Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark” was published in a collection of short stories in 1845. The writer has used three dimensional characters which allow him to explore his themes of human perfections and of how women can be shaped by men’s interpretations. Through the use of language, tone and character, Hawthorne has created a fascinating, and deeply gripping’ story.
“The Birthmark” covers a variety of different themes. The tone of this short story is dark and, at times, haunting. However, it the strong use of dialogue gives it a subtlety that other narratives with dark atmospheres do not have. Dialogue aside, the writer’s choice of language, overall, is effective in maintaining this subtlety. The two main characters in the story are a recently married couple. They are introduced at the start of the narrative, and Hawthorne straightaway institutes a sense of their relationship. In his story, “The Birthmark,” Hawthorne pursues a disturbing narrative and a main theme which is significantly ingrained in feminism.
Of course, as with most literary works, different readers are likely to interpret “The Birthmark” in different ways. On the Generation Cobweb website, an anonymous person writing under the pseudonym ‘Rasputin’ summarises that “The Birthmark” is: “a story of how man foils when he tries to play god, and his failure to understand that perfection is unattainable. It also deals with man’s failure to realize that it is our imperfections, not our perfections, which make us unique” (Rasputin). Rasputin feels that the story’s main theme is of mankind failing to appreciate imperfections as positive elements. While this is a clear theme in the story, there are many of similar sizes, and I disagree that this is the most major one. Hawthorne’s story is too intelligently written for the key theme to be such a bland one. For me, the roots of feminism shine from the words in this story. Georgiana’s demise is entirely shaped and directed by Aylmer’s views of her, and the way in which he makes her hate her birthmark as he does.
The story is written in third person narrative. This is an effective choice as one of the beauties of “The Birthmark” is its objective, and removed, tone. Furthermore, by giving the readers some distance between themselves and the characters, Hawthorne has allowed the readers to remain objective and to see the dramatic changes in the characters. It is possible that, had Hawthorne chosen first person for his story, readers would have different feelings towards the characters and the story itself.
Over the years, there have been written many stories exploring themes involving men who wish to leave their mark on women, and these vary in method from physical, mental or sexual. However, “The Birthmark,” introduces a man who, rather than adding something, wishes to remove a part of a woman. Hawthorne’s story highlights the ways in which a man who wants to erase something from a woman can be just as destructive as one who wants to, conversely, leave his mark (Mascia-Lees, p 155). In this way, this story is different and stands apart from the rest, and this makes it both intriguing and memorable.
The story of “The Birthmark” is set towards the latter end of the eighteenth century. It introduces readers to Aylmer, a scientist. He becomes obsessed with a birthmark on his new wife’s cheek, and soon can think of little else except removing it. Previous to their marriage, Aylmer had not noticed the imperfection, which “bore not a little similarity to the human hand, though of the smallest pigmy size” (Hawthorne, pr 7).
Hawthorne has written the story so that the entirety of Georgiana’s physicality is represented by her birthmark, as “a singular mark, deeply interwoven … with the texture and substance of her face” (Hawthorne, pr 7). At the worst times, Georgiana’s birthmark is responsible for changing her from a perfect depiction of a female into a representation of “the fatal flaw of humanity” (Hawthorne, pr 8). The birthmark acts as a symbol of human inferiority. In “The Birthmark”, the purpose of the female figure is to represent such inferiority.
In his article, “An Analysis of The Birthmark by Nathanial Hawthorne,” John Schlismann claims that: “’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” (Schlismann). He then goes on to explain how Aylmer feels that the only way to perfection is through the peace of death. While I agree that Aylmer feels it necessary to release his wife to death as there is no other way to make her perfect in his eyes, I believe that Hawthorne was also focussing on the wider social implications.
For a long time, sociologists have researched the effect of economic and social fluctuations on American gender ideology between 1825 and 1850. Social historian Leverenz claims, “The emerging ideology of individualism erected an ideal of free, forceful and resourceful white men on the presumption of depersonalized servitude from several subordinated groups” (Mascia-Lees, p 156). Alongside this, white women were developing a tendency to domestic enthusiasm and of spirituality. According to Leverenz, the role of such women was of “fulfilment through tender self-sacrifice” (Mascia-Lees, p 156).
Hawthorne exaggerates the concept that central to a woman’s identity is the result of men’s responses to her: “It must not be concealed, however, that the impression wrought by this fairy sign manual varied exceedingly, according to the difference of temperament in the beholders” (Hawthorne, pr 7). In line with this idea, Georgiana’s feelings about her birthmark appear to morph according to the responses of others. As Aylmer is gripped by his hatred of the birthmark, it is predictable, therefore, that Georgiana soon echoes his hatred. Soon she begins to beg him to remove it, despite the very real risk of death. Through this idea, “The Birthmark” shows the effect on a woman who is caught in an oppressive relationship with a controlling man.
Hawthorn’s “The Birthmark” is an well thought out short story, littered with complex symbolism, and exploring multifaceted themes. It seems obvious that feminist ideas are interwoven throughout the story as well as generally driving the narrative. By examining the culture surrounding Hawthorne at the time, interpreting this wonderful work becomes even more interesting. Hawthorne has written thoughtfully, using consistently dark and formal language to emphasise the tone of the story. The complex use of character and of dialogue add to this, resulting in a complex story with many possible interpretations.
Hawthorne, N. “The Birthmark.” Online-Literature. Web. 8 Aug. 2011.
Mascia-Lees, Frances E. Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation, and Adornment: The Denaturalization
of the Body in Culture and Text. State University of New York Press. (1992). Net
Library. Web. 8 Aug. 2011.
Rasputin. “Review of The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Generation Cobweb. 29 Dec
2010. Web. 08 Aug 2011. http://gencobb.com/think/literature/literary-reviews/review-
Schlismann, J. “An Analysis of The Birthmark by Nathaniel Hawthorne.” Ezine Articles.
Web. 8 Aug. 2011. http://ezinearticles.com/?An-Analysis-of-the-Birth-Mark-by-