By Trudy A. Martinez
The title of Hawthorne’s short story The Birth-mark, gives significance to a congenital mark. Splitting the word birthmark by using a dash causes segregation and a discernment of meaning and a fragmenting preference, symbolizing isolation. As such, birth comes to mean existence, whereas mark imposes a visible sign that severs continuation. Consequently, in the story, the mark becomes an inherent element, serving as a symbol indicative of position, within the society and an object of scorn unworthy of consideration.
This perception of the birth-mark generates an irony. The Socratic irony is the reason the birth-mark not only surfaces on the face of Georgiana as a sign of an imperfect beauty but also surfaces as a symbol of woman within society. Consequently, the birth-mark’s representation serves to isolate.
Nevertheless, not all men within the society chose to view the birth-mark as an imperfection. For instance, Aminadab, a minor character, makes his membership in this category known when he displays a prevailing characteristic conforming to standards clearly conveying a sense of what is right and good. Aminadab conveys this “spirit and even…heart” when “he mutters to himself:–’If she were my wife, I’d never part with the birth-mark’” (Hawthorne 1159-1163). On the other hand, Georgiana’s husband, Aylmer, takes a distinctively different view of the birth-mark.
The narrator proclaims Aylmer’s belief that the birth-mark is “…the fatal flaw of humanity. . . .” Because of this recognition, his strong convictions and urgent desires emerge, communicating his being one of the “ardent votaries” of society. This becomes apparent when he attempts to alleviate “his wife’s liability” (Hawthorne 1159-1160). Consequently, Aylmer earmarks himself as a God; this distinction gives him “hope”.
However, the only “hope” Aylmer has is to join the love for his wife “. . . with the love for his science” because society defines his “. . . congenial . . . pursuits . . . .” Although these pursuits mark an agreement in sentiment, there is a possibility they might also produce an “aliment” in the process (Hawthorne 1159). Hence, an illusion of a distressed uneasy state occurs; this uneasy state or “aliment” becomes visible because the cultural society defines only two classes. Both of the classes are men. This inadequacy isolates Georgiana from Aylmer. Her isolation is evident because she is undefined. Therefore, she is without status or membership. Consequently, she is as one of the pursuits of her husband.
The narrator validates her as Aylmer’s pursuit when the narrator implies the pursuit is a “must” that must be “…wrought by toil and pain”. The only alternative Aylmer is given to save her from the “toil and pain” is to bring together the love of his wife “…with the love of his science” (Hawthorne 1159-1160).
The narrator’s statement–”it was not unusual for the love of science to rival the love of woman”–sets the atmosphere and tone of the story and brings about a theme of isolation that, in turn, brings about another rivalry in the form of a challenge (Hawthorne 1159). The theme of isolation intensifies what the challenge produces when Aylmer attempts to unite his love for science with his love for his wife. The challenge serves to isolate her because she is one of his pursuits. In this perspective, Aylmer is a hunter and Georgiana is his prey. She is challenged by a condition, demanding of a declining transition. He maintains superiority through his “glares” and “gazes” as if an animal is sizing-up his victim. In a sense, the society causes Aylmer’s extreme actions because the society creates “. . . a passive affect, [whereby] man is driven [by the ideology of the society], the object of motivations of which he himself is not aware” (Fromm 18). As a result, Hawthorne’s scientific man is able to accomplish his feat with very little difficulty because he is powerful and “more than a man . . . unwilling to grant the accessibility of other alternatives” (Baxter 231).
Aylmer is not willing to afford Georgiana alternatives because she symbolizes imperfection. Her birth-mark symbolizes the mark placed upon woman by the society when woman is left undefined. As a result, Georgiana’s only choice is to “do or die”. For what other reason will she submit, declare, and plead: “…Life is a [burden] which I would fling down with joy…for the sake of your…peace, and to save [myself]…from madness”. Her questioning remark: “Is this beyond your power…?” removes blame from Aylmer and places blame on society because society produces him (Hawthorne 1162).
Because of the question, “Is this beyond your power?” (Hawthorne 1162), society emerges as if it is a structure of dominoes falling downward upon its members. In other words, the society is the ruler of man (a God-like ornamentation) that produces and reproduces man in specific patterns as if imitating an original mold. This realization brings to mind a warning of Cotton Mather’s: “The mind of God in these matters, is to be carefully looked into, with due circumspection, that Satan deceive us not with his devices, who transforms himself into an angel of light and may pretend justice and intend mischief” (171).
If a society has the power to reproduce distinct patterns in men, then conceivably, man is (under the structure of the society) an image of the God-like ornamentation, which in effect establishes opposition to any imperfections that might threaten the perfection of the society.
Consequently, this reader tends to disagree with Fetterley’s realization that Georgiana died as a direct result of Aylmer’s “…ultimate goal [towards] the desire to create human life” or that “Hawthorne [wrote]…about the sickness of men, [or] …about the flawed and imperfect nature of women” (27).
Even though the symbol of imperfection is what surfaces on the face of Georgiana to denote Aylmer’s struggle towards obtaining superiority through the creation of perfection, the atmosphere and the tone of the story in the opening paragraph is what pushes the structure of dominoes downward and sets man and woman in opposition. The society defines rivalry; hence, rivalry becomes the consequential cause of the isolating effects, resulting in Aylmer’s quest of pursuits. His wife is his pursuits because society does not define her within its structure. As a result, society may be the only motive for the isolating effects that occur.
Therefore, and in conclusion, the title of the story symbolizes the principles of society that sets the path of the characters in The Birth-mark by linking and defining man’s choices. Thus, woman becomes a pursuit of man to rid society of imperfection. However, because the woman is his “love” he attempts to join her with “his love for science” to save her from “toil and pain” (Hawthorne 1159-1160). The structural image of society creates the image of man in the image of a God that flaunts his image downward towards woman and gives her no choice other than to surrender to his will. Just as Georgiana surrenders her being to win acceptance of her husband, Hawthorne surrenders his written theme for acceptance and consideration of others. Hawthorne’s literary maneuver gives the circumstance of justice and injustice, which in turn, defines and distinguishes them within the society. The difference between the two classes of men becomes the distinguishable quality of justice. This quality is reflected by their ability to recognize the birth-mark for what it is or is not. Likewise, because Aylmer fails to recognize and act upon the need of “hope” by his wife, he achieves perfection only in Georgiana’s death. She dies because she lacks “hope”. Her lack of “hope” becomes the society’s failure through ignorance and exclusion. Society denies her the “magic ingredient of hope” and leaves her with “No Choice”. The choice of “No Choice” is the gauge that serves to place man as a God over her in man’s pursuit of a Goddess, free from imperfection, that will measure up to his own God like image (and that had been provided to him by society). Society is the pacifying agent that justifies the inconceivable quest for perfection. Therefore, perfection becomes inevitable because only in death can Georgiana ever achieve it.
Was the reason for her death because Aylmer views her birth-mark as a symbol of the imperfection in society? I believe so because it is only through the essence of the end of the story that Georgiana suddenly becomes a symbol of perfection. Her lack of “hope” forcefully imprisons her in a society awaiting death by the means of her husband’s hand as the oppressor.
Baxter, Annette K. “Independence vs. Isolation: Hawthorne and James on the Problem of the Artist”. Nineteenth Century Fiction. Vol 10 (Dec. 1955). 225-231.
Fetterley, Judith. “Women Beware Science: The Birthmark”. The Resisting Reader.Indiana University Press: Indiana. 1978. 22-33.
Fromm, Erich. The Art of Loving. Perennial Library Edition. Vol.IX of the World Perspectives Series. Ruth Nanda Anshen, Editor. Harper Row: New York. 1974.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Birth-mark”. Anthology of American Literature: Colonial Through Romantic. Vol I. Third Ed. George McMichael, ed. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York. 1980. 1159-1169.
Mather, Cotton. “The Wonders of the Invisible World: A Third Curiosity”. Anthology of American Literature: Colonial Through Romantic. Vol I. Third Ed. George McMichael, ed. Macmillan Publishing Company: New York. 1980. 165-171.