As in all of Hawthorne’s writings when one finishes reading his stories you come up with more questions than answers. No other writer makes you question like Hawthorne. The philosophical question of what is true perfection and can it be achieved through physical means or is it a state of the spirit is the heart of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story The Birth-Mark.
Aylmer, the main character of the story is a brilliant scientist/alchemist. He posses a belief in “man’s ultimate control over nature”, and thinks there is nothing man can’t master or achieve. His obsession with his wife’s small imperfect birth mark, which resembles a hand, begins shortly after they become married. Aylmer is fixated with his wife Georgiana’s perfection; he believes that in order for him to experience perfect love, he must have a perfect woman to love. His obsession gradually becomes Georgiana’s obsession at which point she becomes so distraught that she tells Aylmer “Remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life”. Aylmer sits down and tells his wife that there may be risk involved but he is confident that he shall remove the mark and his beautiful bride will be perfect in every way. He sets up comfortable surroundings for his wife described as “beautiful apartments, not unfit to be the secluded abode of a lovely woman”. After the alchemist attempts and fails numerous methods for removing the mark from his wife he develops a “perfect elixir” that will without a doubt cure her and make her completely perfect. He administers this elixir and to his great delight sees the cursed hand start to fade and disappear; only to have his wife tell him “Aylmer-dearest Aylmer-I am dying!”
Georgiana achieved perfection in Aylmer’s eyes in her dying moments; so did he Aylmer achieve what he set out to accomplish? I believe he did. Aylmer was a man who loved his work; he loved science more than he could ever love any human being. He was a man riddled with his inadequacies and imperfections, and as a result of his low view of himself, he demanded perfection in his wife. This is exhibited when Georgiana is reading out of his ledger which is described as a “sad confession, and continual exemplification, of the short-comings of the composite man”. Aylmer was a self serving individual whose only goal is to make his wife perfect for his own sake or perhaps for science’s sake. All these things being true; I do believe he loved Georgiana, and in his own bizarre way he wanted her to be perfect for her sake, because he believed that she deserved no less. In his quest for her perfection (which is impossible in the purely material sense) he destroyed her.
Aylmer’s wife Georgiana was at first a happy woman; married to someone she believed to be a great man, until one day her husband tells her that the mark upon her cheek might be removed. This of course is the beginning of her as well as her husband’s obsession with removing her one imperfection. The first thing that stuck out in my mind about Georgiana was her undying love, loyalty and desire to please her husband. This was very much a mark of the time. The fact that she would rather die than meet his disapproval I found significant. She seemed to me, to be the ultimate exemplification of love and unselfishness, to an insane level, which is exhibited in the line “You have aimed loftily! – You have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best earth could offer.” Georgiana does not feel ill towards her husband because she believes his feelings to be those of pure love.
The Birthmark touches on similar themes as Marry Shelly’s Frankenstein in the idea that humans can possess a supernatural power to undo and make perfect what is imperfect. Aylmer does not believe in God or the natural laws he created, which is obvious by his belief in man’s ultimate control over nature. God created man as a part of nature and we are not above nature but integrated with it. Just as today we are fighting the ethical issues of an increased understanding of science versus what we know to be natural law. Hawthorne’s story The Birth Mark is just as relevant today as it was when written in 1843 if not more so. Today we are struggling with issues such as cloning, stem cell research and other aspects of science that seem in contradiction with God’s and nature’s laws. If confronted with the modern day issues we now face Hawthorne’s opinions would probably be the same as he has set forth in this short story; that when man tries to accomplish what he was not intended to accomplish disaster will be the ultimate result. The hand was not only a birthmark but an integral part of Georgiana’s soul, and removing this mark in the quest for perfection was her demise.
Hawthorne is telling us that humanity is imperfect, there is no perfection in the physical sense, and the only way to achieve perfection is through the spirit in death. The Christian parallel is clear here; none of us are perfect and the only way to become perfect is to become one with God, in death, which results in our going to heaven. This goes back to what makes us who we are; we are not pure flesh and blood, our psyches and our true selves go so much further beyond that.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story The Birth Mark touches on philosophical and ethical issues valid in his time, as well as ours. His work makes us think about what is perfection and is it desirable in the physical state. In the end we discover that if we overstep our bounds and try to make perfect that which is imperfect, death will be the final result, for only in death through God, can we achieve perfection.
by John Schlismann