In the Eye of the Beholder

Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” explores the results of man’s attempt to attain perfection. Though never entirely clear whether Hawthorne is criticizing science’s attempts to change the world, questioning the Idealist’s attempts to attain spiritual perfection, or, even, damning the Puritan’s attempts to eliminate earthly desires, the story should serve as a warning to all who would hope to attain a perfect world. The simple plot focuses on Aylmer’s attempts to remove, with the help of his assistant Aminadab, a birthmark in the shape of a small hand from the cheek of his recent bride, Georgiana, but the symbolic implications are complex and far-reaching.

Aylmer is introduced as “a man of science, an eminent proficient in every branch of natural philosophy.” This during a time when:

The higher intellect, the imagination, the spirit, and even the heart might all find their congenial aliment in pursuits which, as some of their ardent votaries believed, would ascend from one step of powerful intelligence to another, until the philosopher should lay his hand on the secret of creative force and perhaps make new worlds for himself.

Hawthorne, with his usual ambiguity, does not accuse Aylmer of holding these beliefs, “We know not whether Aylmer possessed this degree of faith in man’s ultimate control over Nature,” but he does say Aylmer “had devoted himself, however, too unreservedly to scientific studies ever to be weaned from them by any second passion. His love for his young wife might prove the stronger of the two; but it could only be by intertwining itself with his love of science, and uniting the strength of the latter to his own.”

Although Aylmer seemed perfectly happy to marry Georgiana despite her small birthmark, his preoccupation with it is developed step-by-step in the first part of the story. Ironically, it is Georgian’s very beauty that makes the birthmark so objectionable to Aylmer:

… you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.

Hawthorne suggests that the birthmark is merely a sign of nature:

It was the fatal flaw of humanity which Nature, in one shape or another, stamps ineffaceably on all her productions, either to imply that they are temporary and finite, or that their perfection must be wrought by toil and pain.

But Aylmer, in his drive for perfection, becomes increasingly obsessed with the birthmark for he sees it as “the symbol of his wife’s liability to sin, sorrow, decay, and death.” Soon every happy moment is destroyed by this obsession. Even his sleep is haunted by dreams of the flaw:

He had fancied himself with his servant Aminadab, attempting an operation for the removal of the birthmark; but the deeper went the knife, the deeper sank the hand, until at length its tiny grasp appeared to have caught hold of Georgiana’s heart; whence, however, her husband was inexorably resolved to cut or wrench it away.

Although Georgiana was at first insulted by Aylmer’s response to her birthmark, which many had seen as a beauty mark, she is worn down by his obsession and by her own deep love for him. Soon she seems as desirous as he of having the blemish removed:

"If there be the remotest possibility of it," continued Georgiana, "let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust,–life is a burden which I would fling down with joy. Either remove this dreadful hand, or take my wretched life!

Reading his journals during her treatment Georgiana, although realizing his
weaknesses, admires his love of the ideal:

He handled physical details as if there were nothing beyond them; yet spiritualized them all, and redeemed himself from materialism by his strong and eager aspiration towards the infinite. In his grasp the veriest clod of earth assumed a soul. Georgiana, as she read, reverenced Aylmer and loved him more profoundly than ever, but with a less entire dependence on his judgment than heretofore. Much as he had accomplished, she could not but observe that his most splendid successes were almost invariably failures, if compared with the ideal at which he aimed.

In the end, she, too, seems caught up in his desire for perfection:

Her heart exulted, while it trembled, at his honorable love–so pure and lofty that it would accept nothing less than perfection nor miserably make itself contented with an earthlier nature than he had dreamed of.

In the end, though, it his her absolute love for Alymer that drives Georgiana to accept, and, indeed, urge Aylmer to continue the operation.

It is however, something very different than love that drives Aylmer. Whether it is an admirable desire for perfection or merely scientific arrogance might be debatable, but it is clear that if he had truly loved her he would have accepted Georgiana as she was. At the very least, Aylmer seems to have too much confidence in science:

He gave a history of the long dynasty of the alchemists, who spent so many ages in quest of the universal solvent by which the golden principle might be elicited from all things vile and base. Aylmer appeared to believe that, by the plainest scientific logic, it was altogether within the limits of possibility to discover this long-sought medium; "but," he added, "a philosopher who should go deep enough to acquire the power would attain too lofty a wisdom to stoop to the exercise of it."

Ironically, this confidence seems entirely unjustifiable judging from his own past performances as revealed by his journal:

The volume, rich with achievements that had won renown for its author, was yet as melancholy a record as ever mortal hand had penned. It was the sad confession and continual exemplification of the shortcomings of the composite man, the spirit burdened with clay and working in matter, and of the despair that assails the higher nature at finding itself so miserably thwarted by the earthly part. Perhaps every man of genius in whatever sphere might recognize the image of his own experience in Aylmer’s journal.

Where a lesser man might have been paralyzed by indecision, Alymer proceeed “for he was confident in his science, and felt that he could draw a magic circle round her within which no evil might intrude.” His last words before administering the fatal potion, though, are truly ironic:

"The concoction of the draught has been perfect," said he, in answer to Georgiana’s look. "Unless all my science have deceived me, it cannot fail."

It would be easy to blame her death purely on science, but truthfully it is his ego, allied with science, that is responsible for her death.

Aylmer would have been far better off if he had taken his assistant’s advice. Aminadab, who seems “ to represent man’s physical nature” and mutters to himself during the operation, "If she were my wife, I’d never part with that birthmark." Aylmer is successful in removing the birthmark, but it has unintended consequences:

Its presence had been awful; its departure was more awful still. Watch the stain of the rainbow fading out the sky, and you will know how that mysterious symbol passed away.

As the birthmark slowly fades away Georgiana speaks to Alymer for the last time:

"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 the earth could offer. Aylmer, dearest Aylmer, I am dying!"

What sets Hawthorne apart from the transcendentalists and the romantics is not his condemnation of scientists, that’s almost a given, but his apparent insistence on the necessary imperfectability of humanity:

The fatal hand had grappled with the mystery of life, and was the bond by which an angelic spirit kept itself in union with a mortal frame. As the last crimson tint of the birthmark–that sole token of human imperfection–faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband, took its heavenward flight.

The only perfect people are those in Heaven. Perhaps this belief is a carry over from his Puritan heritage, but there is little evidence to believe that Hawthorne felt mankind was evil, just flawed.

Not satisfied to merely demonstrate the foolishness of Aylmer, Hawthorne implies at the end of the story that it was possible for Aylmer to have attained happiness and perfectibility if only he had a “profounder wisdom:”

Yet, had Aylmer reached a profounder wisdom, he need not thus have flung away the happiness which would have woven his mortal life of the selfsame texture with the celestial. The momentary circumstance was too strong for him; he failed to look beyond the shadowy scope of time, and, living once for all in eternity, to find the perfect future in the present.

Of course, it’s not really clear what this “profounder wisdom” is, but it seems to have something to do with happiness making it possible to live “once for all in eternity” and finding the “future in the present.” Perhaps it was as simple as loving Georgiana for her eternal qualities, overlooking her flaws as the minor blemishes they were, and eventually allowing that love to reach all the way to eternity. Then again, maybe it’s never that simple.

Loren Webster