87). Hawthorne utilizes this dialogue again to notify us of the hypocrisy of Aylmer’s obsession. Aylmer’s response to Georgiana’s cry of sorrow is another great example of his perfectionist mindset. In response to “poor” (87), he characterizes himself with only superlatives: “Poor? Nay, richest, happiest, most favored!” (88). To be the most or to have the greatest of some aspect, in his eyes, is the goal. This word choice reflects his obsession with making Georgiana the “most beautiful”, but of course, ironically, leads to the worst outcome. Hawthorne, through word choice, thoughts, and identity, has made Aylmer into the pinnacle of idealism, taking medicine farther than mortality and morality allow medicine to go. The consequences of such disregard take effect in that which he holds dear, Georgiana.
To see the consequences of Aylmer’s compulsion, Hawthorne sets up Georgiana’s final moments in this passage, especially paragraph 86. Georgiana’s death was destined when she met Aylmer, and this passage is the realization of that destiny. Hawthorne again employs specific words like the word “broke” in paragraph 86 which implies that she is forced out of her sleep, or her inevitable death. There are generally negative connotations with “broke” compared to “interrupted” or “ended.” Using “unclosed” has a similar effect to “broke Georgiana’s sleep.” It is as if her eyes are meant to be closed, another sign that Georgiana is destined to die, and the procedure has made it all but inevitable: “She slowly unclosed her eyes…” Using “a faint smile” is the first sign to our characters — not just the audience — of her death. She should be more ecstatic that his medicine works, but she is losing her strength: “A faint smile flitted over her lips…” Just as Hawthorne makes Aylmer the embodiment of perfectionism, he creates Georgiana to be his foil, the symbol of mortality and the subject of his fatal actions.
But why does Hawthorne set up Aylmer as a symbol of delusion and Georgiana as the symbol of inevitable death? Hawthorne wants us to see the inescapable consequences of taking medicine too far and the ironic circumstances that come with them. Through his literary decisions, he shows us the overarching irony of disregarding mortality and morality. These are best seen in the last paragraph. In 89, we see how, to an extent, Georgiana reaches perfection with Hawthorne’s use of “more than human tenderness.” The procedure worked, and she is now as close as one can get to perfection. She is more than human, but that defies what Georgiana is: a mortal human. She is a paradox and cannot live as this perfect thing, leading to her death. Irony is again seen in how Georgiana addresses Aylmer’s actions: “you have aimed loftily; you have done nobly.” In reality, we know he acts with a twisted intention under the guise of helping her. In her dying moments, she wants to view it in a positive light while the reader knows that this is karma for his actions, not an unfortunate reversal. When Georgiana says, “you have rejected the best that Earth could offer” (89), she tells Aylmer he could not accept mortality and she must now leave the Earth due to his actions. Hypocrisy ties into this passage alongside death and mortality. While Aylmer sees himself as helping Georgiana, he is the cause of her death. In the same ironic manner, he obsesses with controlling Georgiana’s fate, but the story is written so that she is destined to die, and he is the cause. His actions, in his mind, are for her sake while the reader knows that he is a disastrous perfectionist.
The hypocrisy of his actions can be broadened to medicine overall, as the passage and story provide a general statement on how some individuals might take progress too far. Aylmer is the dystopian representation of the flaws of medicine, and his model can be seen at any time in history because humans’ understanding and use of medicine are always growing. The typical “Aylmer” could be seen today with medicine and technology in many instances: AI, stem cell research, and especially in plastic surgery. What Hawthorne is doing is not showing us an instance or a situation but a commonality that is always present, which is why he sets up Aylmer and Georgiana as “obsession with perfection” and “consequences of obsession.” Hawthorne is giving us a warning of the dangers that come with failing to heed these signs. Through Aylmer and Georgiana, Hawthorne shows us that there truly is a marriage between disregard for morals and life, and the ironic aftermath that comes with it.
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