In 1843, Nathaniel Hawthorne published the short story, “The Birthmark” in The Pioneer magazine. The story details a journey of a scientist named Alymer who marries an incredibly beautiful woman, except despises the birthmark on her cheek—her one “imperfection”—and becomes determined to remove her birthmark through his scientific discoveries. Around this same time during the eighteenth to nineteenth century in Europe, the entities of “science and “religion” underwent dramatic changes, in which new scientific discoveries threatened what was believed and understood about creation, creating ethical controversy. Through the detailing of a man vs nature conflict in the short story “The Birthmark”, author Nathaniel Hawthorne attempts to portray the antipathetic views in society towards the connection between nature and science and the perceived dangers of “playing God” in 19th century Europe, which are still considerable two centuries later.
In order to contextualize this short story in the real world, Hawthorne makes a visible effort to relate symbols and main ideas to broader terms. He first establishes the birthmark, the entity around which the story is focused and the main cause of conflict, as a symbol of nature, “being the visible mark of earthly imperfection” (Hawthorne 5). The birthmark is further emphasized throughout the majority of the story as “the fatal flaw of humanity” by Nature and “this birthmark of mortality” which made Georgiana, Alymer’s wife, “nearly perfect from the hand of Nature” (Hawthorne 5, 6, 17). The words “fatal” and “mortality” signify an item causing death. However, towards the end of the story, when removing the birthmark causes the death of Georgiana, the birthmark is conversely connoted as “the sole token of human imperfection” and “the best the earth could offer” (Hawthorne 19). Through this contrast and realization that the birthmark is a mark of humanity rather than one of mortality, Hawthorne is conveying the idea that flaws like the birthmark are what make us human, natural creations.
Hawthorne also establishes a synonymous relationship between nature and God in order to contrast natural creation with science. He explains that Georgiana’s past lovers viewed her birthmark as the product of “some fairy at her birth hour [who] had laid her tiny hand upon the infant’s cheek and left this impress there in token of the magic endowments that were to give her such sway over all hearts” (Hawthorne 6). Through the use of words like magic and fairy, as well as her past, non-scientist lovers’ admiration towards the birthmark in comparison with Alymer’s disgust towards it, Hawthorne is expressing the idea of natural creation as a beautiful, unique process conducted by mystical higher powers that are believed in by most people. Even Georgiana alludes to this higher power when she questions Alymer’s ability to chemically remove her birthmark, a physical part of her being, saying, “Is this beyond your power?” (Hawthorne 8). Hawthorne further emphasizes this idea through the reoccurring metaphor of nature as a factory of creation. The story refers to the birthmark as “the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions” and as a defect “from the hand of Nature” (Hawthorne 5, 6). By comparing nature’s work to a factory with terms like “defect,” “stamps,” and “productions,” Hawthorne is painting a picture of how creation is a systematic process that takes place out of the hands of humans, but rather in those of a God. Hawthorne also personifies nature as a supreme being through the capitalization of specific words, as is done with names or God in religious texts. For example, the story explains that “…our great creative Mother, while she amuses us with apparently working in the broadest sunshine, is yet severely careful to keep her own secrets, and, in spite of her pretended openness, shows us nothing but results. She permits us, indeed, to mar, but seldom to mend, and, like a jealous patentee, on no account to make” (Hawthorne 9). This statement also alludes to the reoccurring sentiment that mother nature yields results that are unpredictable and unchangeable by human beings.
Now that the connections between symbols in the story and concepts in the real world that were weaved in by Hawthorne have been unpacked and analyzed, the major conflict of the story, the conflict between humanity and nature, can be more effectively understood and applied to the real world. The conflict takes place between Alymer, a scientist, and the birthmark, which is a product of Nature. Alymer is considered “a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy” who was curious about exploring Nature, as “…he had made discoveries in the elemental powers of Nature…and attempted to fathom the very process by which Nature assimilates all her precious influences from earth and air, and from the spiritual world, to create and foster man, her masterpiece” (Hawthorne 5, 9). Further, he enjoyed going against the grain and believed in “man’s ultimate control over Nature”, through his irrational discussion of immortality in putting off “this birthmark of mortality by relinquishing mortality itself in preference to any other mode” given that “it would produce a discord in Nature which all the world, and chiefly the quaffer of the immortal nostrum, would find cause to curse” (Hawthorne 5, 12, 17). He also went to the extent of mixing factual science with magic and spiritual belief, saying that the comparatively recent discoveries of the mysteries of Nature such as electricity “seemed to open paths into the region of miracle…” (Hawthorne 5).
Meanwhile, in the real world during this time, this was a doubted and often rejected opinion. Specifically, in the early 1800s, some interpretations of science held a restricted role for God in the universe and made discoveries that threatened the literal meaning of Genesis, or creation stories in the Bible. This harmed the faith of many working-class people whose worldview had been dependent on literal scripture and pushed them away from synonymizing science and natural creation. Alymer is a representation of scientists whose views on the interchangeability and manipulation of science and nature were opposed by these certain populations in the 19th century, and Hawthorne expresses this resistance and antipathy through the later consequence of Alymer’s actions driven by his beliefs—mortality. When Georgiana is killed by the removal of her last mark of imperfection, or humanity, Alymer is faced with his fate and must learn his “lesson”, or in other words, conform to the real-world views suggesting that scientific discoveries threaten the foundation of nature, or God, and humanity, or what it means to be human. Alymer realizes that, “Thus ever does the gross fatality of earth exult in its invariable triumph over the immortal essence which, in this dim sphere of half development, demands the completeness of a higher state” (Hawthorne 19). With this statement, he is demonstrating one result of the man vs. nature conflict in which altering Nature’s creation with science caused destruction, therefore a higher power, referring to one that controls natural creation, prevailed over “the immortal essence”, which refers to the scientific manipulation.
Overall, with the combination of the analysis of real-world views in the 19th century and the breakdown of symbols and underlying themes in the short story written in this time period, it is clear to see Nathaniel Hawthorne’s attempt to portray the antipathetic perspective of some populations during this time period on the interrelation of science and nature. He sets up the story in a way that made a clear connection between Alymer at the beginning of the story and the scientists in the real world whose discoveries were seen as radical. On the other hand, at the end of the story when science interferes with nature causing a fatal consequence, the clear connection between Alymer realizing that his scientific manipulation cannot control nature and the real-world views of science being separate and less powerful than God’s natural creation was established, as if to give a warning about the dangers of superseding nature, or God. This historical conflict was never truly resolved, as ethical controversies about “playing God” with science persist even today, with new technologies for genetic engineering or surgical cosmetic modification. Many people today question whether it is within our power to modify our genes, our bodies, and natural creation to be “perfect”, or whether being perfect goes against the very basis of humanity. With this, “The Birthmark” by Nathaniel Hawthorne not only contextualizes the Victorian crisis of faith era of 19th century Europe, but also foreshadows a discussion that would continue for hundreds of years and forewarns the threat to humanity that Alymer learned too late.
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